What the Rockets and Thunder need to do to start winning
When the Houston Rockets announced the retirement of Jeff Bzdelik last September, no one knew how much of an impact he had made until now. The Rockets’ associate head coach was responsible for improving the team’s defense and he did just that. Without him, the Rockets are struggling with a 1-5 record. Another team that was supposed to make some noise with the re-signing of one of its star players during the summer is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead of being reinvigorated, the Thunder are playing below .500 basketball two weeks into the season.
How can these perennial title contenders regain their standing among the NBA’s elite?
The Rockets are 25th out of 30 teams in defensive rating based on NBA.com’s Advanced Stats. That’s a horrendous stat for any team with championship aspirations. Teams are routinely going to the basket and getting gimmes via layups, dunks, putbacks or free throws. Coach Mike D’Antoni supposedly installed adjustments to the team’s defense but these may not enough. What the Rockets will need is find another coach who can focus on the defensive side of the court. D’Antoni has enough on his plate managing this team with three superstars in James Harden, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
Not only are they missing Bzdelik’s guiding hand on defense, they also are also missing the services of Trevor Ariza who was key to their perimeter defense. In his place is the defensively-challenged Carmelo Anthony. Teams are taking advantage of the 16-year veteran whenever he’s on the floor. D’Antoni has to hide Melo even if that’s more easily said than done. Anthony is still serviceable as an offensive threat off the bench but the team needs to surround him with players who can cover for him if he gets into trouble with his man.
There is a good reason Mike D'Antoni backed off his initial postgame plan to ditch the defensive switching. When he looked at video and numbers (Rockets allowed .96 ppp on mismatched switches) that was not the problem. Other issues had to be corrected in past 2 days of practices.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) October 29, 2018
More importantly, the Rockets seem listless on defense. The effort just isn’t there. There needs to be a single-minded focus from the entire team to commit to playing defense. D’Antoni and the team’s core players have to preach defense and to actually play harder for the other players to give the same effort on the floor.
The more troubling aspect of the Rockets’ problem is their struggles offensively where they are 25th in the league in offensive rating. They are shooting only 41 percent overall and 33.3 percent from three-point land. What was once a strength has become a weakness. Much of the problem is the individual players are not scoring as much as they should. And in today’s high-octane offense because of the new rules, a good enough offense is not good enough against the best teams.
Eric Gordon, once one of the best scorers off the bench the past few years for the Rockets, is scoring only 14.0 points per contest, down four points from last year’s average. Additionally, it’s also his lowest scoring average in four years. Ditto with Gerald Green. He also lost his touch offensively with a huge dip in his scoring from 12.1 points last year to only 8.3 per game this year.
If the Rockets are going to improve offensively, they will need Gordon and Green to make their shots and to find more efficient ways of scoring. These two may be going through a slump but it’s difficult for the team to win if two of their best scorers aren’t effective. If their shooting doesn’t come back soon, the solution may be to either give more playing time to someone else like Michael Carter-Williams or to pursue a trade that would bring in another scorer off the bench.
For the Thunder, their struggles are just on one side of the court but they’re real nonetheless. They are able to stop teams from scoring (they’re 5th in defensive rating overall), but they can’t seem to put the ball in the hole consistently. They are one of the worst in the league in offensive rating, 26th to be exact, and that’s not a formula for success either short term or long term.
They may be on a three-game winning streak, but that’s likely fool’s gold. They’re beating losing teams and, though that counts for something, the Thunder are a ways off from addressing their offensive woes. In the Charlotte Hornets game, the Thunder were on the verge of losing. If not for a third-quarter rally after they went down by 19 points, OKC’s streak would have ended at a short-lived two games.
To address their offensive woes, first, Paul George needs to get healthy and make shots more consistently. He’s missing a number of open shots and that’s not a good sign for a team that’s already lacking offensive firepower coming into the season. In the Charlotte game, George scored just 11 points on 4-for-20 shooting, a horrifying percentage which included an 0-for-10 stinker from beyond the arc.
Paul George said that since the game against the Hawks in preseason he’s been dealing with a nagging nerve issue in his left foot. “Dead foot,” he called it. pic.twitter.com/vtH2qYtXtE
— Erik Horne (@ErikHorneOK) November 2, 2018
Second, the entire Thunder team just needs to make their shots. They are taking more open shots this season than they did last year but they can’t seem to knock them down. If the team continues to miss so many open shots, a trade might inject new life into the offense. Shooters abound in the league but they key is in getting them from the other teams with the right offer. Three-point shooting is not a luxury anymore but a necessity, so teams are hesitant to let go of their own specialists. Trading for one such as the L.A. Clippers’ Tobias Harris or the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyle Korver could do wonders for OKC.
The season just started and that’s good news for the Rockets and the Thunder. But the time to turn things around for both these teams should be sooner rather than later.