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.

The NBA MVP Race, Explained

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Many smart people have invested their time and thoughts into dissecting this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race. Many have come to the conclusion that the award should go to either Thunder guard Russell Westbrook or Rockets guard James Harden, both of whom are having historically great seasons. And yet, several others believe that the award should go to LeBron James; many have felt that way about the MVP race every year because James is the undisputed best player on the planet.

Everyone who has a say in this discussion has at least some form of logic behind their opinion. That’s what has made this debate so great; many intelligent people have come to wildly different conclusions about the same thing. That’s not an indictment of the league; rather, it should be a celebration of just how good the players have been this season, rest or no rest.

Therefore, let’s delve into the different perspectives used to determine who should be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

For starters, there is a large subset of NBA experts who feel that the award should go to the best player in the world right now. Period. No questions asked. The question these people will ask is this: if aliens invaded Earth and we needed to pick our best player to play the aliens’ best player, who would we take? This perspective was made famous by Bill Simmons and Bob Ryan, among others, and it brings up another interesting question: should we give the Most Valuable Player award to the player who had the best season or the best player in the league? If we chose the latter, James would have more than his current four MVP awards. I would argue that LeBron has been the best player in the NBA since 2010, the year Kobe Bryant won his last NBA championship. And yes, that includes LeBron’s seemingly calamitous first year in Miami, in which I would like to humbly remind you that he led the league in win shares, a full 2.5 shares ahead of Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 league MVP.

Another perspective that voters use to choose the winner of the award is to use the definition of the word valuable in a literal sense. The logic these people use is this: if you took Player X over Team Y, how far would Team Y fall? When using this argument, in its simplest form, the candidate that best fits the description of “valuable” is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who became just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season, means more to the Thunder than any other player in the discussion. If Westbrook was taken away from Oklahoma City, it’s fair to speculate that they would be the Brooklyn Nets right now. The Thunder offense would run through Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and the team’s starting point guard would likely be Semaj Christen. Therefore, Westbrook is the dictionary definition of the word “valuable”.

A final argument for choosing an MVP would be to take the best individual season in the league for that particular year. This argument makes the MVP award seem more like the Most Outstanding Player award and it also loosens the definition of valuable. In this case, the argument depends on who you think of as having the best season in the league. That depends equally on statistics and the eye test; it’s also largely subjective. Through that interpretation, you could go with either LeBron, Harden, or Westbrook. It’s entirely up to you.

But who should be the MVP when the dust settles?

First of all, I am going to confine my argument to who I view as the top five players in the league this season. They are:

  1. James Harden (Rockets)
  2. LeBron James (Cavaliers)
  3. Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)
  4. Isaiah Thomas (Celtics)
  5. Russell Westbrook (Thunder)

So, now that we’re clear on that, we can move forward. I don’t see anyone else as having even a legitimate chance at or claim to the award. These are the five players who should have a mathematical chance at winning the trophy this season. Just so you know: players on this list who have sat out games for rest this season (James and Leonard) will not be penalized. They had reasons for sitting out games, it’s not their fault, and it shouldn’t reflect poorly on them.

For starters, the MVP award should go to a player who helps his team at both ends of the floor. That is particularly true this year, with the particularly astounding play of the respective candidates. Out of the five I’ve chosen, Thomas has the worst defensive rating (112) and Box Plus-Minus (-3.4) on the list; both statistics are used to gauge a player’s value defensively, with the former gauging his value per 100 possessions and the latter using a positive/negative scale. Thomas is clearly the worst defensive player out of the five, and while his offensive prowess makes up for his defensive deficiencies in Boston, it doesn’t compensate for his deficit compared to the other four players. IT4, for as great as his season was, is out.

That brings us down to four. Out of the four remaining candidates, three are asked to be the primary ball-handlers and general creators of offense for themselves and their teams. The one player who does not fit this description is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has the lowest assist-per-game (3.5) and rebound-per-game (5.8) figures among the five initial contenders for the award. Part of that is how the Spurs’ culture is built; the organization and scheme are structured so that no player overtly stands out. Coach Gregg Popovich has been quoted as saying that the team looks for players who are “over themselves” and who value the team over their own accolades. While that strategy is a large part of the Spurs’ sustained success, it isn’t conducive to players looking to win MVPs (unless you’re Tim Duncan, who won the award in 2002 and 2003). Leonard falls into that same category: a player who fits perfectly into the Spurs culture. Unfortunately, Popovich’s system doesn’t allow any player, even one as good as Leonard, to have the impact necessary to win the award. This is shown in Leonard’s 31.1% usage rate (a measure of plays run for a certain player while he is on the floor). For as much of a Kawhi Leonard disciple as I am, he’s out.

That whittles this discussion down to the three players I feel are truly deserving of the award. It would be completely fine if any one of Harden, James, or Westbrook took home the trophy; that is a testament to just how good they have all been this season. Honestly, who you think should win between these three likely depends on your interpretation of the award. I’ll go through some criteria that I view as important, particularly in a tight race like this year’s.

Many believe, as do I, that the worst thing one can do with the basketball is turn it over. In this category, Russell Westbrook and James Harden take the biggest hit, as both are averaging well over five turnovers per game. If you take a deeper look, though, you realize that Harden and Westbrook are the primary creators for their respective teams, averaging double-digit assist numbers; in fact, both players assist on more than half of their teams’ baskets when they are on the floor. James’ assist percentage is slightly under 42% for the season, a full 15 points lower than Westbrook’s and eight lower than Harden’s. Also, James only has a slight advantage in assist-to-turnover ratio. These are the figures for each of the three superstars:

  1. LeBron James: 2.128
  2. James Harden: 1.947
  3. Russell Westbrook: 1.929

While LeBron obtains a clear advantage over the other two, it’s hardly disqualifying. Also, I would tend to give Westbrook and Harden a break here; their usage rates of 41.7% and 34.2%, respectively, are appreciably higher than James’ rate of 30.0%. Part of that comparatively low figure is the fact that James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two excellent offensive players at his disposal. However, it’s clear that the Cavaliers require slightly less out of LeBron than the Thunder out of Westbrook or the Rockets out of Harden. So, as much as it pains me to say this, LeBron James, the greatest player in the world, is eliminated from the conversation for Most Valuable Player.

Now, we’re down to just The Beard and The Brodie. Let’s take a step back and first realize that the player I don’t choose to win the award would be an MVP in just about any other season in NBA history. Both had historically great years and should be appreciated for what they’ve done to make an otherwise anticlimactic NBA season interesting. Unfortunately, only one can win my vote for league MVP. Let’s take a closer look.

Westbrook has Harden fully beat in the rebounding category, as he has accumulated 205 more rebounds in 145 fewer minutes of on-court time. Even though Harden is a better shooter than Westbrook, he is shooting only fractionally better from three-point land this season (.347 to .343). Harden does have a better offensive rating, but Westbrook has a slightly better defensive rating. Both are actually having rather similar seasons, the only major difference being that Westbrook averaged 2.6 more rebounds per game than Harden. Harden was also slightly more efficient, as he took roughly five fewer shots per game than Westbrook. I must say, it’s extremely close.

However, this is where things start to turn: Westbrook, for all intents and purposes, smashed the league’s single-season usage rate mark with his performance this season. (The stats from this year aren’t yet official on Basketball-Reference, so it’s still unofficial.) Russ’ aforementioned 41.7% figure is a league-record and three points higher than Kobe Bryant’s 38.7% rate in 2005-06. The way I interpret this is that no other team in the history of the NBA has relied on one player as much as Oklahoma City has on Westbrook. That statistic is something that most people read and pause momentarily to make sure they’re not missing something. But that’s just how reliant the Thunder are on their best player every single night of the year.

And that is why if I had an MVP vote this season, I would use it on Russell Westbrook. When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in free agency, many assumed that the franchise would take a major hit. While the Thunder are clearly not as good as they were last season, they are still solidly in the Playoffs with 47 wins, just eight fewer from last season. And not only did they lose Durant; GM Sam Presti also dealt the team’s third-best player, Serge Ibaka, to the Magic last season for Victor Oladipo. Then again, Orlando’s old GM took a picture of a whiteboard with the team’s free agent targets this summer, so he’s not exactly one you should trust with making good deals (Hint: the picture got into the wrong hands). The Thunder lost two of their three best players from a season ago and only lost eight wins. Not bad at all.

This is the final thing: Westbrook did something this year that was only done once before in NBA history, and that is average a triple-double. Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62; it hasn’t been done since until this season. And while you may balk at Westbrook’s high turnover number, consider this: turnovers weren’t tracked during Robertson’s record-setting year. It’s entirely possible that he turned it over just as often as Westbrook; we’ll never know for sure. Forget the MVP discussion for a second; Russell Westbrook did something this season many of us have never seen before. That is historically awesome and his season is nothing anyone should soon forget.

This is also not meant to denigrate the seasons of anyone else in the MVP discussion. All players mentioned in this article have had excellent seasons and are all worthy of consideration and admiration.

When you consider the breadth of Westbrook’s accomplishments, though, he has the best case for the award. If he wins, he will be the first player to win Most Valuable Player on a sub-50 win team since Moses Malone took home the honors after the 1981-82 season; Malone’s Houston Rockets won 46 games that season. Just like this year’s Thunder, Malone single-handedly elevated his supporting cast, which consisted of an aging Elvin Hayes, a number of role players, and a future NBA coach (Mike Dunleavy). Westbrook did the same for this year’s Thunder squad, and his supporting cast may have been even worse than Malone’s.

While we can look at the numbers all we want, debate history, and, frankly, split some hairs along the way, it comes down to this: Russell Westbrook had one of the best seasons ever, one worthy of getting him to the Hall of Fame all on its own. While the others were also historically good, Westbrook had the most outstanding season of all and carried his team to places they would have never been able to dream of otherwise.

If you are reading this and you have an MVP vote: don’t take it lightly. My decision was not made without serious research and deep thought, and yours shouldn’t be, either. Ultimately, you must put the time in to make the decision you feel is best. What I’m saying is this: vote your conscience. Make your own decision.

And I’ll throw in my decision: I’m voting for Russell Westbrook.

**All statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted**

Is James Harden Really This Good?

Photo Credit: Soobum Im/USA Today Sports

Photo Credit: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

If you don’t think James Harden is one of the best players in basketball, think again. And think quickly.

Harden is having one of the great beginnings to a season in the history of the sport. Through just eight games, the beard is averaging over thirty points, thirteen assists, and seven rebounds per game. Granted, we’re only eight games into the season, but still, Harden is on pace to average numbers that have only been reached by Oscar Robertson. And usually, we would say “player X and others” in this situation, but there are no others here. Harden is in a league of his own, doing things many of us have never seen before.

But, as is often the question with hot starts in sports, will Harden be able to keep this up over the course of a full season?

First, if we are asking whether or not Harden can keep up this performance and these exact numbers, the answer is probably no; actually, that probably is likely closer to definitely. There is a reason Robertson is the only player in league history to average a double-double over the course of a full season. Additionally, Robertson averaged 45 minutes per game in the 1963-64 season for the Cincinnati Royals, one of the seasons in which he averaged a double-double. Harden has been held under 38 minutes per game so far this year, and don’t expect that number to increase that much, either; Harden’s career high in minutes per game is 38.3 in 2012-13.

Besides minutes, though, it’s going to be very difficult for Harden to do this simply because of the laws of averages. He’s going to hit a rough stretch at some point this season and that’s coming sooner rather than later. Also, look to see how defenses adapt to Harden and if they try to get the ball out of his hands. That strategy would theoretically drive down his numbers and force his teammates to account for more offense.

But let’s just think about this for a second: I compared James Harden to Oscar Robertson. Is that something you ever thought you would hear? Granted, don’t be surprised to see a dropoff come soon for the Rockets star. But still, we’re talking about James Harden and Oscar Robertson in the same sentence, people! We need to wake up and realize that we’re seeing something that hasn’t been done in many years. It doesn’t matter if that’s in 80 games or eight; it’s spectacular nonetheless.

And now, let’s think hypothetically: what would need to happen for Harden to continue at this torrid clip? What would the Rockets need to do to give him the help he needs to continue his success?

For starters, Harden’s role will have to remain unchanged in D’Antoni’s offense. Last year’s starting point guard, Patrick Beverley, has missed the beginning of the season after undergoing knee surgery in October; however, he could be returning to practice next week and hopes to come back to the active roster by November 25. Harden has currently been acting as the Rockets’ starting point guard, but will that continue when Beverley returns? It remains to be seen, but the hopes of an unprecedented statistical season may take a hit upon Beverley’s return and Harden’s hypothetical shift back to shooting guard, his original position.

At the same time, a common misconception of Harden’s tear is that his numbers have been artificially inflated by D’Antoni’s high-octane offense. While D’Antoni has been tremendously helpful in Harden’s development, his offense hasn’t actually worked at an overly quick pace. Houston ranks 16th in the NBA in possessions per game (96.9), a far cry from when D’Antoni consistently engineered the Suns’ offense to near the top of the league in pace. D’Antoni’s Pheonix offense operated so quickly that it earned the nickname “Seven Seconds or :ess”.

Interestingly enough, this year’s Houston offense has actually had a faster pace than the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, but it’s not like Harden couldn’t do this on other, similarly talented teams.

Harden’s move to point guard has paid dividends not only for him but also for the Houston offense. Their offensive rating ranks fourth in the NBA and is up roughly three points from a season ago. The rest of the offense has been simplified, as well. More often than not, Harden facilitates and gets fellow starter Trevor Ariza and new acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon involved. Also (and this cannot be understated), new starting center Clint Capela has boosted the offense with his energy and unselfishness; meaning, he doesn’t need the ball with his back to the basket to succeed (looking at you, Dwight Howard). Losing Howard was somewhat of a blow for the Rockets, but replacing him with Capela has:

  1. Helped Harden and others assume bigger roles in the offense and
  2. Indirectly made the offense much more efficient

Even if Harden does not sustain these numbers, he should still have success in the new-look Rockets offense. D’Antoni’s offensive scheme has always been very point guard-friendly (Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin) and that trend has continued with Harden. D’Antoni moved Harden to point guard before this season, which solved one of the team’s main weaknesses from last season. While it remains to be seen whether or not he will stay as the team’s main facilitator, his beginning of the season has been incredible.

Yes, he may not be able to continue what he has done over the first eight games of the season. But what James Harden has accomplished to start his campaign should not be overlooked, as it may be a harbinger for both individual and team success in the future.

James Harden is the NBA MVP, and Here’s Why

As the NBA season concludes, we are left to the all-important debate of who will win the NBA MVP award.  Four contenders have emerged: Stephen Curry (PG, Warriors), LeBron James (SF, Cavaliers), Russell Westbrook (PG, Thunder), and, in my opinion, the real MVP, Rockets’ SG James Harden.  There are many reasons to choose one of the other players on this list; for example, choose Curry for his electrifying display of shooting, passing and circus shots; choose James for how his team has played since he returned from myriad injuries in mid-January; or, you could choose Westbrook for his practically putting the entire OKC team on his back due to injuries to stars Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.  But Harden is the best choice here.

Harden leads the league in points per game at 27.6.  Part of this is that Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game; this shows his aggression and ingenuity in crafting offense for his team.  Before you go ahead and make the assumption that Harden is a selfish player, the Beard is also 9th in the league in assists per game at 6.9.  Also, the supporting cast of Harden is not nearly as good as Curry’s: 3 of Curry’s four teammates in the starting lineup are having the best years of their careers, and Curry comprises only half of the league’s best backcourt, alongside Klay Thompson.  Harden’s supporting cast? Jason Terry, filling in for injured defensive presence Patrick Beverley at the point, Trevor Ariza, who has been forced to emerge as a “second option” to Harden in the offense; Trevor is much better defensively.  One of the players the Rockets depended on going into the season was Dwight Howard, but he has missed around half of the Rockets’ games this year with back injuries.  And at power forward the Rockets use both Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith, who have both stepped up this year, but largely because of the attention opposing defenses have paid to Harden.  However, Motiejunas is out for the season with a back injury.

This article is not meant to state that the Rockets will definitely win in the playoffs or that Harden will step up in those games.  Out of the teams mentioned (GS, HOU, OKC, CLE) the Cavs are best suited for playoff success in my opinion.  But Harden has displayed the best individual performance throughout this season, and I think he should be the league MVP.