Opening Statements: Wizards vs Rockets, Game 20 | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements: Wizards vs Rockets, Game 20

Updated: December 9, 2015

Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets - Dec. 12, 2012

The Houston Rockets are sort of the Washington Wizards East. Or maybe the Rockets are Wizards West. Either way, the teams have plenty of similarities through the first quarter or so of the 2015-16 NBA season.

Both teams faced perhaps not great expectations but substantial ones, relative to their previous accomplishments—Houston making the Western Conference Finals last season and Washington advancing to the second round in the East once again. Both started slowly this season. Houston responded by firing coach Kevin McHale, and while questions have arisen about Randy Wittman’s job security—as they always seem to—he remains safe as the Wizards recovered somewhat to pull together a few wins. McHale was canned with the Rockets sitting at 4-7, and they have since rallied to 10-12. The Wizards started 3-1, then forgot how to basketball, then put together a mess of a week (as noted by TAI’s Troy Haliburton), and now don’t really seem to know what the hell they are.

Each team has been consistently inconsistent thus far. The Wizards have one three-game win streak, which was sandwiched between a three-game losing streak and a four-game losing streak. They’ve beaten the Spurs, Cavaliers, and Heat, but they’ve lost to the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics (twice, by 53 total points). The Rockets have taken that pattern to an extreme: they lost three, then won four, then lost four, won one, lost three, won two, lost one, won three, and most recently lost to the Nets Tuesday. They’ve beaten the Thunder, Clippers, and Mavericks, but they’ve lost to the Nuggets, Nets (twice), and Celtics.

A slew of injuries have played a part, at least for Washington, but they haven’t been the primary cause of either team’s troubles. Only John Wall, Otto Porter, and Ramon Sessions have played in all 19 Wizards games this season, and Jared Dudley is the only other one to play in 18. Martell Webster got hurt and never played before being cut in favor of Ryan Hollins, who almost immediately inherited the starting center role. Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, and Patrick Beverley have each missed some time for Houston, but the Rockets haven’t been especially banged up.

Rather, for each team it’s been some combination of malaise, confusion, and perhaps contempt that’s led to such disappointing starts. Wall began the season with something strongly resembling disinterest, and the Wizards showed an inability to generate offense without their star point guard leading the way. James Harden, as our guest will soon explain, also hasn’t looked particularly enthused about the 2015-16 NBA season.

And with teams that aren’t at the tippity top of the league—basically Golden State or San Antonio—the squad goes as the star goes. In wins this season, Wall has averaged 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, and a true shooting percentage of .588. In losses, Wall has put up 18.8 points, 7.1 assists, and a true shooting percentage of .497. Harden is averaging a ridiculous 35.5 points, 7.4 assists, and a true shooting percentage of .591 in Rockets’ wins. In losses, the drop-off is much more significant: 23.7 points, 6.3 assists, and a true shooting percentage of .540.

Have both teams since recovered? Well, that remains to be seen. Houston certainly seems to have a better idea of what they’re doing now than they did at the beginning of the season, and incorporating (potentially) top-10 point guard Ty Lawson into an offense that Harden previously dominated was always going to be a process. The Rockets had a losing record under McHale and now has a winning record under interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, so the small sample arrow appears to be pointing up. Wittman has, out of necessity more than unabashed desire, joined the modern era in earnest with his ultra small-ball lineups, and perhaps he is starting to grasp the importance of athleticism (instead of simple uncoordinated size) in 2015 basketball. Perhaps not.

Long-term goals and growth aside, the key to this game for Washington will be defense. Houston has scored at least 100 points in all 10 of its wins this season and has only lost twice when surpassing the triple-digit plateau. The Wizards are 6-1 when limiting opponents to double digits, and, they’ve lost all six games in which they’ve allowed at least 114 points.

If the contest turns into a shootout, the Wizards still have a chance, but it will likely come down to Wall, who, despite a 3-6 career record, has historically thrived against Houston. Wall has averaged 19.9 points (third-most of any NBA team), 10.2 assists (tied for fourth-most), and 5.3 rebounds (third-most) in nine career games against the Rockets, one of just four teams he averages a double-double against. And that all came before Lawson came to Houston. Meanwhile, Harden, who is 8-3 all-time against the Wiz, averages 22.5 points, 3.2 assists (third-fewest), and 4.0 rebounds against Washington.

Teams: Wizards vs. Rockets
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Television: CSN
Radio: WNEW-FM 99.1
Spread: Wizards fav’d by 4 points.

Helping this preview launch into a new atmosphere (get it? it’s a rocket joke) is Forrest Walker (@DUNOTS) from the Rockets blog Red94. He is joined by bonus Vines of the Rockets dancing, which thankfully don’t count for points in basketball games, otherwise Houston would have the championship on lock already.

Q #1: Much fuss was made about the addition of Ty Lawson and how that could impact the offense, with special attention being paid to James Harden being moved away from the primary ball-handler role.

Houston is dramatically underachieving, and rumors have emerged that the Rockets could already be looking to trade Lawson away, so it doesn’t seem as though it’s going well. What are the early returns on the Lawson experiment, and how has Harden’s role changed?

@DUNOTS: On a grade from A to F, the Lawson experiment gets an INC. It’s still incomplete, and it’s taken on a myriad of different looks over the first month of games, most of which have been bad. They talked a big game about Harden playing more off the ball, but that concept looked stillborn at the start of the season. They’ve been trying it a little more lately, and it’s been better.

It seems like Lawson needs to be more aggressive and less concerned with stepping on toes. When he mixes it up with the bench crew in particular, the sky stops falling for a minute. I think Lawson still has the potential to be a major help for the Rockets, but it’s definitely a process. Oh, and his defense is a nightmare. But we knew this.

Q #2: Speaking of dramatically underachieving, Houston takes on the Wizards Wednesday night.

Washington has had its fair share of problems, from lineup confusion to injuries to an apparent lack of interest at times. Ranked from most significant to least, what are the three main reasons, in your eyes, that Houston has gotten off to such a slow start this season?

@DUNOTSThis is the million dollar question. What’s wrong with the Rockets? This is the scariest question because it remains the most elusive. A lot of teams have been having issues, like your own Wizards, but the glitches largely seem apparent. It’s a lot different when there’s no apparent cause of the dysfunction. The Rockets are alone in what I can only describe as a spiritual malaise.

Most importantly, James Harden seems to have come into the season neither mentally nor physically prepared for NBA basketball. He’s been rounding into shape somewhat, but his intensity seems gone. We could speculate all day as to why he’s been hard pressed to keep his mind on basketball. Whatever the cause, he’s been more focused as of late, but his effort, especially on defense, is horrendous most of the time. Once he decides to give his all, the effects will cascade down the team.

Secondly, they haven’t traditionally had a system—on either end of the ball. At all. Last season, the defense improved via a system that current head coach J.B. Bickerstaff reportedly designed. That seemed to fall by the wayside over the summer, and they’re just now starting to get back into it. They still don’t particularly talk on defense, something which has to change. The offense is finally beginning to take on some kind of vague form, something that never happened last year or the year before. It’s amazing how many offensive options the Rockets can fail to utilize.

The last issue that’s really throwing them off is that they can’t shoot. Especially in November, everyone shot at deplorable, sub-career average numbers. They shot better on contested shots than open shots. It’s been a nightmare. The common story of Rockets games this year is that they start off playing decently, then they miss a pile of open shots, fall behind, and then they droop their shoulders and the offense dies. This is starting to turn around, and it’s a big part of why they’ve been winning a few games lately.

Q #3: Kevin McHale’s firing was, in the eyes of many, unjustified.

First, was the firing fair? And as a follow-up, was he fired because the team was underperforming and simply needed a shakeup, or (in the eyes of upper management) was he the problem?

@DUNOTSBatten down the hatches, readers, there’s a hot take on the way.

They should have fired him last season.

Much like how Houston people are lukewarm on Terrence Jones while the rest of the world seems to love him, McHale was better liked outside of the Rockets commentariat than within it. I have no problem with Kevin McHale, I think he’s a great person, and I think hiring him was the right choice. I don’t think the problems were his fault. But he seemed to have lost the locker room, or at least key members of it, and you don’t come back from that. The die was cast.

His biggest problem was that he was a great development coach, but not really the solution for getting to the finals. I would imagine last season’s success was a huge surprise, and the front office was glad to be able to keep some continuity. Congratulations on your extension, Kevin. Oh, now the team is awful. Congratulations on your four years of paid vacation, Kevin.

Q #4: Last season, the Rockets scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions and gave up 100.5. This season, those numbers are 101.2 and 106.0, respectively.

Harden’s defense was never anything to brag about, but it was much better a season ago (101.9 DefRtg last year versus 107.1 this year). What would you say is the simple explanation for the drop?

@DUNOTSHarden’s defense will be good as soon as he wants it to be good. His struggles all seem to be mental, and it’s impossible to truly know what another person is thinking. That being said, here’s a short list of things that might distract or dispirit me.

  • Dating famous person and being near famous people all the time.
  • Hanging out with old buddy who you now work with and who is known for partying.
  • International fame and massive shoe deal.
  • Beard copycats.
  • Quest to be MVP and NBA champion sidelined by undeniable proof that someone else is far better than you at those things.
  • The “anyone but you” rival team becoming the best team in the league and possibly in history.
  • Defense is hard.
  • Own lots of video games.

He may decide to take pride in his work. When he does, when he fully does, the Rockets might live up to their potential. Until then, let the sideshow continue.

Vine Things.

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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.