Last year, the Rockets were in the driver's seat with just a few weeks left in the season. They were in the sixth spot in the Western Conference seeding and had a virtual lock on making the playoffs. Then all hell broke loose. They lost six straight games and found themselves out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
What was even more depressing about last season was that the team felt rudderless. Yes, they were a tough, gutsy team with players like Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry -- guys we all wanted to root for. But they were not terribly young or overly talented, and were missing some significant pieces to the puzzle. Had they reached the playoffs, it is doubtful they would have advanced, and they had virtually zero chance of contending for a title.
This season, the Rockets are younger, more talented and trying to make the playoffs again. They have literally dealt away all but two players who spent time on the roster last season, and only one of those is/was a rotation player (Chandler Parsons). Most believed this to be a lost season. I personally thought they would win about 36 games. To do that, they would have to go 5-19 the rest of the way, which is highly unlikely.
In addition to the talent and the youth, this team just feels like a better squad. Like last year, there is very little chance they will advance out of the first round of the playoffs or contend for a title, but I do believe they will make the playoffs. Here's why.
5. Offensive Output The Rockets have been at the top of the league in scoring all season. James Harden ranks fifth in the same category. They are also in the top 10 in scoring differential thanks to a steady barrage of scoring, and it shows little sign of letting up. While it isn't often teams built almost entirely around big-time scoring (at least not in this era) that are threats to win it all -- ask the '90s-era Suns -- they do make very difficult teams to play, particularly as the season grinds to a close and defenders begin to wear down.
4. Pace Speaking of wearing down, nothing bludgeons a defense like a fast pace, and the Rockets try to run opponents off the floor every night. It's a pretty crafty plan of attack by coach Kevin McHale, knowing his guys are very young, inexperienced and athletic.
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Allowing them to get out and run and score quickly simplifies things for players who still need time to mature. Sure, they are the worst turnover-prone team in the league, but because they take more shots from the floor than opposing teams most nights, they make up for the mistakes. It's not a strategy that can win long-term, particularly in the playoffs, but it has taken them a long way this year. 3. Growth A common refrain from teams is that they believe they will be better in April than they are in November. In the case of the Rockets, barring injury, there is no team with greater upside for the rest of the season given their youth and where they came from to start the season. It is also worth noting that their wild inconsistency of winning streaks followed by losing streaks has seemed to abate somewhat, which is another sign of gradual improvement.
2. Soft Schedule The remaining schedule for the Rockets finds them facing teams with a combined record of 451-444. But when you toss out single games against the Clippers, San Antonio, Indiana, Denver and Utah, that number drops to 265-345. They still have multiple games against potential playoff teams including slumping Golden State and Memphis, plus a single game against the resurgent Lakers. But they also play Minnesota, Sacramento, Portland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Dallas twice, Orlando twice and Phoenix four times.
1. The Beard It is difficult to overstate just how remarkable James Harden has been this year. He has been everything the Rockets could ask for and more. More important, he has been shockingly consistent, with only a brief three-game, mid-season drop-off that could come close to being classified as a slump. What's more, there have been games where Harden has clearly imposed his will and pulled out victories (or near-victories, like the game in Miami), something a young team like Houston probably would not have managed without him.