It's been a pretty remarkable year already for the Houston Rockets. Despite many believing they would, at best, only marginally improve over last season's dreadful mediocrity, the team has flourished around MVP candidate James Harden. With a win over Miami on Wednesday, they would equal their win total for all of last season before the All-Star break. And those wins have come against one of the league's toughest schedules through this point in the year (the Rockets have played more road games and more games period than any other NBA squad).
As they enter nearly a week off for the league's All-Star weekend, some questions loom for the Rockets. Though they sit in the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference, with the third-best record in all of basketball, vulnerabilities remain, but there are certainly reasons for optimism and it should be an interesting second half of the season.
Are they destined for another slump?
January was a tough month for the Rockets, much of it owing to a confluence of injuries to Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Pat Beverley and a still recovering Clint Capela, a brutal stretch of the schedule and a shooting slump that saw them five percentage points below their three-point average for every other month of the season. Barring more substantial injuries, it would seem they have weathered the worst of it and with a much lighter and more home-friendly schedule, there is no reason to think the Rockets will have another slide. Even with that rough first month of 2017, they remain one of the most consistent offensive forces in the NBA, and a schedule that allows for more practice and rest should see them reassert their defense, which has been better than predicted all season.
Can they keep shooting threes at this pace?
A better question is will they? And the answer is clearly yes. The Rockets are shattering league records for distance shooting and they show no signs of letting up. While their average dipped considerably in January as mentioned (33 percent for the month), every other month of the season has found them among the best teams in percentage (37-38 percent) and they obviously shoot more than anyone else. They are a difficult team to contain when they are hitting their threes, and even when they are shooting below their average, the sheer volume tends to keep them in games. The experiment they are running from behind the arc is working, so don't expect them to change.
What, if anything, are they missing and will they make a trade?
The Rockets wish list at the midway point of the season no doubt includes a wing defender, perhaps another veteran big man and, of course, more shooting. Having an additional defender on the perimeter to help plug leaks and another big man to help clog the lane would be ideal gets, but they would come at a price. The biggest name floating around is Magic forward and former Harden teammate Serge Ibaka. He is a solid rim protector and can shoot from distance despite mostly playing the center spot. He is in the last year of his contract in Orlando and they would love to unload him, but it might cost the Rockets Capela or second-year forward Sam Dekker. If the Rockets really believe they can compete with the Warriors and the Spurs, they will seriously need to consider doing that deal, but GM Daryl Morey has indicated a midseason trade is unlikely. If anything, a small move to add depth seems more plausible at this point than a blockbuster addition, but you never know with the Rockets.
Is James Harden going to be the MVP?
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If this were ANY other year, Harden would be a runaway frontrunner, but yet another former teammate of his stands in his way. Typically the tiebreaker between two evenly matched players vying for the award is winning. Harden's Rockets are, at this point, quite a bit better than Russell Westbrook's Thunder, but Westbrook is flirting with averaging a triple double for the season. Only one other player (Oscar Robertson) has ever done that in league history. It is one of those rare watermark statistics, similar to batting .400 in baseball, that really do change the conversation. Harden himself is breaking all kinds of records as well and playing in extremely rarified air, but the elusiveness of a season-long triple double in the NBA's storied history will make it difficult for voters to overlook Westbrook. There is still quite a bit of season to go, but Westbrook would seem to have a slight edge at the moment.
Are the Rockets actually a contender?
This is the million-dollar question. Yes, they have the fourth-best record in the NBA. Yes, they are a juggernaut offensively. But the fact remains that three teams ahead of them arguably have more talent, particularly at the front end of the roster. While the Rockets, one could argue, match up well with the Spurs and, potentially, even the Cavs, finding an answer for the four all-star players in Golden State is another challenge altogether. The Rockets are one of the best offensive squads in basketball. The Warriors are THE best. Whatever the Rockets do at this point will be measured against that standard. With less depth on the top end, can they compete? More important, can they hold up against the wear and tear of a long season and playoffs playing the kind of up-and-down game they do?
The great news for fans is that we are even having these discussions. Most thought the Rockets would be about the same as last season, maybe worse, as they built for future seasons around James Harden. They are clearly ahead of schedule and whatever success they have this year can only be a good omen for what is to come.