Despite a loss at Denver, one of the best teams in the Western Conference, on Wednesday, the Rockets, at 11-4, have one of the best records in the NBA, and they are doing it with injuries, poor shooting (outside of James Harden) and some inconsistency. Their eight-game win streak may have been snapped against the Nuggets, but there have been plenty of bright spots as well as loads of room for improvement.
After the first 15 games, let's assess.
Clint Capela, rebounding machine.
After some early season conditioning issues, Capela has bagged 20 rebounds in five straight games, a franchise record. Not only has the young center been all over the boards, but he remains one of the most dangerous lob options in the NBA, finding chemistry now with Russell Westbrook as well as James Harden.
Despite being a relatively young player, McLemore was on his last NBA legs when he signed with the Rockets this offseason. The young wing player had exhausted nearly all his options, but found a home in Houston. His three point shooting has been inconsistent, but he hustles hard and is a solid defender. If he can get a little more consistency in his distance shooting (he shot over 40 percent last year), he will be an important role player.
Defense and pace.
In the first few games of the year, the Rockets ranked toward the bottom of the league in defensive rating. They were in the top five during their eight-game winning streak. Now, they are middle of the pack and climbing. And even though they were near last in the league last year in pace, they are second this season. Both are good indicators of how much pressure they can put on other teams.
It is difficult to imagine that Harden's average comes down when he scores 35 points in a game, but when you average 39, that is what happens. Harden, has been nothing short of spectacular in the first 15 games of the season. After some early fits behind the three-point line, he began scoring in bunches and leads the NBA once again in scoring. It is so effortless for him, he is virtually unstoppable.
The Harden and Westrbook won't work narrative.
From the start, this was a tired and ridiculous concept. Two guys who grew up together and have played on the same team before, never mind being long-time pros, not being able to work together because they both like the ball is as crazy as suggesting the same about Harden and Chris Paul. Westbrook's up-tempo game complements Harden and gives the Rockets another gear and a determined force as games wind down. Clearly, this combo is not only working but thriving so far.
It's no surprise the early on this season the Rockets have struggled to get a consistent rotation, shoot the ball consistently well and deliver intensity on both ends of the floor every night. But if they are going to take a step beyond being very good to being great, they will need to shore up those areas and produce consistent play every night.
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There have been a number of relatively minor injuries early in the season including Capela's concussion, and Danuel House's back and, now, shoulder. Eric Gordon (knee) has had the only substantive injury thus far. But even minor injuries create inconsistent line ups and difficulty getting the team in rhythm. Injuries are the great equalizer in sports. Let's hope these clear up for the Rockets soon.
On Wednesday, the Nuggets employed a strategy we are going to see all year against Harden. They double teamed him relentlessly forcing other players to beat them. On Wednesday, the other guys couldn't make shots and that has been an early plot line for this team. Despite leading the league in scoring and offensive rating, the Rockets rank 21st in field goal percentage and 22nd in three-point percentage. Their effective field goal percentage rank is 11th, indicating they are still rather efficient, but we've seen all too often how devastating missed shots can be on a team. They are getting good shots. They need to start making them.