Rockets Lead

The Revolving Door of Rockets’ Wings

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There’s a minute left in overtime. Harden drives into the lane and kicks it out to James Nunnally in the corner for the…wait – who? Yes, that’s right, the Houston Rockets, a healthy hamstring away from the NBA finals last year, were forced to give crunch time minutes in their recent game against the Brooklyn Nets to a repeatedly released journeyman who had gotten off a plane from Europe just hours before tip-off. With James Harden in the midst of the greatest offensive stretch the NBA has seen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain, the Rockets have struggled to find him reliable help on the perimeter all season.

How have they gotten here? Is there any way for GM Daryl Morey to fix this problem?

Shaky Transition From Last Year’s Roster

Coming into this season, the Rockets retained most of last year’s roster. However, key players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute both walked in free agency. Two defensive specialists short, the Rockets were left with a gaping hole at the small forward position. The Rockets made a number of moves over the offseason to combat this. The biggest signings were James Ennis III (previous with Memphis) and Carmelo Anthony (previously with Atlanta, still waiting on the jersey retirement ceremony there). Both of these experiments have failed for various reasons.

Ennis was brought in to be the team’s primary perimeter defender. It is, frankly, hard to describe how bad he has been in a Rockets uniform. Not only does he consistently miss defensive assignments, but he simply looks uncomfortable and out of place on the floor. He has battled injuries throughout the season, but, from the start, has been completely out of place in the uptempo Mike D’Antoni offense.

Future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony is a shell of his former self. He was intended to replace Ariza’s three-point shooting, but quickly established himself as the least efficient shooter on the team. At 4-7 and fourteenth in the West, the Rockets decided to remove Anthony from the active roster.

As for the rest of the roster, no one has been a reliable option throughout the season. Gerald Green is shooting a paltry 30% from three in January; Austin Rivers has had good games and is a pest defensively, but is far too inconsistent; and Brandon Knight appears to still be getting over his torn ACL from two seasons ago.

The Rockets succeeded last year largely due to their three-point shooting and ability to switch everything on defense. These two factors have been significant demerits this season thus far.

Injuries, Injuries, and More Injuries

Nearly every player on the Rockets has missed significant time this season due to injury. As a result, James Harden has been forced to carry the load essentially by himself. Without Chris Paul and Eric Gordon on the perimeter, as well as Clint Capela as a lob threat, Harden is the only Rocket capable of generating offense.

With a lack of healthy bodies around him, Harden is playing the best basketball of his career. The MVP frontrunner, he is putting up videogame numbers of 45.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.2 assists over the last ten games. For reference, the next best scorer over this stretch, Stephen Curry, has averaged 31.2 points. While this trend has been a lot of fun for Rockets fans, it will not be sustainable come playoff time.

James Harden will need some help as the Rockets limp forward. And, for a second, it looked like he had some…

The Rise and Fall of Danuel House

On November 26th, the Rockets signed 6’7″ swingman Danuel House to a two-way contract. This is a system that grants teams the ability to offer contracts to undrafted players and essentially keep them on retainer. Like a gift from God, House quickly inserted himself into the starting lineup and found immense success.

As a starter, House averaged 10.8 points per game on an unbelievable 48.6% from distance. It wasn’t just his scoring and ability to run the floor, though. House’s lateral quickness allowed him to efficiently cover the opposition’s best players. He emerged as the team’s best perimeter defender, contributing to the Rockets outscoring opponents by seven points per 100 possessions with him on the court. With House, –during their toughest stretch of the season in terms of opponent winning percentage– the Rockets went 12-3.

The issue, though, is that each player under a two-way contract is only allowed to spend 45 days in the NBA. The remaining time over the season must be spent in the G-League unless they are signed to a new contract. The Rockets offered House a three-year deal once his 45 days were up, but House turned it down in hopes for a more lucrative contract in the future.

As of now, the Rockets can, in theory, sign House to his desired amount with their MLE. They appear to be committed to saving that money for the buyout market later in the season, however.

Any Options Moving Forward?

Here’s the thing: Danuel House was the outlier. The market for 3+D players like him is extremely limited– especially at a low price. The aforementioned James Nunnally — who took (and missed) the shot in overtime — has already been released due to his horrid shooting and lack of defense. The fact that Nunnally was the backup plan for House and supposedly the reason Morey felt comfortable letting him walk is jarring.

Most likely, the Rockets will pick up someone on the buyout market. There is no telling, though, which players will be available then. Last year, the Rockets signed Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright to fill out the roster. Neither player was particularly impactful in the playoffs.

Morey is always an active participant at the trade deadline. This season, the most realistic scenario would be packaging Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss with a draft pick for a perimeter player on a rebuilding team. Options like Nic Batum and Kent Bazemore stick out. These are exciting names, but would either player be an upgrade over House? And are there impacts worth the future financial burden?

Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not the Rockets choose to swallow their pride and pay up for a young player who was the perfect fit alongside Harden. House was everything the Rockets needed him to be. He ran the floor well, played good defense, and knocked down open shots at a high clip.

This season, James Harden has been capable of winning games no matter what. If the Rockets do not want to waste his historic season, though, they must find him some help. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that they will luck out again like they did with House. It remains to be seen what Morey’s next steps will be.

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About Zach Zola

Zach Zola is a student at Brown University studying English. He grew up in New York, but has been a die-hard Rockets fan since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He believes that James Harden is the only King James in the NBA.

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