Why Are the Houston Rockets Misfiring?

With the offense off the mark this year, the Rockets have flopped out of the gate to a 4-7 record. Will the firing of Kevin McHale turn things around?

By all accounts, the 2014-15 season was the most successful season for the Houston Rockets since finishing as a repeat champion in 20 years ago.

They won their first Southwest Division title, made a Western Conference Finals appearance, and finished with the third-best record in team history, 56-26. They also had the second best player in the league, if we count MVP votes, in James Harden.

They also possessed one of the highest scoring offenses in the Association, taking and making the most threes and getting to the line at a high volume. For all intents and purposes, they improved their lineup in the offseason too. The addition of Ty Lawson, the third best distributor last season with 9.6 assists per game, to an already high-powered offense, reaffirmed Houston's place in the championship contender discussion.

Through 11 games so far this season, however, saying Houston has disappointed would be an understatement. With a 4-7 record, Houston is shaping up to having their worst season since 2005-06.

Things got so bad that the team fired head coach Kevin McHale this morning.

What has gone wrong, and will the firing of McHale actually help turn it around?

Up and Down Start

The Rockets have been streaky this year. They started off losing the first three games, all by 20 points, an NBA first. Those losses were chalked up to missing Dwight Howard (for two games), attempting to integrate Lawson into the offense, and early season rust. It did not help their first three opponents (Denver, Golden State, Miami) have started fast with a combined record of 24-9.

The next four games, all wins, seemed to validate those excuses as the offense was humming. Posting 113.5 points per game, the Rockets got their swagger back as they seemingly got the season back on track with wins over four tough opponents, including the Thunder and Clippers.

As high as Houston felt following their last minute 109-105 road victory over the Clippers, it all seemingly crashed back down to earth after the Rockets blew a fourth quarter lead and ultimately the game to the previously winless Brooklyn Nets. After the shock of the Brooklyn loss, the Rockets crumbled as they followed it up with a loss to Denver, a short-handed Mavericks squad and a seemingly tired Celtics club finishing off their fifth game in seven nights.

As with most poor performances, the Rockets' problems are plentiful and of no mystery. The defense has been a sieve, 108.5 points allowed per game. Opponents have outrebounded the Rockets by over four per game. More importantly and most troubling is the failings of the once potent offense. 

Brick City

In all seven losses, the Rockets have failed to eclipse the 100-point mark, something they did nearly 70 percent of the time last season. While there are many flaws, the most obvious of their issues on the offensive end is their terrible field goal shooting, specifically long-range shooting.

Houston Per Game Rank
Points 100.8 17
Field Goal % 42.3 25
Field Goal Attempts 85.2 12
Three-Point % 29.0 29
Three-Point Attempts 32.0 1
Offensive Rating 101.2 24

A top-10 team in terms of pace, the Rockets' faster play lends itself to a higher volume of shots. The problem for them is that when shots are missed at their high volume, they become susceptible to scoring droughts and allow opponents to overcome deficits or to build leads in a quick manner.

In six of the seven losses, the Rockets had quarters where they scored fewer than 15 points. Those big swings leave shooters falling back on just hoisting shots.

For all the Rockets' success last season, a lot was tied to their success behind the arc. They launched by far the most three-pointers per game at 32.7 attempts, over 5 attempts more than second-ranked Cleveland and the most since the inception of the three-point line in 1979-80. Even with the increased attempts, the Rockets were not much better than any other team in making them. Their 34.8 percent success rate was a tick below the league average of 35 percent.

This season, the Rockets stuck to the same game plan and are continuing to fire away from deep, albeit at a far lower success rate. As a unit, they are making only 29 percent of their long-distance attempts. Individually, Harden and Lawson are shooting less than 27 percent on over 12 attempts per game from three. Even their most successful shooter this season, Marcus Thornton, is making fewer than 35 percent of his attempts while taking over 6 per game.

This excruciatingly bad performance does not go away even as they move closer to the basket. On mid-range shots, between 15 feet and 24 feet, the Rockets are making only 31.5 percent of those attempts. As a whole, on shots over 5 feet, the Rockets are connecting on only an embarrassing 33 percent of their 46 attempts per game.

Some of the blame falls with newcomer Lawson, Trevor Ariza, and sixth man Corey Brewer, who are all mucking up the offense as they are shooting less than 33 percent from the field while putting up over 7.9 attempts per game each. While the entirety of the offensive struggles is not the fault of one man, most of the burden to pick up the slack falls on the shoulders of Harden.

No Fear in the Beard

Harden is the lifeblood of the Rockets. There is no denying that. Given Houston's injuries and his leaderboard topping performance last season, Harden has all the reason in the world to be angry he was not MVP last year. This year? Not so much.

On the year, Harden's stat line of 27.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 2.5 three-pointers per game falls right in step with last year's MVP-like numbers. But if we dive deeper into the numbers, the Beard is having the worst season since taking over in Houston.

Harden FG% 3P% TO WS/48 ORtg PER
Season Avg. 2012-15 44.4 37.0 3.8 .231 118 24.4
2015-16 37.2 26.2 4.8 .100 104 21.1

Harden started off the year in a funk, shooting 22 percent from the field and going a mind-blowing 3-for-32 from three in the first three games. His 0-for-10 three-point shooting performance against Miami on November 1 was only the  12th time a player has taken that many attempts without making a single one. In fact, Harden has shown no hesitation to launching shots, even if they aren't falling, as he owns three of the 12 0-for-10 performances.

Besides the poor percentages, Harden is also carrying a -2.0  nERD this season, an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters. That means Harden is actually costing the Rockets victories this year. While this seems like a ridiculous idea, take a look at his win/loss splits

Splits Pts FG% 3P% ORtg +/-
In 4 wins 38.5 46.4 34.9 114.9 9.5
In 7 losses 20.9 30.2 20.0 90.1 -16.0

While an extremely small sample size, Harden's splits in Rockets wins and losses this year are nothing new. Take last year when he scored 8.0 points fewer per game in Rockets' regular season losses. His shooting was to blame then too, as he made only 40 percent of his field goals and 28 percent of his threes in losses as compared to 45 percent and 41 percent in wins, respectively. When Harden is off, the rest of the Rockets roster has not been able to pick him up. 

What Are the Rockets to Do?

Yes, their superstar is in an epic shooting slump. Yes, their prized offseason acquisition has not performed up to expectations. Yes, they fired their head coach.

But things can turn around.

A career 46 percent shooter and 14.1 points per game scorer, Lawson can be the scoring complement, along with Howard, the Rockets and Harden sorely need. We are not even out of November, and Lawson will need more than 11 games to adjust to the new surroundings -- and now, a new head coach.

Despite the 4-7 start, we still give the Rockets a  68 percent chance of making the playoffs -- meaning there is plenty of time for the Rockets to get their shots on back on track and launch themselves deep into a playoff run provided that they can figure out a coaching solution soon.