Over a month into the 2018-19 season and people are still wary to admit the Houston Rockets might have a serious problem.
New-season jitters, coaching adjustments, and other excuses are all being credited as the reason for these early losses and it seems like we're all just waiting for the moment they get their act together. "Chris Paul is going to level out (because he always does)," "James Harden will turn it on (because we've seen him do it before)."
If any team is capable of resurrecting their season we'd like to think it's this team because, other than the Warriors, we can't really rely on anyone else. Our hearts are saying that this Houston squad can, and will, bounce back.
But can they really? Because, when you peel back the veil of denial, the cracks begin to show.
Through 19 games, Houston is 9-10, with losses to the Pelicans, Clippers (twice), Jazz, Blazers, Thunder, Spurs, Pistons, Cavs, and Wizards. They're only 4-4 at home, 5-6 on the road, and, as of Wednesday afternoon, are in the midst of their second 3-game losing streak of the season.
But they'll be fine, right? "The Rockets will bounce back," and "they'll be okay." That is what we want to believe because this crew deserves a feel-good story.
After all, if not for the performance of the team, James Harden would be an MVP candidate. He's averaging 31.5 points and 8.2 assists on 43% shooting. Over their current 3-game losing streak, he has scored a combined 127 points. Chris Paul, other than minor statistical dips and a few missed games, has been the same player he was a year ago. He's averaging 17.9 points, with 7.7 assists on 44% shooting. Let's not forget about Clint Capela, who's having the season of his life so far in Houston. He's scoring an impressive 17.3 points on 64% shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds per game.
They've got the same coach, mostly the same players, and the same brilliant basketball savant in Daryl Morey. Yet, somehow, they're still second to last in pace, only 10th in offensive rating and just 23rd defensively. Last season, Houston outscored their opponents by 5 points per game at the free-throw line, the league's second-best differential. This season? They've been outscored by 2.3 points per game at the line.
Back in May, when they pushed the Warriors to the limit, they had swagger and a certain sense of self that made it seem like they could face anybody. Now, they are struggling to remember what put them in that position in the first place.
The harsh reality is, their Cinderella run may be getting exposed for what it really was -- a fluke, a perfect storm of everything going right. They found a group that fit perfectly together, a system that worked flawlessly, and two stars who were beautifully in synch. It was perfect.
Unfortunately, that didn't last very long -- because when has perfection ever been maintainable?
The truth is, we have seen real contenders overcome their imperfections before, but we've never seen them not have any at all. The Warriors have always had to deal with personality issues, and they've always been weak in size down low. Those big-three Spurs teams were always challenged by athletically-gifted groups who exposed their slower playstyle. Michael Jordan's Bulls had to deal with the egos of MJ, Scottie, and Dennis Rodman, who often butted heads.
All these teams had flaws they were able to overcome. They weren't perfect and they didn't need to be. They overcame, they persevered, and they won.
Not to say that these Rockets are in the same breath as the teams mentioned above, but will we say the same about them before it's all said and done? With reality and adversity knocking at their door, can they rise to the occasion and overcome like we've seen so many other teams do before?
Sadly, their track record isn't very good. They were unable to overcome the Chris Paul injury last spring and they have, so far, been unable to overcome losing two of their role-players over the summer.
Many are questioning whether they were they ever true Championship contenders at all.
The good news for H-Town is that there's still time. There's still time to get right, get straight, and prove they can work together to salvage their season. The recipe for such an outcome is lost to us, but it's on the Rockets to figure that out.
In the meantime, stop saying the team is fine. Stop saying they'll bounce back. Rather, from what we're seeing right now, they're a group that still has very much to prove before we give them the benefit of the doubt, and with 60+ games still left on the plate, they'll show us who they are... one way or another.