HOUSTON -- Just before the season opener tipped off, James Harden joined Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta in the middle of the Toyota Center court for what was billed as an MVP presentation. Harden's trophy was there, but after a video celebrating his MVP campaign played, Fertitta focused his intense energy on spinning things forward.
Microphone in hand, Fertitta hyped up Houston's hopes to claim a championship trophy -- an accomplishment he has said the Rockets were "a hamstring away" from last season, referring to the injury that sidelined Chris Paul for the last two games of the Western Conference finals after Houston took a 3-2 series lead against the champion Golden State Warriors.
"We're a better team this year!" Fertitta yelled to the crowd, a bold rally cry that ran contrary to conventional wisdom: The Rockets actually took a significant step backward during the offseason.
A few hours later, the Rockets were run off their own floor by the New Orleans Pelicans, suffering a loss more lopsided than any Houston had during the 2017-18 regular season, when the Rockets racked up an NBA-best 65 wins with a historically elite offense and drastically improved defense.
"He doesn't fit anything they do. He can't defend and he loves taking midrange jumpers. That was a step in the wrong direction." Western Conference scout on Carmelo Anthony's fit in Houston
Almost a month into this season, the Rockets have rarely resembled the team that emerged as the lone legitimate challenger to the dynastic Warriors. The Rockets have been bad defensively and stunningly worse offensively en route to a 6-7 record. The gap between Houston and Golden State -- which Rockets general manager Daryl Morey admits to obsessing over and successfully closed two summers ago -- now seems as wide as the Gulf of Mexico.
"A lot of this is on me right now," Morey said Sunday during a hastily called pregame news conference to address rumors that Carmelo Anthony, by far Houston's most high-profile offseason addition, had already played his last game with the Rockets.
Despite Morey's denials that day -- and the Rockets officially claiming that Anthony had missed the past three games and counting because of an "illness" -- the Rockets are done with the 10-time All-Star after a run that lasted all of 10 games.
Signing Anthony to a one-year, veteran's minimum deal was a low-risk move for the Rockets, but that it failed so quickly isn't necessarily a huge surprise.
"On its face, that move made no sense for the Rockets," a Western Conference scout told ESPN a couple of days before Anthony's, ahem, illness hit. "He doesn't fit anything they do. He can't defend and he loves taking midrange jumpers.
"That was a step in the wrong direction."
Anthony clearly wasn't going to be part of the solution, as evidenced by the Rockets' net rating now being 12.1 points per 100 possessions better without him than when he plays. Coach Mike D'Antoni decided he'd rather play Gary Clark than Anthony, and the Rockets didn't want to disrespect a future Hall of Famer by having him rot on the bench behind a rookie on a two-way deal, causing potential distractions due to what one staffer calls "his big shadow."
Yet it isn't right to make Anthony, a consummate pro during his short stint in Houston, the scapegoat for the Rockets' rough start -- he has hardly been the biggest of Houston's problems. Those begin at the top of the Houston's payroll, and, as the Rockets firmly believe, so do the solutions.
The decision to pay Paul this summer was a simple one for the Rockets. Paul's four-year, $160 million maximum deal was the plan all along, a no-brainer after his arrival in a trade he pushed for the previous offseason vaulted the Rockets into the stratosphere of true title contenders.
Keeping Clint Capela, the springy young center who so perfectly complements their pair of future Hall of Fame players, was a must as well. After all, the Rockets went 42-3 -- 53-7 including playoffs -- when Capela, Harden and Paul all played last season. There was no way the Rockets were going to reverse course after coming so close to dethroning the Warriors.
Still, Paul's contract is one heck of a hefty price to pay, and Capela's (five-year, $80 million plus incentives), though a relative bargain, pushed Houston into the luxury tax and severely limited how Morey could fill out the roster. Before the ink was dry on Paul's deal, Houston knew that at least the final year -- Paul can opt in to earn $44.2 million at age 36 -- probably won't provide good value.
But you don't breathe such rare air and let the window close right away. A chance to win a championship over the next two or three years was worth it.
For that to happen, Houston needs Paul to play like the superstar he's being paid to be, the all-time great point guard he has been the previous 13 seasons of his career. He readily acknowledges that he has performed far short of those standards so far this season, one of the primary reasons for the Rockets' disappointing record.
"That's a lot to do with it," Paul told ESPN. "I look at myself first in this situation. I know I've got to play better, and that'll help us play better."
He's certainly not alone. Harden missed three games because of a hamstring strain, and through 10 games played has posted a field goal percentage (42.0) and true shooting percentage (58.7) that would be his worst since joining the Rockets. Capela's box-score numbers (16.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game) are up from last season, but he hasn't been the potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate he looked like during the playoffs, with scouts saying they haven't seen the same energy he consistently displayed on that end last spring.
"Clint, James and Chris either all either were suspended, hurt or started slow," Morey said before last week's rout by the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets' third loss already this season when their star trio started.
In Paul's case, all three apply. He seemed out of sync after returning from his two-game suspension after the spit-spat with Rajon Rondo. Then his shooting elbow got sore, as he has battled what he recently acknowledged to ESPN is a case of tendinitis, a factor in his career-worst field goal percentage (41.9).
"I mean, it is what it is, but this is a game where you shoot -- know what I mean?" Paul said. "So I'm trying to manage as well as I can, because it's either that or sit out. Sitting out ain't really an option for me. It might be selfish or whatnot, but I feel like I can still help the team with what I've got going on."
Some rival scouts and executives have whispered that Paul, 33, looks as if he has lost a little bit of juice. "He seems a little step slow," one scout said, which would be a huge issue for a Houston offense that depends heavily on Harden and Paul dominating off the dribble. But Paul points out that he hasn't had a problem creating shots, just making them.
And that has changed over the past couple of games, as Paul had 20-plus-point performances in consecutive outings for the first time this season, shooting 15-of-25 from the field and 8-of-15 from 3-point range. And Harden played at an MVP level in those two games, averaging 31 points and 10 assists.
"You've got to give them their due and their space. I trust them totally. They'll be back."Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, on guards Chris Paul and James Harden
"They're definitely the engine that makes everything go," D'Antoni said of Paul and Harden before Tuesday's win in Denver. "If they don't go, we're going to struggle, but we haven't struggled in two years that much. I'm hoping [the rough start is] just a blip.
"I don't think we have to worry about them. You worry about the record and all that, but you don't worry about them. They're going to play at the level that they have the last 10 years."
The Rockets' offensive rating has plummeted from historically elite in 2017-18 (114.0 points per 100 possessions) to bottom 10 so far this season (105.9). The Rockets aren't overreacting, confident that they're generating quality shots like last season and will start making them at a similar rate. Sixth man Eric Gordon (32.3 field goal percentage, 23.5 3-point percentage) has been in an even worse funk than Houston's stars.
D'Antoni reached for the panic button regarding the Rockets' defense after a disastrous five-game start, declaring that Houston would have to ditch their switch-everything scheme due to personnel before cooling off and reconsidering, but he's not about to make drastic offensive changes.
"One of the things as a coach is you have to distinguish what is white noise and what are really problems," said D'Antoni, who amused advance scouts by not calling a single play from the sideline in a recent game, proof of his trust in Harden and Paul.
"Probably, I would say 90 percent of the time it's best not to do anything. I can try to act like I know what I'm doing now, but I've told Chris and James a million times, like I'm going to coach them? I'm not going to coach them. They do things I can't even imagine to do and never even seen anybody else do.
"You've got to give them their due and their space. I trust them totally. They'll be back."
They bolted for bigger money in free agency, as the Rockets were thrifty aside from re-signing Paul and Capela, using only minimum salaries to fill out the roster. Fertitta insisted over the summer that the luxury tax didn't influence the Rockets' roster decisions, but good luck finding rival executives who buy that.
At least two of the minimum-level signings brought in to replace Ariza and Mbah a Moute look like busts. We need say no more about the Melo mistake, but Michael Carter-Williams played his way right out of the rotation, as the Rockets have been outscored by 45 points in the 97 minutes he has been on the floor.
Houston hoped James Ennis III could be a high-energy, low-price replacement for Ariza, and the jury is still out on that, as a strained hamstring stunted the process of Ennis developing chemistry with the Rockets' returning starters.
"I don't think they're all on the same page," a West scout said last week. "I think that'll come. I think they'll get it.
"It's still a long season, still remains to be seen. They'll figure it out and be fine."
It definitely didn't feel fine five games in, when it seemed as if the Rockets' defense was doomed. Fertitta was alarmed enough to personally recruit defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, who retired just before training camp, to return, offering what sources say was a significant raise that pushed his salary to a range that ranks among the NBA's highest-paid assistant coaches.
Bzdelik, who cited private matters he doesn't wish to discuss as the reason he left in the first place, won't be back with the Rockets on a full-time basis until the day after Thanksgiving. But the Rockets haven't exactly needed him to rebuild the defense, which has given up 105.6 points per 100 possessions over the past eight games, exactly what they gave up when they ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive rating last season.
Some around the organization believe the Rockets entered the season still suffering from sort of a hangover. They appeared to lack the focus and fire they had last season. "We didn't win," Paul said, "so we can't have a hangover."
No, the Rockets didn't win, but the disappointment of coming so close can linger.
"Honestly, it's been kind of hard to get back into our rhythm," Capela said. "First of all, when everybody was healthy, it was hard to get our rhythm back. Then we had a suspension that didn't help, some injuries that didn't help. It took us a lot of time to figure it out. We just have to get back to that grind and enjoy it."
As the Rockets lost seven of their first 11 games, there was a lot of talk within the team about needing to regain their swagger. They headed home for Thursday's game against Golden State feeling as good about themselves as they have since things went south quickly in the season opener.
Almost a month into the season, they're finally starting to resemble the Rockets that had legitimate championship chances last season.
"It's getting there," Harden said. "It's going to take time, but it's getting there. If we keep guarding and defending at a high level like we're doing, our offense is going to come around. Once we put both together, it's going to be pretty scary."
Frightening enough to fulfill Fertitta's expectations? That's a pretty high bar, but anything less with be an expensive letdown in Houston.