Houston Rockets: R-E-L-A-X, It’ll Be Alright

R-E-L-A-X, Houston Rockets fans

After a great season in which the Houston Rockets exceeded expectations en route to a Western Conference Finals appearance (which they eventually lost to a historic Golden State Warriors team), things were looking wonderful for Red Nation’s 2015-2016 campaign. Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, and others should come back healthy. And with the addition of star point guard Ty Lawson to a backcourt including bona fide superstar James Harden, there was only one direction many thought the Rockets could go, which was, coincidentally, up.

Well, to sum things up quickly, things didn’t go as planned. Houston struggled out to a 5-10 record to open up the season, including a stretch where the team dropped seven of eight games. The putrid start led to the firing of head coach Kevin McHale and the benching of said star point guard, Ty Lawson.

Suddenly, Harden’s leadership was questioned. Though he carried his team – that was without their second best player for half of the season – to the second seed in the brutal Western Conference last year, it was reported that his own teammates were – and very well still could be – upset by his lackadaisical attitude during the early losing streak(s) this season.

Fortunately, things are changing in Houston. The Rockets just rattled off their longest winning streak this season (five games), and only their second streak to last more than three games. The heroics of Harden and Howard of late has lifted the team back above .500 and just one and a half games out of the sixth spot in the Western Conference.

The streak showed us glimpses of what this Houston team is capable of. But, as was the case in Friday night’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, fans were reminded of the earlier struggles they had to push through. Losing by double-digits to a Cavs team on a back to back coming off of a devastatingly tough loss to the powerhouse Spurs was not ideal. Harden more or less laid an egg, and the rest of the team stood and watched him do so.

The Rockets face off with the LA Lakers tonight in an attempt to reroute themselves back onto the winning course they were on a few days prior to the loss.

On Harden’s Struggles

There’s a certain amount of stress and pressure you can put on any given player before said player is bound to break.

The Rockets found that out last Friday, when James Harden posted his second lowest point total (11 points) of the season in the loss to the Cavaliers.

Harden is in a slump that not many have seen him in before. The superstar is coughing the ball up six times per game in the month of January, which has contributed to his league-leading 194 total turnovers. The explanation? His teammates’ playmaking ability, or lack thereof.

I don’t believe that Harden will stay in this slump forever. I don’t believe that Dwight Howard is just a 15-10 guy now in today’s league. And I don’t think that Houston is a borderline playoff team

Lawson’s acquisition by GM Daryl Morey was supposed to give the team another elite playmaker. But, with his atrocious play this year, interim head coach JB Bickerstaff has found it more effective to not play Lawson at all. (During the five game winning streak, he played twenty-two minutes total).

This leaves all the pressure on Harden to create for his teammates: guys such as Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and others are notorious three-point specialists and not much else on the offensive side. Sometimes, this works well (vs. Minnesota and vs. Indiana). Other times, it doesn’t work too well (vs. Cleveland, vs. Utah x2).

Not only has Harden struggled as the primary playmaker lately, but he’s also been unable to find his shooting stroke. His 24.6 percent from behind the arc in the month of January is absolutely pitiful, and especially so considering he’s second in three point attempts.

Harden’s overall efficiency numbers have taken a nosedive this season. His shooting percentages from, well, everywhere has been down, and his turnovers – as mentioned earlier – has skyrocketed (no pun intended). His assists totals have taken a dip as well.

Houston’s Look from Here on Out

I don’t believe that Harden will stay in this slump forever. I don’t believe that Dwight Howard is just a 15-10 guy now in today’s league. And I don’t think that Houston is a borderline playoff team on pace to have a final record of 42-40.

But many analysts/journalists/coaches have been saying these same things for months. The winning streak was promising, but will it hold? I’m not so sure.

It’s all going to come down to Harden. If he can get back on track by cutting his turnover margin and raising his field goal percentage among other things, this team can find its groove and perhaps become a scary first round matchup for the top seeds (more specifically, the Clippers). If not, well, we’ve seen how that’s worked out, and it’s not pretty. Houston’s eggs are all in Harden’s basket, and we’ll have to see if he can make them sunny-side up, or scramble them. (That was bad, I know).