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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SDH's 2014/2015 NBA Worst to First Previews and Predictions: 8. Houston Rockets

Overall Win/Loss Record:  54-28, second place Southwest Division

2014/2015 Projection: 51-31, second place Northwest Division, third place Western Conference

Preseason Ranking

Last season’s Team Statistics and League Rank

  • Points Scored: 107.7 (2nd)
  • Points Allowed: 103.1(23rd)
  • Team FG%: .472 (5th)
  • Opponent’s FG%: .443 (7th)
  • Team FT%: .712 (28th)
  • Team Three Point FG%: .358 (15th)
  • Rebounds per game: 45.3 (4th)
  • Opponents rebounds per game: 41.7 (8th)
  • Turnovers per game: 15.4 (29th)
  • Opponents turnovers per game: 13.4 (23rd)
Returning Individual Statistical Leaders

  • Scoring (ppg): James Harden (25.4)
  • Rebounds per game:   Dwight Howard (12.2)
  • Minutes per game:   James Harden (38.0)
  • Assists per game:   James Harden (6.1)
  • Field Goal Percentage:  Dwight Howard (.591)
  • Free Throw Percentage:     James Harden (.870)
  • Three Point FG Percentage:  James Harden (.366)
  • Steals per game:   James Harden (1.6)
  • Blocked Shots per game:   Dwight Howard (1.8)
Projected Opening Day Starters Based on Past Performances and Potential Impact:

Key Reserves Rank Based on Past Performances and Potential Impact::
Last season's finish could be marked as the Houston Rockets' best in quite a wheel as it not only posted its first 50 plus win season in more than five years earning home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, but also proved to those who have doubted them that they are back as title contenders. Offensively Houston near dominated the regular season as it was among the league leaders in scoring, field goal percentage and rebounding, however, it is too bad they did not show as much passion on the defensive end as the Rockets ranked near bottom in the league in points allowed and opponents' turnovers.  Plus, Houston, despite owning one of the most productive and proficient offenses in the league, also shot itself in the foot with the turnovers it committed as they were among the league's worst in that regard.  Sadly, it was such flaws as its poor defense and undisciplined ball control that turned an otherwise story book season into a shattering disappointment as Houston would be quickly eliminated in the playoffs by an equally poor defensive team in the +Portland Trail Blazers. What is even more unfortunate is that this will probably be as far as Houston will possibly ever get for two primary reasons: first, the fact that they play in an extremely tight and unforgiving Western Conference; and second and most importantly, the fact that they still remain a very immature team despite having one of the top superstar duos in the league.

Sure, Houston has the assets and ability to churn out another 50 plus win season and reach the playoffs, but so too do six or seven other teams in the Western Conference as was shown in the previous season's playoffs.  Granted, the Rockets can be seen by many as one of the Alpha Males in the conference which can probably grant them at best home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs; however, having home court advantage does not guarantee a series win, let alone a championship trophy.  With at least four or five teams that are virtually at par with the Rockets in terms of talent and depth of their rosters, there is virtually no way that fans in Houston can say with certainty that their team has the potential to win it all.  In fact they never had that kind of faith since the mid 90s where their team won two straight NBA titles in 1994 and 1995; however, after that, the Rockets basically have teetered between finishing average and mediocre over the next 19 or so years.   Since winning their last NBA title, the Rockets have reached the playoffs 12 of the last 19 years, but with little success in terms of advancing as they failed to advance past the first round in eight of those twelve post season appearances.

As for the other seven years where they did not make the post season, those would be the most bittersweet seasons as five of them occurred when the team finished above .500 resulting in not only a very long summer, but also coming up with very little in terms of draft positioning.  If one were to give this team a nickname after taking in the past failures that have followed the Rockets over the past two decades, it would be that of "Playoff Contenders," but "Championship Pretenders." and sadly it looks as if those names will not be going any time soon.  To put it bluntly, the Rockets have neither the maturity or the discipline to really give their fans, or anyone for that matter, faith than they can be nothing more than a firecracker where once lit, it spits out and shoots bright sparks into the sky, but once the show is finishes, it just fizzles out into ash.  The two top plays who are considered as not only the faces of the franchise, but also foundation for Houston to build its next championship seem less like leaders and more as arrogant, narcissistic ego-maniacs who feel that the world should revolve around them.  That was certainly the case with Dwight Howard whose his career has been spent primarily by undercutting his coach, Stan Van Gundy, during his stay with the +Orlando Magic and undermining his former teammate, +Kobe Bryant, in a bid to be the top player in the +Los Angeles Lakers.  

Although his stints in Orlando and LA have made him look bad enough, what makes Howard even less attractive as a leader is his lack of seriousness on the court, that once seemed as cute earlier in his career, now exposes a severe lack of maturity from a guy who is supposed to carry this team to a championship title. That same immaturity has seeped onto the court as well as he has been known to dog it during games not giving his all and what is worse about that is that his effort sometimes lazes the most when his teammates need him the most.  Alongside Howard is the Rockets' other pre-Madonna star player, James Harden, who had previously been an efficient workhorse on both sides of the court, but upon arriving to Houston, has become a shot happy showboat and has turned himself into more of a brand name than an actual star.  Despite his increased scoring since arriving from the +Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden's field goal percentage has dropped significantly while has effort on the defensive end has become completely nonexistent, and his off the court manner has also been questioned by both his teammates and the media as well.  His reputation took a severe hit when he commented on his team allowing +Chandler Parsons, who was arguably the team's second best player behind Harden over the past couple years, to leave as a restricted frre agent to the +Dallas Mavericks essentially saying that the only players who mattered on the team were him and Dwight and everyone else were just simply role players.

Of course, such a comment exploded throughout the media and portrayed him as this arrogant jerk who snobbishly looked down upon his teammates, but both Harden and Howard would get another shot at the reputations--this time by their own teammate. In an interview, Donatas Montiejunas described both Harden and Howard as both aloof who chose not to associate with their teammates; although this was later clarified as poor translation of Lithuanian, however, it still did not help the already sullied reputation of both players.  In fact, it was probably due to their poor reputations that swayed numerous marquee free agents, which reportedly included +Carmelo Anthony and +Chris Bosh--both of whom choosing to sign with their previous teams last season.  Overall, the off season can be considered by many as a comedy of errors since the Rockets went all out to free up enough cap space to add another max contract by giving away center +Omer Asik for virtually nothing and having to give up a first round round pick to +Los Angeles Lakers to convince them to take the contract of +Jeremy Lin.  All the Rockets were able to come up with in free agency was grossly overpaying +Trevor Ariza, a player who they had once signed before, but almost immediately traded him after his first season with the team; and that's pretty sad considering that this is a team that had finished among the top records in th league, has two of its biggest stars, and ridiculous amounts of cap space to go with it. 

All of this points to a Rockets team that will continue to disappoint a fan base who have languished for so many years waiting and hoping for a return to championship glory only to have their hopes crushed year after year.  There is no doubt that Houston will once again return to the playoffs with one of the league's best regular season records, but once the post season arrives, they will most likely fall short once again simply because a team needs more than two big name players to win a title.  It requires focus, discipline, and sacrifice--three things that the Rockets are sorely lacking, which mainly has to do with a coaching staff that has thus far coddled its stars instead of holding them accountable and pushing them to lead by example on and off the court.  Kevin McHale has essentially been less of a coach and more of facilitator of of both Harden and Howard allowing them to do whatever they want on the offensive end while allowing them to slack off on the defensive side of the floor making the lesser players compensate for their weakness.  Unless they find a better coach who will actually lay down the law and force Harden and Howard to be the leaders that they claim to be, then consider this another wasted era where the Rockets will temporarily look like a strong playoff contender only to be exposed for what they really are: a bunch of jokers pretending to be kings.