At this time last year, the Houston Rockets were wrapping up a five-game ‘gentleman’s sweep’ of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Playoffs and putting the league on notice that they were truly a championship contender. Led by perennial All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets had one of the deepest teams in the NBA – exemplified by the ridiculous play of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith that sparked a miraculous 19-point comeback in Game 6 of the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets would go on to lose to the eventual champions – the Golden State Warriors – in the Western Conference Finals, but the future was bright and hopes were high for Houston’s championship contention.
As the 2015-2016 kicked off, the Rockets were primed to make another run at the NBA championship by adding another play-maker in Ty Lawson and bringing back essential guys that got injured before last season’s playoffs – Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas. However, the Rockets ran into an immediate wall when Motiejunas hadn’t returned from back surgery, Dwight missed a lot of training camp coming off of knee surgery, and Harden coming into the season out of game shape (perhaps he enjoyed the spoils of dating a Kardashian and a lucrative shoe deal a little too much in the offseason).
The Rockets lost the first three games of the season by twenty points each and seemed to get things back on track by winning the next four. They then lost another four straight, bringing their record to a troublesome 4-7, which prompted a player’s meeting and the firing of head coach Kevin McHale. McHale’s firing was definitely reactionary and probably a mistake because, as it turns out, this team’s problems go far beyond coaching – team chemistry is almost nonexistent.
Team chemistry is a fragile thing in sports, and the NBA is no different. If one thing goes wrong – a superstar’s ego clashes with another’s, a new player can’t quite seem to fit in, or a team loses the ear of the coach – the whole team dynamic can come crashing down like a house of cards. Unfortunately for the Houston Rockets, chemistry may have been broken from every possible angle. Coach McHale lost the team early, after having to deal with Harden playing himself back into shape, a few early injuries, and Lawson not fitting in as the Rockets starting point guard (he should have always come off the bench).
Perhaps the biggest break in team chemistry comes from the relationship, or lack thereof, between James Harden and Dwight Howard. Back in February, NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury reported that the Rockets were looking to trade Howard before this season’s trade deadline. The more interesting nugget he dropped in that report, however, is that Harden and Howard tried to get each other traded following the 2013-2014 season. If this is indeed true, then it’d be hard to imagine that even more resentment hadn’t built up in two more years of playing together. Their styles of play clash as they both need the ball in their hands (Dwight on post-ups, Harden on isolation plays) if they want to be the focal point of the team’s offense, and the pick and rolls that could result in Dwight alley-oops or open shots for wing players never quite lived up to its potential.
All of these breaks in chemistry led the Rockets to a majorly disappointing and frustrating season, winning just 41 games and barely squeaking into the last Playoff spot. This meant that the Rockets were forced to face the greatest regular season of all time and a team on a mission of becoming THE BEST team in history – the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors made quick work of the Rockets in five games, an inevitable outcome given how this season went for both teams.
Even when the team was focused on winning the game and it seemed like team chemistry was working itself out (like in the first half of Game 4 against the Warriors) the fragility of this team’s chemistry was a microcosm of this season. The Rockets opened the game firing on all cylinders and seemed poised to even the series, especially when considering that reigning (and definitely back-to-back) MVP Stephen Curry went down with a right knee sprain.
Unfortunately for Houston, starting point guard and residential sparkplug Patrick Beverley also left the game with a hamstring injury before the first half ended. In classic Rockets fashion, the team broke down in the third quarter after not getting any ‘50/50’ balls and failing to get stops on the defensive end. By the end of the third quarter, Houston was down 21 and not in a position mentally to make another miraculous comeback. Not only did the Rockets allow themselves to breakdown mentally after the Warriors hit several threes, but they also lacked Beverley’s leadership and tenacity to keep up the team’s energy. The game, the series, and the season were all but over.
Now that this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season is finally (and painstakingly) over, Houston has an intriguing offseason ahead of them. Significant changes will be made, starting with the hiring of a new head coach and the likely departure of Dwight Howard (he can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer). The Rockets will have to reevaluate every facet of the organization, from management to roster, and it will be very interesting to see how they respond.
There’s a lot of work to be done for this team to get back to championship contention, but whatever happens, it can’t get any worse than this… can it?