* * *
Who's in more trouble right now, the Rockets or the Thunder?
* * *
Steve Aschburner: Right now? “Right now” doesn’t much matter because it is, in fact, early. But what Houston is going through is more than a right-now problem. First, the switcheroo in its ratings -- essentially mirror images of last year’s, from a plus of 8.4 in 2017-18 to a minus 9.6 now -- is elevator-shaft stuff. Naturally, since James Harden has missed two games, the offense is sputtering. But the defense? That became an issue when Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute left in the summer. And given the expectations -- and four home losses by an average of more than 17 points -- PANIC CAN’T BE FAR AWAY! If I were Minnesota, I’d be on the phone constantly with Rockets GM Daryl Morey, because his team’s need for Jimmy Butler is growing by the day, presumably dragging the price right with it.
Shaun Powell: Given that the stakes are higher in Houston -- nobody with a basketball pulse figured OKC would compete for a title this year -- the choice is easily the Rockets. They lost defensive coach Jeff Bzdelika, Luc mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza and replaced those defensive specialists with Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams. They've gone from No. 7 in Defensive Rating to No. 24 this season, which might be the new normal for them this season. Not sure if the Rockets will be one game from the Finals again this season.
John Schuhmann: After another ugly loss on Tuesday, it's got to be Houston, because, with the four-year, $160 million contract they just gave a 33-year-old Chris Paul, they're all-in on being a title contender. They've been without one starting guard or the other during this four-game losing streak, but they were 21-11 with one of the two and not the other last season. There are a couple of real concerns even when they're completely healthy. No. 1: They lost too much defensively with the departures of Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, and the player departures have forced them to play forwards that just aren't good enough on end of the floor or the other. No. 2: How good they were in isolation last season (setting a record, by a wide margin, for iso efficiency) was unsustainable. You can be sure that GM Daryl Morey won't stand pat and that the Rockets' roster will not be the same in March as it is now. Maybe they can add two-way talent by trading a bunch of picks (going more all-in than they already are), but that's easier said than done.
Sekou Smith: The Rockets by a mile. Given the immense expectations that accompanied them into training camp, both internally and beyond, their early-season struggles dwarf those plaguing the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets tweaked what was beautiful team chemistry from a season ago for absolutely no reason at all. We will never know what might have happened in the Western Conference finals if Chris Paul hadn't gone down with a hamstring injury late in Game 5. And the Rockets made sure of it when they let perfect fits Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute go and added Carmelo Anthony.
You can dive into the metrics all you want, but this is a chemistry problem that has nothing to do with crunching numbers. The Rockets sauntered into this season like a team that won something last season. That's a dangerous space to be occupy in a sport where the championship window for most contenders often vanishes quickly. The Rockets are searching for a quick fix (like a deal for Jimmy Butler in exchange for four first-round picks) in an effort to turn things around. They better hurry up and figure it out before the hole they've dug for themselves gets deeper.