Just How Far Can the Houston Rockets Go?

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.

Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.

Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net Net Net Net
Lineup MP FG% 3P% eFG% PTS
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | C. Paul | P. Tucker 17:18 -.059 -.071 -.012 +12.1
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | C. Capela | E. Gordon | C. Paul 16:43 +.208 +.292 +.279 +29.9
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul 13:44 +.167 +.389 +.326 +49.8
R. Anderson | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul | P. Tucker 13:26 -.035 +.063 +.019 +16.1
E. Gordon | N. Hilario | L. Mbah a Moute | C. Paul | P. Tucker 12:51 +.257 +.083 +.300 +59.4
Player Average 471:37 +.044 +.071 +.094 +18.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/21/2017.

Holy hell, Batman.

In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.

All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.

Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?

For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.

Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.

There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.

I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.

But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

Capital Loss: Washington Blows Its Last, Best Chance at a Stanley Cup

Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today

These weren’t the same old Capitals, they said.  This year would be different, they said.  Have faith in Washington, they said.  This team and these players would finish the deal, they said.  The Capitals would win a Stanley Cup, they said.

And yet, here we are, in the same position we were in years past, questioning what went wrong in Washington and what can be changed for the future.  And yet, maybe the Capitals have passed the point of no return, blowing their best chance to date at finally getting over the hump.

This year, the Capitals had the best season in hockey, amassing 120 points and 56 wins en route to the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.  For a time, they even flirted with NHL records in points (132) and wins in a 70+ game season (62).  The points record is held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens; the wins record resides in Detroit with the 1995-96 Red Wings.  The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1977 while the Red Wings lost to the Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference Final.  The 2015-16 Washington Capitals wouldn’t even get that far.

In hindsight, the first harbinger of trouble in the Caps’ truncated playoff run was their first-round series against the Flyers. Washington jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the series before dropping games 4 and 5.  The game 5 loss stands out in particular because the Capitals outshot the Flyers 44-11… and lost 2-0.  The team would take game 6, but the damage had been done.  The league’s best team was proven vulnerable.

After advancing over Philly, the Capitals would face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round.  The series was competitive and riveting; five of the six games were decided by one goal and three of six games went to overtime.  The first game was one of those overtime tilts, and the Capitals won it on this T.J. Oshie goal that almost didn’t make it across the goal line:

Game 2 also went down to the wire, with Eric Fehr’s goal at 15:32 of the 3rd period giving the Penguins a 2-1 victory.  A 3-2 win in Game 3 put the Penguins up 2-1, and Pittsburgh would take a 3-1 series lead on the strength of this overtime goal from Patric Hornqvist at the end of Game 4:

Game 5 saw the series return to the Nation’s Capital and the Capitals win 3-1 to force a Game 6.  In that game, Pittsburgh would pull out to a 3-0 lead and hold a 3-1 advantage going into the third period.  At this point, Capitals fans must have been simultaneously thinking the same thing: “Here we go again.”  However, this team was supposed to be different, the squad to avenge the losses of the Capitals’ past.

And while they couldn’t avenge those past losses just yet, the Capitals were able to avenge their bad start and tie the game at three with goals from Justin Williams and John Carlson.  This one would also go to an extra period; would the outcome be different for this year’s Capitals?

We got our answer at 6:32 of the first overtime period. Nick Bonino scored this game-winner on assists from Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel to win the series for the Penguins and send the Capitals golfing:

Here’s the question, though: what happened?  Why didn’t things change from prior years?

First of all, the Capitals didn’t choke.  I say that mainly because I absolutely hate the use of the word in sports.  The amount of proverbial or actual “choking” that goes on in sports is much less than you would think, especially if you only get your news from those who refuse to look at the facts.  That being said, the Capitals’ failure does represent a rather enormous missed opportunity, one that may haunt the organization for years to come.

This is why: Alex Ovechkin isn’t getting any younger.  At 30, he’s the best player in the game of hockey, but he’s also coming into the twilight of his prime.  Wayne Gretzky’s play began to decline around the age of 31; that isn’t meant to compare Ovie to the Great One, but it does show the mortality of NHL players, especially as the physicality and energy of the game takes a toll on their aging bodies.

Another reason why this is such a big disappointment is that the team is built to win in the postseason.  Yes, Ovechkin is the best player in the game, but goaltender Braden Holtby might be the best netminder in hockey right now.  Holtby is a nominee for the Vezina Trophy, annually given to the best goaltender in the NHL.  One of the major keys to victory in the playoffs is having a solid, consistent presence in net, and the Caps have one of the best goalies you could ask for.

And while he gave up four goals in the team’s final defeat of the season, Washington’s elimination can hardly be blamed on him.  By Goals Against Average, total saves, and save percentage, Holtby was the best goalie in the playoffs.  While other netminders had better and more efficient statistics, they didn’t have to deal with an unceasing barrage of shots in their general direction; Holtby did.  Even though he didn’t get the results to match his play, he is hardly the reason the Capitals are going home so early.

Are the Capitals cursed?  It’s difficult to say; they definitely are far from lucky.  The comparisons between them and the Clippers and, more specifically, Alex Ovechkin and Chris Paul, are stunning. Neither player has made the Conference Finals of his sport, and neither star is at fault for his team’s repeated misfortune.

That being said, the Capitals must recover quickly from this defeat. They’ve gone down time and time again early in the playoffs, so coming back from bitter defeat at the end of seasons is nothing new for them.

However, it may be too late for the current version of the Capitals to seize the sport’s ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup.

Chris Paul, Meet Alex Ovechkin?

The Clippers ended their glorious and horrendous self-destruction yesterday with a lifeless performance in game 7 against the Houston Rockets.  The Clippers were up 3-1 in the series but lost the last three (two on the road) to lose the series.  They had won game 1 in Houston and games 3 and 4 at home; they looked as if they were unbeatable and also had a real possibility of a conference final appearance or even an NBA title.  Most sad about these happenings, however, is that star PG Chris Paul failed to reach the conference finals for another year, as he has for the rest of his career.

Another player in another major sport had his team in his conference semifinals.  After a 7-game series in the first round (just like the Clippers had vs. the Spurs), his team won game 1 on the road and lost game 2.  They went back home for two games, winning both.  While this team and player did not look as unbeatable as the Clippers did after their game 4, they still looked as if they would win the series with ease.  Of course, the next three games happened, and the team lost in 7 games.  The other team I was just talking about was the Washington Capitals.  Their star player is Alex Ovechkin.

So, are CP3 and Ovie one in the same?  Well, not quite.  Statistically, Ovechkin’s numbers in the regular season are generally higher than those in the postseason.  For his career, he scores 0.63 goals per game in the regular season, but in the postseason, that number drops to 0.5 goals per game.  He averages 0.47 assists per game in the playoffs, but in the regular season he averages 0.55 assists per game.  Points per game suffer the most precipitous decline however, as his numbers in that category from the regular season to the playoffs go from 1.18 per game to 0.97 per game.  Is this all his fault?  Probably not.  Hockey is generally a more random game than basketball, more dependent on bounces of a puck and players that are on the ice at any particular time.  However, the numbers don’t lie; he’s not as good a postseason player as he is a regular season player.

Now we move on to CP3.  He was drafted the same year as Ovie (2006) and has played in the same number of second seasons as Ovechkin (seven).  However, his numbers actually increase across the board come playoff time.  His points per game are up about two from the regular season to the post, from 18.7 to 20.9.  His assists per game are somewhat down, from 9.9 to 9.5, but in the playoffs, rotations get shorter and star players need to do more offensively for their teams.  His regular season field goal % is 47%; his playoff field goal % is 48%.  He also shoots better from 3-point range in the playoffs, hovering around the 38-39% range.  All of these numbers have been accrued in about two more minutes per game, which is an advantage Ovechkin doesn’t have.  However, it’s clear: Paul is not a playoff choker, by any means.  If anything, he’s actually better in the playoffs.

What I’m trying to say is that there is much more at play here than just the performances of Chris Paul and Alex Ovechkin.  Their teammates and organizations have not exactly helped them out in terms of personnel moves and big performances.  However, one thing is clear: there’s a lot here.

They are much more similar than you would think.

The Clippers are done for this year, and everyone is now looking to Chris Paul for the answers.
The Clippers are done for this year, and everyone is now looking to Chris Paul for the answers.