If someone had told you that after the first two weeks of the season the Rockets would be missing Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones to injury and Dwight Howard to the flu, you would probably think this would be a miserable start to a season that began with one of them more disappointing offseasons in franchise history. This is, as they say, why you play the games.
Despite losing to the Golden State Warriors Saturday in a surprisingly close game, considering all the Rockets players in street clothes, the team is 5-1 and looking remarkably good in those wins, notching double-digit victories in all of them and holding every team under 100, while eclipsing the century mark in the first four games. It is difficult to imagine a better start for a team that many left for dead -- or at least fading -- after they were unable to land Chris Bosh and lost Chandler Parsons to free agency plus Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to trades.
Thus far this year, they have started a second year player who spent most of his time in the D-League last year, a backup power forward and a guy who spent the last few years playing in Greece. They've relied on a veteran journeyman shooter and an un-drafted rookie in the rotation. Yet, there they are and there are good reasons why.
Just take a look at the numbers. They rank in the top 10 in the NBA in points allowed (2nd), opponent field goal percentage (2nd), opponent three point percentage (2nd), opponent rebounding (5th) and opponent turnovers (9th). Last season, they were in the top 10 in only two of those categories -- opponent rebounding (9th) and opponent three point percentage (10th) -- but just barely. The coaches and players made a point to say they were going to place a greater emphasis on defense this season, but they said the same thing last year. What changed?
For one, they are a bit older. Terrence Jones, who is a talent offensive player, could be a mess on the other end of the floor. We all know the video evidence of how lazy James Harden could be on D. And while Chandler Parsons wasn't exactly a sieve, he was often below average on the perimeter. The most notable change -- besides swapping Parsons for the more defensive-minded Trevor Ariza -- is hustle. To a man, players said that losing to Portland was a wake-up call for them. The focus they lost in the final .9 seconds of that series was indicative of a much larger issue: they got lazy too often.
It is tough to know if they can keep up this level of defensive intensity through the grind of an 82-game season, but if the first two weeks are any indication, this is a completely different team on that end of the floor.
The Rockets rank 5th in three point percentage compared to 16th last season. They have four rotation players shooting better than 40 percent beyond the arc and that doesn't count Harden, who is off to a slow start from downtown, but is a reliable clutch shooter from three. Last season, they had two guys that shot over 40 percent and one was Troy Daniels, who only got time in the last week of the season.
In addition to poor defense, another downfall of last year's team was the lack of perimeter shooting. They were often just awful in that regard. Adding Ariza, who had a career year in Washington last season, Jason Terry, who appears to have resurrected his three point accuracy after a couple injury plagued years and young backup point guard Isaiah Canaan has clearly had an impact. Patrick Beverley was said to have worked hard on his shooting from distance in the offseason and his shot does appear to be improved though with only a small sample size.
Like defense, there is no way of knowing how long this can last, but this is clearly a better shooting team than last season, playing right into GM Daryl Morey's philosophy of three point shots and dunks on offense.
Chemistry in sports is such a delicate business. What sounds great on paper can sometimes blow up on the floor. For the Rockets, it would seem they are substantively worse talent-wise than last year. Ariza for Parsons is about even. Canaan is unproven and however inconsistent Jeremy Lin might have been, he was a known commodity. They certainly have no one on the roster that can compare defensively to backup center Omer Asik. Yet, they look more fluid on offense and have more hustle on the defensive end. This is especially interesting considering all the talk last year about how they loved hanging out together and texting each other -- all things that centered around Parsons.
There is no question their apparent lack of depth will be tested as the season continues. Can Kostas Papanikolaou provide enough offense off the bench, particularly as he struggles to adjust to the NBA three-point line? Will Canaan become a capable backup and can Terry stay healthy for an entire season? Then there is the extremely think front court to consider.
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But, while they may or may not be BFFs off the court, they obviously possess chemistry on it, more so than last year's squad.
At this early point in the season, it is not crazy to say that Harden is on the short list of MVP candidates. Of course, the league doesn't give out MVP awards for the first two weeks of the season. Harden is averaging 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists while shooting 40 percent from the floor and an astonishing 91 percent from the free throw line. That last stat is eye popping considering he leads the league in attempts from the charity stripe by a pretty good margin.
But, the Beard has always been a terrific offensive player. What sets him apart this season is his defense. No longer can anyone call him lazy on that end of the floor. He is playing at a level no one has seen from him when the other team has the ball. His focus is better and so is his one-on-one defense. He claimed that he knew he had to be better, but it looks like those weren't just words. The guy has been an absolute beast early in the year and if his play continues, particularly defensively, he is going to start being considered one of the elite players in the NBA, not just a great scorer.