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.

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.