CHICAGO – One of the theories about the Houston Rockets this season, one of the Western Conference preseason title favorites who reached the season’s halfway mark at about .500, has been the proof their analytics rage isn’t the answer to success.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has been perhaps the biggest proponent of the mathematical model of three-point shooting, free throws and layups as the road to ultimate success.
Another premise is that star James Harden had his career year, so dominant with Dwight Howard often injured that the players began their own voting for league Most Valuable Player and selected Harden over Stephen Curry.
Then there’s been the thought that Howard after back surgery is losing his effectiveness, that the Ty Lawson trade from the Denver Nuggets hurt chemistry, that the team panicked and fired coach Kevin McHale too soon just 11 games into the season (replaced by assistant J.B. Bickerstaff) and that they decimated their bench by dropping veterans like Josh Smith.
No one’s had a definitive answer, though I lean more toward the obvious:
Harden began dating American TV reality star Khloe Kardashian, the wife of Lakers’ star Lamar Odom, who may have tried to commit suicide this past summer after an overdose in a brothel.
That’s a line you don’t write that much.
Odom is believed to be just the first former mate of a Kardashian to nearly meet an untimely end, though he is said to be recovering. Speculation is he’s unlikely to be the last as Harden is Khloe’s current boyfriend.
Khloe is the stepdaughter of former Olympic decathlon champion Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner, and met and began dating Harden following the 2015 playoffs and his career season.
It so happened that Harden — and he has since conceded it — said he really wasn’t physically ready for this season, which accounted for his slow start, the poor start for the team and the firing of McHale, who a year ago was considered a Coach of the Year candidate.
Perhaps the affair with Kardashian isn’t completely to blame, though we’ve seen this before, like with Madonna and Dennis Rodman in the 1994 playoffs that unhinged the San Antonio Spurs.
But it’s not quite that simple, even if I’m sticking with the Kardashian Kurse.
If there was an outlier for the Rockets, it probably was last season more than this season.
Sure, they had a successful season with 56 wins, but the playoff seeding broke their way as with just one more win than the Spurs and Grizzlies in their division they avoided Golden State. And then trailing the Clippers 3-1 in the second round, the Clippers self destructed and the Rockets went to the conference finals, where they lost 4-1 to the Warriors.
Second to Golden State?
Everyone thought so coming into the season, though that was assuming Harden could repeat his amazing season. His numbers are good, but he’s been nowhere the impact player.
Harden did seem to fall in love with his isolation game and pretty much for the first half of the season avoided throwing the ball much to Howard. Who comes to pout when that happens.
The offseason theory was they would bring in a point guard — Ty Lawson on the cheap after a drunk driving arrest and suspension — to relieve the ball handling duties from Harden. But it turned out Harden didn’t want to give up the ball and Lawson has been pretty lost without it.
Now Lawson is available in trade after giving up a $13 million guarantee for next season to go to the Rockets. Yes, he was drinking too much.
The conventional wisdom around the NBA has been the Rockets will trade Howard by the February deadline since he can be a free agent after the season and leave and they want to get something. That’s still possible, but it would be an admission of giving up, and as the West has declined this season, the Rockets should be a playoff team.
Can they in a series beat one of the tough top three of the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder?
Perhaps they decide no and try to make a move with Howard. Though it seems unlikely they would get much as Howard could then leave that team after the season.
They’ll be the team to watch at trading deadline with plenty of speculation the Celtics will throw a package at them too good to turn down.
The truth is the Rockets just aren’t good enough.
They’re one of the poorest defensive teams in the NBA, which they’ve long hoped to disguise with their three-point shooting at a rate at the top of the NBA. But they are brutally poor defensively.
They’re in the bottom five in field goal defense and their margin of victory is a -1, which usually translates to a victory total below 40.
They’re oddly No. 1 in the NBA in steals, but give up the most steals to opponents. Which basically means they are lazy defenders playing the passing lanes going for steals to start shooting those threes more quickly.
They’re as a result one of the more undisciplined teams with Bickerstaff an interim who will be replaced after the season.
Really, the ironic part is they even fell into this success. GM Morey may be the most unpopular among his peers, called the Sultan of Smug around the executive suites for his outsized boasts of beating everyone in his trades because of his advanced analytics knowledge.
But his plan had been to build around Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as his two big free agents.
Then he got lucky — which, actually, is the key to success — when the Thunder panicked and handed him Harden for mostly a package of draft picks.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were no Harden fans the way he hung onto the ball. But because the Rockets had Harden, Howard saw them as a destination.
He supposedly doesn’t feel so buoyant about that now.
In any case, Harden for his brilliant scoring is difficult to play with the way he monopolizes the ball and then plays so little defense leaving teammates exposed. The Rockets have some big men in reserve, so they may choose to move on from Howard, and Morey likes the idea of churning his roster for the next best thing.
The Rockets will be the team to watch the next month off the court. And not only for Harden’s girlfriend.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”