TEAM FOCUS: Houston, We Have a Problem

Coming into this season, the consensus amongst most NBA fans was that the Houston Rockets were a poorly timed Chris Paul injury and a historically bad shooting night away from the NBA Finals (and potentially a championship). There was optimism within the organization that they could build upon last season. Yes, they did lose key contributors in Trevor Ariza, a shooter and defensive weapon, as well as Luc Mbah a Moute, another defensive savant. Despite the loss, the Rockets felt that they could offset that with Carmelo Anthony, one of the best offensive players the league has ever seen. Unfortunately, that partnership soured quickly. It is uncertain who was to fault, but after 10 games, Anthony was done with the team. After the first 20 games, the Rockets found themselves 9-11, only playing better than the Phoenix Suns (who I’ve already dissected this year). And as if things couldn’t get any worse, the injury bug has attacked this team with a vengeance. Chris Paul has been out since mid-December, Eric Gordon went down, and more recently Clint Capela has been ruled out for at least the next month.

Houston has a boat load of problems on their hands, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still salvage this season and still position themselves to make realistic noise in the postseason. To achieve this, it’s imperative that they follow my direction from mission control in The Sky Box Suite if they want to make the best of the second half of this season. So without further ado, Houston, we have a problem

…and his name is James Harden

Not since Kobe Bryant have we seen a player score as much as James Harden has over the last month. He’s averaging over 40 points a game and has pulled the Rockets from near the bottom of the West to a respectable fifth seed. Whether it’s a healthy dose of drives, a barrage of threes or constant trips to the free throw line, he has been the most unstoppable force of the league. However, as we’ve seen in previous playoff appearances, a tired James Harden is good, but not nearly as good as an energized one. With this overexertion, there is a real concern that he will putter out in the playoffs, where the games mean something and that’s something no Rockets fan wants to hear. If the Rockets are going to make anything out of this season, they need the surrounding parts to give him some assistance. Again I express: Houston, we have a problem…

…and that’s the health of the team

Photo credit: Noah Graham/Getty Images

Photo credit: Noah Graham/Getty Images

Even with this current fifth seed, if the playoffs were to start today, I would not pick them to beat the Portland Trailblazers on the grounds that the Rockets are too depleted. Talent still can win games, especially in a 7 game series, and Blazers would win that category right now. The most important thing the Rockets can do is give all those with nagging injuries the time they need to get fully healed so that they don’t run a higher risked of getting re-injured. Paul and Capela are especially crucial as they are key components to Harden’s game. Paul frees Harden up from having to handle the ball as much and Capela is the preferred lob option for Harden on many of his assists. I would even go so far as to say when those two come back, the Rockets should consider giving Harden a few games off so he can rest his body after having to play so hard without them. And while Harden is relaxing, he could think about the final problem they have…

…which - in this case - is the defense.

The Houston Rockets from last year were scrappy defenders. Paul has always been a pest on defense, Ariza is a very feisty wing defender, and Capela can rim protect well enough. Even Harden gave a damn last year and that’s saying a lot. With the league very much encouraging offense as much as possible - in combination with the loss of Ariza and Mbah a Mut - the Rockets have everything except forsaken defense. They need to realize as early as they can that defense is going to help them compete in the playoffs. Although they don’t have to be perfect, they do need to compete on that end if they are going to have a chance to make it to the Finals. Golden State proved recently they are still the machine we’ve known over the past 4 years when they want to be. Denver looks like the West version of the Boston Celtics and will be a tough out as a team. And there’s some guy in Los Angeles who somehow finds a way to make every series a possibility for victory. Scoring is not a problem for the Rockets; it’s going to be stopping the opposing team that will determine their season.

The Rockets are in a very favorable position considering the start to their season. They have a chance to still build upon last season and make the Finals but they are going to need sure up all their problems before the playoffs begin if they want to capitalize on it. Oh and one more thing. For the love of God, tell Harden to stop traveling. Please.