The Houston Rockets fired their coach after just 11 games this season, finished 41-41, and are the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That is to say, they’re a mediocre NBA team, and therefore have some glaring problems, or else they would be better than mediocre. They get back-cut to death and have no idea what to do when switching, their only reliable offense is James Harden getting to the foul line, interim coach JB Bickerstaff isn’t particularly great, and they are forced to rely upon Michael Beasley and Josh Smith.
But during their 115-106 loss to the Stephen Curry-less Warriors last night, I didn’t consider any of that. Instead, the only thing I could think was that the Houston Rockets are the most miserable fucking basketball team I’ve ever seen. This is different than being bad. Plenty of teams are bad—not including the Rockets, who are merely mediocre—but not miserable. The Rockets are uniquely mediocre and miserable.
The Rockets don’t seem remotely interested in playing basketball. They’re in the playoffs, yet can barely summon the energy to give a shit. Here is Andre Iguodala at halftime—ostensibly describing his role with Curry out—saying the game felt like a practice scrimmage.
After the game, Bickerstaff was asked if Howard was disinterested in the game. He denied that, of course, but just let that marinate for a moment. An NBA coach had to beat back the notion that his quasi-star was disinterested in playing a playoff game!
It was a fair question, too. Howard, who was a -22 in his 35 minutes, seemed to barely float through the game. In the fourth quarter, in the span of 35 seconds, he horse-collared Klay Thompson, got his shit swatted by Andrew Bogut, and stupidly hacked Draymond Green to foul out. It was very clear that he was trying to get the hell out of a (somewhat) reasonably close game as quickly as he could.
Similarly, his coach picked up a dumb technical foul in the fourth quarter, objecting to some foul. But Bickerstaff wasn’t saving one of his players from a technical or frothing at the mouth and trying to inspire some fight—he was just a poor soul lashing out about the state of his team.
While Howard is getting most of the lambasting for last night, I think that’s unfair. Whiny, robotic, unfunny, gesticulating Dwight Howard is actually a sympathetic character on the Rockets, because he does in fact sometimes look like he gives a shit, like the game of basketball stirs some emotion in him, even if that emotion is unproductive anger. He had “animated conversations” with Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Josh Smith at various points during the game, and while getting angry at all of your teammates isn’t a positive thing this side of Michael Jordan, at least it’s something.
“Disinterested” is a charitable description of the Rockets’ play. They look like extremely tall members of a sleepwalking study forced to play basketball. They look like they just showed up to work their 7,000th Subway shift in a row. They look like they’re solely to collect an appearance fee. They look like hostages.
The Spurs succeed because every player is unified in trying to play basketball the “right” way. The Warriors enjoy playing basketball together and revel in how good they are. The Cavaliers have a bunch of professionals (and J.R. Smith) who show up and do their work. The Thunder are driven by Westbrook’s murderous intensity. But the Rockets? The Rockets are angry and disinterested—an unfathomable combination because usually one precludes the other. They seem to hate being at work, so they don’t put in any effort, but they also hate their coworkers, so they get angry at them nonetheless.
This has been a long time coming. The Harden-Howard partnership has never looked as fluid on the court as it did on paper, but last year it led the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals, and the success papered over the cracks. But this year, those cracks blew apart, and the Rockets were a season-long mess. What we’re seeing now is a manifestation of that, and the sooner they get swept and can go about their summers, the better.