Since the All-Star break, the Rockets are 6-1 with wins at Golden State, Boston and Toronto. They are finally over the .500 mark on the road and about to move into a decidedly easier part of the final 19 games of the season. Yet, they are still a team in transition, a group that has real room to grow and get better.
Consider that they rallied from 14th in the Western Conference to now tied for third and only four games out of second. That's a long way to travel, particularly when virtually the team's entire lineup has turned over thanks to injuries, trades and midseason acquisitions. But, to a man, they believe they can be better. We agree and here's how:
In fairness to some of the remaining nagging injuries, the main four guys the Rockets need healthy for a deep playoff run are, in order, James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. Gordon, in particular, has seemed to find his rhythm in recent games after sitting, albeit briefly, and getting the extended break over All-Star weekend. But, when you consider that Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert still have roles to play when they return from recent minor health concerns, that adds two key components to a lineup that is already looking much improved with the Rockets version of the Big 3 plus one.
One of the oft-overlooked problems with injuries is how it affects a team's ability to mix and match players, particularly the second team. NBA teams are often stacked with quality starters, but the cracks start to show when they go to their bench. When the Rockets bench was Gerald Green, Nene and Michael Carter-Williams, no one was going to run scared when they saw them on the schedule. With a full complement of players, the Rockets can run a second group out there that includes a combination of Green, Austin Rivers, Faried, Shumpert, Nene and even Paul and Gordon, who play minutes with the reserves at times. It gives the Rockets one of the most versatile and deepest benches in the league.
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After a full year in the top 10 in defense last season, the Rockets fell dramatically this year, holding steady in the lower quarter of the NBA. But, since getting healthy after the All-Star break, they have been substantively better, ranking 14th in the last seven games instead of 23rd, where they sit for the season. When a team isn't healthy, one of the first things to go is defense. It's such a struggle to score without your best players, the focus must be on putting the ball in the basket. Never mind one of their best defenders in Capela was gone for more than a month, which also really hurt the team's defensive rebounding. Given where they have been all year, they really have nowhere to go but up and any improvement will certainly increase their odds of winning, especially in the postseason.
With all the new faces added since December and all the players finally getting back on the floor, it's no surprise the Rockets are still trying to find a rhythm with one another. The only thing that solves that problem is time together. They have 19 games to figure out how it is all supposed to work, more than what teams get in preseason. Knowing where guys need to be on the floor and where they like the ball, understanding how to make switches on defense and finding balance in transition all should be greatly helped with time spent playing together on the floor. Call it a late season training camp, but this is the time to get it worked out.