At the moment, it is arguable that the four guys making up the injury list for the Houston Rockets currently are better than the Rockets best four healthy players. Subtract James Harden from that list and it's not even an argument. Starters Terrence Jones (nerve), Patrick Beverley (hamstring) and Dwight Howard (knee) remain out, and now back up point guard Isaiah Canaan (ankle) will miss time as well.
Despite the wealth of talent spending more time in the training room than on the floor these days, the Rockets continue to win. Currently, the only teams with better records in the Western Conference are Memphis, Golden State and Portland. That's, quite frankly, remarkable.
But, how are they doing it?
5. Moneyball Offense
GM Darryl Morey has said for some time now that, statistically, the worst shots on the floor are between the paint and the three point line. With points per possession becoming such a notable statistic in the kind of advanced metrics employed by most pro sports teams -- something Morey is at the forefront of -- the only shots worth taking, it would seem, are in the paint, beyond the arc or from the free throw line. With Howard out for such a long stretch, they have struggled to get points close to the basket, but they have excelled everywhere else. The team is middle of the pack in three point percentage, but they take more threes than anyone else (by a wide margin) and make more as well. They are also top 10 in free throws attempted per game. Once Howard returns, their interior numbers should improve as well making them even more dangerous than they are now.
4. Unlikely Contributors
"Next Man Up" has become a rather tired cliche in sports. In reality, it is typically a hollow rallying cry that means "Another Man Down." For the Rockets, missing so many starters has certainly left them with holes in their lineup, but it has provided opportunities for players that might not normally have seen much playing time. Canaan, before his injury, was beginning to break out and offer the roster another scoring option. As my friends over at ClutchFans.net pointed out in a recent tweet, Donatas Montejunas has stepped his game up averaging just under 15 points and 8 rebounds over his last five starts despite struggling in his first eight games as a starter. They have also gotten solid play from Jason Terry, who is shooting over 40 percent from three, Kostas Papanikolaou, Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey. Bet you didn't think you would see that sentence this year in conjunction with their record. 3. Feasting on Lesser Opponents
Nine of the Rockets first 17 games were against teams with a combined record of 27-91. They are 8-1 in those games. They also had a pair of wins against teams barely over .500 (Sacramento and Miami). Of course, this is what good teams are supposed to do, beat bad teams, but it doesn't always work that way. Against the remainder of good teams, thus far, they are 3-3. Not bad, but not exactly overwhelming either, particularly when you consider they caught San Antonio resting half its starting lineup. Still, the Rockets are playing the schedule they were given and making the most of it.
2. Stingy Defense
In a recent story on NBA.com, the Rockets were ranked second in the league in a list of most improved defenses since last season. "No team has increased its opponent turnover rate more and no team has improved its 3-point defense more," the story explained. While it cited the improved defense of Harden and the addition of Trevor Ariza for the change, another surprising newcomer was given some props. "And then there's Kostas Papanikolaou. Opponents have shot a paltry 9-for-55 (16 percent) from outside of 15 feet with the rookie guarding them."
And this has been done, for the most part, without their two best defensive players from last year in Beverley and Howard. Missing Howard is a particularly difficult blow considering his inside presence. Still, the Rockets are one of the better teams in the NBA in defense overall. Once the injured players return, they have a shot to shut some of the best offenses in the league down. That is an incredibly dramatic improvement over last season.
1. James Harden
When the crowds at the Toyota Center occasionally chant "MVP!" when Harden goes to the free throw line, it may not be hyperbole -- at least at this point in the season. He is averaging 25 points per game (second in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant), 6 rebounds and nearly 7 points. He is lapping the field in free throw attempts while shooting 87 percent from the charity stripe. His field goal and three point percentages are down and his turnovers are on the high side, but that is to be expected with the considerable amount of weight he has to carry every night. Think for a moment that when Harden and Ariza are both out of the game, that leaves who exactly as the best player on the floor?
That, of course, ignores the fact that his defense has been stellar, something no one would have thought last year. He ranks at the top of the league in steals and has, in certain situations, become a lock down defender. His defense in the post is particularly good even against guys much larger than he is. This all appears to come on the heals of his time with Team USA in the offseason, where he was held accountable by some of the best players in the NBA. He has clearly become the leader on the floor, both in words and by example.