With its win over Portland Saturday — a very impressive fourth quarter comeback in Portland for their ninth straight victory — the Rockets took over the spot of the best record in the NBA, albeit by mere percentage points over Boston who has more wins but also more losses. The question everyone should be asking now is whether or not the Rockets are the best team in the NBA right now.
Looking around, there are some very good basketball teams out there. Cleveland is coming off a 13-game winning streak. Boston remains a terrific squad in the Eastern Conference. San Antonio remains good though perhaps not as good as in previous years. And then there's Golden State, the reigning champs who are only two games back of the Rockets in the West.
For the moment, we will set aside the Eastern Conference, not because Cleveland and Boston aren't very good teams — they are — but because there are so many really bad teams in that conference, it somewhat mitigates the strength of their schedule. The West is the clear power conference and, as such, deserves a greater level of respect — think SEC football in college sports.
And as good as the Spurs have been as a franchise, it is pretty clear the Western Conference is, at the moment, a two horse race with the Rockets and Warriors. So, are the Rockets as good as the Warriors?
Here are a few numbers.
Record: Rockets 24-4 (1st in NBA), Warriors 21-6 (3rd in NBA)
Point Differential (+/-): Rockets 11.3 (1st), Warriors, 11.2 (2nd)
Offensive Rating: Warriors 113.8 (1st), Rockets 112.9 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: Warriors 101.0 (3rd), Rockets 101.6 (5th)
Net Rating: Warriors 12.8 (1st), Rockets 11.3 (2nd)
Opponents Winning Percentage: Warriors (.489), Rockets (.455)
In all the major categories, the Rockets and Warriors are two of the best teams in the league. The one somewhat glaring difference is in opponents winning percentage. The Rockets have, without questions, played a softer schedule this season. Their current strength of schedule is ranked 24th as compared to Golden State 8th. But, one advanced metric, the Relative Percentage Index (RPI), which measures winning percentage combined with opponents' and opponents' opponents' (not a typo) winning percentages ranks the Warriors and Rockets second and third respectively behind Boston.
Maybe an easier way to put it is these are the two best teams in the NBA and few knowledgable NBA experts would quibble on that point. Whether the Rockets are in the same weight class as Golden State may be another matter.
In their only head-to-head, the Rockets won in the home opener with Chris Paul only playing a few minutes and dragging around a bruised knee. Still, that was one game. To break down the matchup, it really requires looking at the team components up close.
Best Player: James Harden vs. Steph Curry
Harden is the best player in the NBA this season, period.
Next Two: Chris Paul, Eric Gordon vs. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson
Durant is one of the top 5 or 6 players in the league and Thompson is close behind. As good as Paul and Gordon are, they aren't at that level.
Best of the Rest (Other Starters): Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela vs. Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
It's a bit odd that the Rockets third best player comes off the bench, but it's also incredible that the Warriors fourth best player (Green) is a legit All-Star.
Bench: P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Nene, Gordon vs. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, Javale McGee
This is close, but Gordon plus lack of a significant drop off with the second team gives the Rockets the slight edge.
Offense Advantage: Push
This is a razor-thin difference. Both can outscore just about anyone and the Rockets have really improved the scoring throughout the lineup and three-point percentage. But, they are both insanely good on this end of the floor.
Defense Advantage: Warriors
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This was not close last season with the Rockets ranking in the bottom third of the league and the Warriors about where they are now. The Rockets have significantly closed the gap, but they aren't quite there yet.
Intangibles Advantage: Warriors
You always get an advantage when you have not only been to the Finals multiple times, but won it twice.
Overall, these two teams are ridiculously close, but the Warriors will remain the better of the two until the Rockets can prove it on the floor, particularly against a lineup that boasts four of the 25 best players in the NBA. But, the difference between the two squads is a lot smaller this year and it would only take one key injury to shift the balance of power either way.