Heading into a matchup with the Pacers who are a somewhat respectable 12-9 early in the season, the Rockets stand at 16-4, the best record in the Western Conference and, arguably, the best team in the NBA. With all due respect to Boston and their impressive 18-4, only two of those wins have come against against the powers in the West...and they haven't faced the Rockets yet.
At the moment, there is little doubt that James Harden is the MVP. He leads the league in points and assists and his team is as good as they are despite running mate Chris Paul only playing in six games thus far. In short, this team is really, really good despite meaningful basketball not normally being played until after the calendar flips.
Once it does and assuming the Rockets remain among the best in the league, this would be a good time to assess the threat level of their conference rivals. As usual, the West is loaded with talent, but there are a handful of teams that represent the greatest challenge for the Rockets going forward. And since we are close to the holidays, let's rank them Die Hard style. That movie had one of the most clever and terrifying villains of all time, so we rank the Western Conference foes on a scale of 1 to 5 Hans Grubers.
As promising as the Utah Jazz were last season, injuries and the loss of forward Gordon Hayward (who is out for the season for Boston after a nasty injury in the first game of the year) have been tough on this team. But with the formidable defensive presence of Rudy Gobert, they continue to play well. Thus, while not a substantial threat, they still rate 1.5 out of a possible 5 Hans Grubers.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Analysts were quick to anoint the Thunder an early season title contender after they acquired not only Paul George but Carmelo Anthony, much to the shock of Rockets fans. But, OKC continued to have flaws as a team despite the remarkable firepower from their big three. They remain a bad three-point shooting team and Russell Westbrook, Paul and Anthony are three of the historically worst late-game players in the league. Still, you can't count out that level of talent. Don't be surprised if the Thunder eventually make more noise than Rockets fans would like.
A team that has flown under the radar a bit, the Nuggets have a lot of the pieces necessary to challenge the best in the West. They are missing offseason signing Paul Milsap to an injury but Nikola Jokic is no joke(ic) in the middle and they have a skilled roster with an up tempo offense. They may still be a player or two away from real contention, but it doesn't mean they won't be "a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench" come playoff time.
The NBA is filled with great backcourts including the one that plays at Toyota Center, but perhaps the most dynamic is in Portland. Rockets fans well remember the Daimian Lillard three with .5 seconds left on the clock that bounced the Rockets from the playoffs a few seasons back. They have done better than expected already and Lillard and C.J. McCollum are like the Karl and Tony Vreski of the northwest. They will present a difficult challenge for anyone who faces them as the season goes on.
Another fashionable pick, the T-Wolves have not come flying out of the gate as some had expected, but they are absolutely jam packed with talent. Whether or not that and Coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive approach will translate into success in the long term is still a question, but no one questions the depth of their roster. Whether or not they get deep into the playoffs this year, they are poised to be a tough match up for seasons to come.
San Antonio Spurs
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It's remarkable that the Spurs remain one of the teams to beat in the Western Conference. Like John McClane, they are a tenacious nuisance. This year is no different. They didn't add any big pieces in the offseason, but they retained their talent and with Gregg Pop0vich still at the helm, there is no reason to think they won't be one of the best teams in the NBA come playoff time.
Golden State Warriors
The defending world champs are as dangerous as ever. They remain an offensive juggernaut and one of the better defensive teams as well. Their big four of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are as good as any group of players in the league. They are not to be taken lightly and, to many, the primary impediment to a berth in the championship series for the Rockets.