The NBA All-Star break has finally arrived. With a prime opportunity to end the break on a high note, the Houston Rockets stumbled in a winnable game against the Memphis Grizzlies, concluding the first half of the season with a 24-30 record. Since January 15th, Houston has dropped out of the playoff picture, recording a 5-10 record since then and slipping to the 12th seed in the Western Conference.

Although the play-in hopes are still alive, these recent games have raised concerns within the Rockets. A week-long break might provide a chance to refocus.

The main issue in this recent slump is the team's road performances. Since the beginning of 2024, the Rockets have a 2-11 record away from the Toyota Center, with only five wins in 26 road games this season. If not for the struggling Detroit Pistons, this would be the NBA's worst road record. The need for a morale boost doesn't end there. Post All-Star break, Houston's next six games are against three playoff-contending teams: the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, and Oklahoma City Thunder, including three games against Phoenix and two against OKC.

Head Coach Ime Udoka plans to tweak the starting lineup over the break, a first this season aside from adjustments made for player injuries, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle

Rockets' starting lineup woes

The Rockets' Alperen Sengun and Jabari Smith Jr. are among the team's young stars.

Despite shuffling certain players, the starting rotation has been less effective lately compared to the early part of the 2023-2024 season. While issues were present when the lineup was fully healthy, Fred VanVleet's recent injury absence has exacerbated problems.

Alperen Sengun, after being snubbed from the All-Star roster, has significantly regressed on both ends of the court, averaging just 17.7 points with a 117.7 defensive rating in his last 10 games. In his last five games, Sengun has a -39 plus-minus and has totaled only eight rebounds in the last two games.

Dillon Brooks, who seemed like a reasonable contract signing, is not performing as he did in the first three months of the season. In the past three games, he has shot a dismal 18-of-51 and 4-of-20 from 3-point range in two of those games. A pattern reminiscent of his time with the Grizzlies is emerging: erratic shooting, poor defense, and excessive ball-handling. This is a small sample size, considering Brooks' initial impact as a perimeter defender. Should this continue after the break, he might become a trade consideration.

Jabari Smith Jr. has recently reverted to his lackluster rookie season form. In February, the 20-year-old is averaging 11.6 points with a poor shooting efficiency of 38.8% and 27.8% from three-point range.

VanVleet's absence has been keenly felt. Despite a mediocre January statistically, his presence significantly benefits the starting rotation. Since his adductor sprain, the Rockets have stumbled with a 1-6 record.

Jalen Green's inconsistencies

Jalen Green, the 2021 second overall pick, showed improvement in a promising five-game stretch from January 24th to 31st. However, his recent performances have led to early benching, a recurring theme in his third NBA season. The lackluster offense and indecisiveness that plagued the first two months have resurfaced disappointingly. In the Memphis game, Green played only 22 minutes before being benched in favor of G League player Nate Hinton, who outperformed the starting shooting guard. This ongoing issue seems to have reached the boiling point.

Adding to the complexity, Rockets media personality Roosh Williams tweeted about a conversation with Green during the game where the Philadelphia 76ers routed the Rockets. Green reportedly took exception to Williams' suggestion of starting Whitmore at shooting guard, stating, “I'm [Green] not no sixth man,” and expressing frustration over his role. With Udoka considering roster adjustments, Green's position might be under scrutiny.

Rockets' injury problems

Tari Eason with the Rockets logo in the background injury

Managing the roster's health has also been challenging. Alongside VanVleet, promising rookie Cam Whitmore sprained his ankle against the Atlanta Hawks and has missed the past three games. Whitmore had been steadily improving, averaging 11.9 points in just 17 minutes with a 47.8% shooting percentage. Fans were eager to see his increased role in the rotation. Hopefully, he will recover soon and resume his progress.

The most significant injury affecting the Rockets is Tari Eason, with his absence is notably impacting the team. Playing through a leg injury since his late-season debut, he has been completely out since January 3rd. Before this, the Rockets were 12-10 with Eason in the rotation and have gone 8-15 since. As of February 12th, Eason is still experiencing “lingering pain” and will be re-evaluated after the All-Star break.

Looking ahead

Starting games effectively is a challenge for every team, including those in the lottery. There's no reason Houston should struggle to decisively beat teams they're expected to defeat.

Being six games below .500 is the Rockets' largest deficit this season. The goal of making the play-in remains feasible, as they trail only 3.5 games from the 10th spot. With minimal activity at the trade deadline, they will need to engage in the buyout market and make internal adjustments to salvage the remainder of the season.