Houston Rockets Have Been NBA’s Most Pleasant Surprise
For as wonderful as the NBA is, no American professional sports league is easier to predict. More often than not, we know which teams will be great and which teams will be trash.
For the most part, this year is largely the same. The Warriors, Spurs and Clippers are the top three teams in the West, while the Cavaliers and Raptors are head-and-shoulders above the pack in the East. As expected.
However, no team has been more of a pleasant surprise than the Houston Rockets.
This Team Was Miserable A Season Ago
Nobody really knew what to expect from the Rockets this year. They were the NBA’s biggest disappointment a season ago, as they barely squeaked into the playoffs after rallying all the way to the Western Conference Finals the season prior.
They were a team ruined by locker room turmoil, and the front office decided to pull the plug on head coach Kevin McHale just 11 games in. Some figured that would help light a fire under an underperforming team, but the spark never came.
They glumly and painfully waltzed their way to a 41-41 regular season record followed by a quick postseason death at the hands of Golden State in the first round.
Most notably, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff was replaced by Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni helped usher in the current pace-and-space style of play during his great tenure in charge of the Suns in the middle of the last decade, but his reputation had sullied in recent years.
Tumultuous stops in New York with the Lakers didn’t bring the results either of those franchises had been hoping for, and some wondered if he had lost the touch that made him a hot commodity during his Phoenix days.
The Rockets also fired Dwight Howard into the sun and used the money available to pick up veterans Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Nene in free agency. Those are three respected players, but none of them really moved the needle for many people.
Houston had tinkered with some things, but plenty of the nucleus from last season remained. That team was particularly abysmal on the defensive end. D’Antoni has made no secret of his desire to push the tempo and score as much as possible in lieu of buckling down defensively, so there was plenty of reason to believe this Rockets team was going to continue to struggle on that side of the floor.
Just prior to the onset of the regular season, though, D’Antoni announced a move that in hindsight is looking incredibly wise. Point guard Patrick Beverley was nursing a knee problem throughout training camp that was expected to linger into the season. D’Antoni decided to shift James Harden into a more on-ball role and start as the team’s point guard.
So Far, So Good
So far, it’s been a resounding success. Harden looked like a natural in the position, and currently leads the league in averaging 11.7 assists per game. A new distributor role hasn’t hindered his scoring, either, as he’s fourth in the Association, averaging better than 28 points a night.
More importantly, the Rockets are winning games at a staggering rate. They’ve racked up eight straight victories after Wednesday night’s win over Sacramento. That is the longest ongoing streak in the league, and they’ve jumped out to an impressive 19-7 record overall. Through 26 games last year, this club was just 12-14.
On the heels of that brutal 2015-16 campaign, hardly anybody knew what to make of the team coming into this season. Some predicted they’d win 50 games, while others picked them to miss out on the postseason altogether.
Harden is the crux of the entire operation. He has always been a talented passer, but for whatever reason the Rockets had never thought to use him in a ball-dominant role. He’s a capable enough shooter to be effective spotting up, but his true offensive gifts can shine now that he’s running the point.
Defenses have to pay so much attention to him that the Rockets’ complementary pieces see a ton of wide open looks on a nightly basis. Beverley, Anderson, Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Sam Dekker are all connecting on 38 percent or better on their three-point tries. They are all fine shooters, but those numbers are helped thanks to so many of the looks being clean. For the most part, Harden is the reason for that.
Houston has adopted the “Moreyball” playing style in recent years that puts emphasis on three-pointers and layups while taking as few midrange shots as possible. Threes and layups are more efficient looks, but the Rockets haven’t really had the roster to play that style effectively until this season.
They would take the most three-pointers of any team in the league, but few guys on the roster were capable of knocking them down with any sort of regularity.
Now, though, with established marksmen like Anderson and Gordon surrounding Harden, the Rockets finally have the bombers they’ve always sought. Houston hit about 34 percent of their threes last season, which was just 19th in the league. This year, though, they’re up to sixth at nearly 38 percent.
The Rockets are churning out over 111 points per 100 possessions, with is the third-best mark in the NBA.
Their defense hasn’t been on the same level, but it also has not been the brutal dumpster fire many predicted. Many thought they would be bottom-five in the league with their current personnel playing D’Antoni’s up-tempo style, but they’re up to 17th following Wednesday’s game.
17th is not “good” per se, but it is strong enough to make them a viable opponent, especially with the barn burning offense leading the way. Outscoring your opponent is obviously the name of the game here, and the Rockets built themselves a team certainly capable of doing that on a nightly basis.
In addition to the names already mentioned, the Rockets are getting quality contributions from role players.
Patrick Beverley missed the first few weeks of the season with the aforementioned knee problem, but once he returned to the lineup Houston really took off. They have come out victorious in 13 of the 15 games he’s played so far, including each of the last eight.
He’s shown to be plenty capable of being an effective off-ball shooter and secondary distributor while also giving the team a much-needed edge on the other end.
Young center Clint Capela was tasked with filling the huge shoes vacated by Howard. So far, he’s looked like everything the Rockets were hoping Howard to be. Capela does not command the ball on the block, but instead is happy to set screens for Harden and go rumbling to the bucket. Those two have already built a beautiful rapport in the pick-and-roll. Capela is also hitting the glass and protecting the paint effectively.
Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker, last year’s draft picks, hardly featured much at all that season. They have each earned solid roles off the bench under D’Antoni, though, and they both look like viable rotation options.
Harrell brings boatloads of energy off the bench, while Dekker has surprisingly looked capable of handling both threes and fours pretty well defensively. He has also shown a well-rounded offensive game.
It’s also not like Houston is just preying on the dregs of the league. They have already notched wins on the road against the mighty Warriors and Spurs, which is something no team in basketball was able to accomplish all of last year. The Rockets also boast impressive wins over Oklahoma City, Utah, New York and Boston.
The question for this team will be how far they can really go. The so-so defense may catch up with them in the long run, particularly during a grind-it-out playoff series against teams like Golden State, San Antonio, the L.A. Clippers or Memphis.
Still, as long as they maintain relatively good health, the Rockets figure to be a team no other club will want to see in a postseason series.
Daryl Morey has finally built the team he’s always wanted, and they appear to be a scary and legitimate threat to the Warriors in the West.