Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) walks to the locker room near the end of the fourth period after getting injured playing against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Houston. The Houston Rockets won against the Los Angeles Lakers 148-142. ( Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle )

What’s up with the Rockets?

Josh Duggan tells us what has gone wrong for the Rockets and whether the problem can be solved.

Hey, what’s the deal with the Rockets? Last year’s 65-17 Western Conference champs are looking rather shaky after some big name departures and questionable acquisitions in the offseason. As of Saturday’s loss to the Spurs, they were the West 12-seed, with a 4-7 record; things Maybe it continues, but the longer they keep losing games, the harder it will be to find their way back into the playoff race.

Last year’s league-best offensive rating of 114.7 has morphed into an entirely mediocre 104.7, as they sit 28th in the league. Primarily that’s coming from woeful shooting stats – despite having the 28th best three-point percentage in the league (31.7%), they’ve got the highest three-point attempt rate (0.473). The result is the worst expected field goal percentage (0.488) in the league. Despite reasonable turnover and offensive rebounding rates, the poor shooting performance and not getting to the line has been enough to entirely kill their offence. While they’ve also dropped from the 6th best defence in the league to the 20th, it’s that offensive loss that’s killing them right now.

So what’s not wrong with them? Well, James Harden’s still good. Despite missing a few games due to a hamstring injury, he’s been in reasonable form (though maybe not comparable to last year’s MVP season), averaging 26.4 points per games through eight contests. He’s still shooting ok (36% from three) and averaging seven assists a game. He’s a key cog in the Rockets system, and any form drop will have an effect on the team, but he’s hardly the reason for the entire team’s woes.

If you were looking for a Point Guard to point a finger at, Chris Paul might be one. Despite being well into his thirties, he’s playing nearly four minutes per game more than last year. Granted, he’s averaging more due to a small sample size in which James Harden spent time on the sidelines. But it’s had an effect on him, as his three-point percentage is a woeful 29.4% (down from 38% last year, and 37% over the course of his career), while he has the highest turnover rate of his career (15.7%) with a poor assist rate. It’s not working for Paul right now, and with the Rockets paying him $45 million a year in 2022, you’d hope the downfall isn’t here already.

Eric Gordon isn’t going too flash either. The 16/17 NBA Sixth Man of the Year has been the release valve in years past, the outlet that could release pressure when opposing teams are locked in on Harden, and more recently Paul. He’s been woeful his year, taking 17 shots per game for 16 points, and shooting 23% from three. With Gordon on the court, the Rockets have been 3.6 points per 100 possessions worse on offence, and 3.0 points worse on the other end. Despite coming off the bench, his elite play has been crucial in recent years when the Rockets have been on, and they’re not getting that this year.

(Alright then, we’re at the Melo bit). On Sunday, rumours emerged that Melo would be getting cut from the Rockets, and Rockets fans everywhere collectively exhaled with relief; as with the Thunder last year, it just hasn’t worked. He’s second on the squad for mid-range shots (12.4% of his shots coming from there), and first for long two’s (13.2%). Of the regular minute-getters, only Paul and Gordon, who are both having terrible seasons, are worse in effective Field Goal Percentage. They have the excuse of having played badly though; this is just Melo’s game. He’s going to take a heap of long two’s and shoot poorly from three, being an inefficient scorer because of it. If Melo is cut in the coming days, the Rockets will be better instantly. But who fills his minutes?

Filling lost minutes is already part of the problem. Trevor Ariza, now of the Phoenix Suns, and Luc Mbah a Moute, now back with the Clippers, were solid contributors to last year’s squad and efficient in their roles as spot-up shooters. They were also two key pieces for that elite defence. Replacing the 81 minutes that those two and Ryan Andersen played, hasn’t been an easy task. James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams were brought in to replace them along with Carmelo, and have been less than excellent. Much of that drop in efficiency from the others like Gordon and Paul has come from a bump in minutes.

Having also lost out on the Butler-nanza that was won by Philly last week, it’s hard to foresee a rise back to the top for the Rockets, with a miraculous rise in their form being the only potential (and unlikely) cure. Houston, we have a problem – I don’t think you’ll be challenging the Warriors for a spot in the finals this year.

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