Are the Houston Rockets a playoff team?

James Harden

Jan 12, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up court during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers defeated the Rockets 107-100. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets have lost enough games now to drift out of the Western Conference top eight, and into distant mediocrity.

Suffice it to say, Houston has some problems.

Firstly, the team’s defense is weighing down its progress. There are often three or four Rockets overcommitted on the attacking end, who are then unable to turn their feet around and hustle the other way. 

There’s also a lack of energy in the way this group covers outside shooters. Coach Kevin McHale could move to the perimeter faster at age 55. It’s a dangerous flaw to have because when dribblers move so easily past their man, the inside help needs to be perkier than a mission control staffer on his fifth cup of joe. But Houston’s rotation plods, and it’s frontline is undersized anyway. In short, the Rockets are one of the NBA’s worst shot-blocking teams (averaging 4 per game).

The third issue for this team is careless passing, which leads to an inordinate amount of turnovers. The Rockets give the rock away more than any other team. And lately, the club’s premier player, James Harden, has been responsible for a large portion of loose balls (he had seven in a loss to the Nuggets, and four in a loss to the Timberwolves).

If the Rockets’ scoring doesn’t overcome its turnovers, then there’s no way for this squad to stay in close games. Turnovers, of course, are easily curtailed when things are clicking. So I believe Houston can get back in rhythm with some of the easier games coming up in their schedule. The defense is a work in progress though. 

On the flip side, there are genuine positives for the Rockets. When Harden and Jeremy Lin play off each other, for instance, the offense can be stunning. Harden lets the game come to him, which is great to watch. When he holds the ball on the wing, he’s patient, and that’s refreshing in a rapid-fire league. It allows screens to be set, and cuts to be made. 

Along with his rebounding, center Omer Asik sets solid picks, allowing Houston’s perimeter players the option of driving, or stepping back for a three, a shot this club makes with regularity—about 10 a game, in fact. 

Then there’s the fast-break, generally led by Lin or Harden, and when it’s the latter, anything is possible. Harden’s breaks are among the most exciting in the league because his charge to the basket is passive aggressive—a surprise attack, if you will. At 6’4, left-handed, and a deceptive dribbler, there’s little defenders can do to combat him. Guarding such a player, always stutter-stepping and bobbing, isn’t just a physical adjustment but a mental one.

Lin similarly has size and speed. But he is clearly more reliant on Harden’s presence than vice versa. That’s strange for a point guard, usually the man everyone else leans on. But Lin isn’t without his virtues, chief of which is his eye for the open shooter. Though he has scoring talent of his own, it’s a blessing for Houston to have an unselfish player at point, something that has eluded them in other eras.

Lin’s running crossover and poised finishing show a fearlessness that’s also valuable. There’s a little Clyde Drexler to it. This ability to fly by everyone creates space for shooters, too, who can benefit from a last minute Lin kick-out. This combined with Harden’s savvy on the drive, which gets him to the line at a prolific rate, are the keys to Houston’s offensive success. 

Ultimately this team needs to communicate better on defense, and react faster on switches. The recent run of losses is nothing to panic about—not yet, at least. The opponents have mostly been sound, some with veterans capable of rattling a young club.

So yes, there’s still time for the Rockets to fire up again and propel themselves back into the eight, past other edge teams like Portland, Utah and Denver, and even higher.


JP Pelosi

JP Pelosi is a writer who's covered basketball for Sir Charles In Charge and for the now legendary Saving The Skyhook. His work has also been published in The Atlantic, The Globe and Mail, The Cauldron and The Good Men Project. You can find him on Twitter @halfcourt32.