For several seasons now, the Houston Rockets have been on the cutting edge of NBA advanced analytics, an incubator of the theory that to win with the rules currently in place, teams must score fast and easy, taking three pointers over midrange jumpers, getting to the free throw line as often as possible and penetrating into the lane at breakneck pace.
For the most part, the grand experiment has worked. Over the past two seasons, the Rockets have been at the top of the heap offensively with a barrage of offense the likes of which had never been seen in professional basketball. They are certainly not alone in their approach, one forwarded by General Manager Daryl Morey and orchestrated by Coach Mike D'Antoni. Perhaps one of the greatest teams in league history and reigning world champs the Golden State Warriors are living proof a high octane offense with willing superstar players are changing the league.
But, for one night at least, the upstart bested the champ as the Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors in a stunning, come-from-behind victory 122-121 at Oracle Arena in Oakland on NBA's opening night. It was the kind of win fans hope to see with a renewed sense of defensive hustle mixed with their signature offense and, of course, James Harden, even as newest Rocket Chris Paul was limited with a balky knee.
In previous years, the critical difference between Golden State and Houston was defense. While the Rockets moved from near the bottom to middle of the pack in most defensive stats last season, the Warriors were near the top with a rotating cast of similar sized and athletic players switching on virtually every screen, making offensive staples like the pick-and-roll, a typically unguardable play, less effective at best and completely neutralized at worst. With a new cast of role players, however, the Rockets look poised to change that narrative.
In the offseason, Morey called the need for teams loaded with great players "an arms race" and the Rockets were lacking firepower despite their prowess on the more entertaining end of the floor. Enter Paul, one of the best point guards of his generation and the kind of alpha dog the team has long needed along the brilliant and mercurial Harden. No one doubts the talent of Harden, who deserved the MVP trophy awarded to OKC's Russell Westbrook last season, but the weight of the game seemed heavy on his shoulders at times the last two years.
Paul, who had languished on a Clippers team that could never seem to escape playoff failures — at least one brutal year at the hands of the Harden-led Rockets — worked with Harden in the offseason and facilitated the plan that brought them together. Any suggestion that these two ball-dominant guards might struggle to adapt to one another should be erased nearly entirely by the fact that they themselves wanted the pairing. It make take a few weeks for them to find their groove, but when they do, it is going to be difficult to stop.
The new Rockets point guard replaces fan favorite and defensive bulldog Patrick Beverley, but Paul is Beverley's equal as a defender and a substantially better scorer and distributor. More importantly, Morey's pursuit of additional talent didn't stop with Paul.
While the greatest and most overhyped story of the offseason was the fast and furious rumor mill that swirled around the Rockets efforts to bring Paul bestie and All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to Houston from New York (he ended up in Oklahoma City with Westbrook and Paul George - more on that later), the under-the-radar moves to sign forward P.J. Tucker, wing man Luc Mbah a Moute and big Tarik Black demonstrate a renewed commitment to defense and an eye on those same Warriors.
Like the NFL and MLB, the NBA is a copycat league. If it works, expect it to be imitated, and the Warriors' athletic, switching defense works. Until this year, the Rockets simply didn't have the athletes or the requisite defenders to pull it off, but they might now, as we saw Tuesday night in Oakland.
Tucker (20 points including 4-6 from three) can play three spots in the front court and will probably be relied upon as a bit of a (very) poor man's Draymond Green, bodying up guys bigger than him on D and spotting up for corner threes on the offensive end, where he shot a sizzling 45 percent in 2016. Mbah a Moute's advanced defensive stats last season ranked him in the top 10 among wing defenders thanks to his length and fleet footed quickness — no doubt Trevor Ariza is thrilled to have the help. Like Tucker, Mbah a Moute is a much improved distance shooter hitting 39 percent last year and following up with a 53 percent preseason mark (he went 2-3 in his first game in the red and white with 14 points). Black, a former Rocket and defensive banger, brings another big body to go with a returning Nene, allowing them to go deeper against teams with size.
And while this may sound impressive, it doesn't even account for Sixth Man of the Year, Eric Gordon, who looks like he is already in midseason form averaging 19 points and a ridiculous 49 percent average from beyond the arc in the preseason (he had 24 in game one despite going 0-6 from distance). There is also a relieved Ryan Anderson, who returns despite being the rumored key cog in an Anthony trade that didn't happen and looks to have added some rebounding to his game, and a bulked up Clint Capela, who appears poised to become one of the better young big men in the league. Capela, in particular, should really benefit from Paul's deft passing touch that turned Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan into a lob dunking machine.
Having said all that, the Rockets won't be taking the floor against air all season and, as if it wasn't already tough enough, the Western Conference got better over the summer with Anthony and George heading to the Thunder, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson joining a VERY young and talented roster in Minnesota and an improved Nuggets team that landed forward Paul Milsap. Even with the losses of Paul for the Clippers and Gordon Hayward in Utah, the West is stacked yet again.
But, the Rockets have done virtually everything they can short of adding Anthony to compete at the highest levels. The addition of Paul should be a game changer and with more and better athletes around he and Harden, it seems clear they are one of the best teams in the NBA as the season gets underway. And on Tuesday night, even with a slightly injured Paul in limited minutes, the Rockets actually looked like THE best team in the NBA. And despite the 121 points surrendered, their versatility and length on defense is already paying dividends.
Still, it was only one night and a lot of questions will need to be answered between now and the end of the season. But for now, it's one down, 81 to go.
RANKING THE BEST OF THE WEST
1. Golden State Warriors
The once and future kings of the NBA remain perched atop the No. 1 spot in the league until someone (or injuries) can knock them off. Don't let one loss fool you, this is the team to beat.
2. Houston Rockets
Even with the acquisition of Paul the Rockets remain behind (slightly) the Warriors for top o' the heap in the West. Can their defensive improve enough to overtake Golden State? For one night, the answer is yes. For a whole season, stay tuned.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
As really good as a Westbrook-George-Anthony combo might be, OKC has yet to address their bottom-of-the-barrel shooting percentage from distance and the massive drop off when they have to go to the bench. Still, their big three will be a load for any team.
4. San Antonio Spurs
It feels uncomfortable ranking the Spurs this low, but the only thing they added to the roster in the offseason was tread on the tires. As incredible as Kawhi Leonard is (and Greg Popovich remains), does he have enough help?
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
This will be a trendy pick with the other worldliness of Karl-Anthony Townes and the key additions (Butler chief among them) to Coach Tom Thibodeau's vaunted defense, but it will be a work in progress, albeit a scary one for the rest of the conference.
6. Utah Jazz
Despite the loss of Hayward, this is still a formidable lineup built around Rudy Gobert, but can Gobert remain healthy and what can they get out of Joe Johnson and the newly added Ricky Rubio?
7. Portland Trailblazers
While probably second to Paul/Harden in backcourt duo talent, the pairing of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is certainly the NBA's most dynamic. But they will continue to have struggles defensively and the supporting cast remains unbalanced.
8. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have rapidly developed one of the more explosive offensives in the West since midseason last year and the addition of Milsap can only help. They still feel a player or two shy of challenging for a top spot, but they are certainly on the rise.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
Even with playmaking point guard Mike Conley, the Grizz feel like a throwback team that hasn't caught up to the modern game. Without a legit shooter to complement Conley, Memphis could be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
10 New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis could be the best big man in the NBA and DeMarcus Cousins isn't far behind, but the blending of those two similarly-styled players isn't as big a problem as the drop off in talent beyond those spots on the roster.
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The Rockets are going to be an insanely fun team to watch this year and their likely unprecedented offensive output along with an improved defense will give them the advantage most nights. In fact, against the bottom two-thirds of the league, they should dominate. That ought to translate into a deeper playoff run and matchup problems for any opponent. Once they reach the Western Conference Finals, assuming they wind up facing the Warriors (and I am indeed assuming they will), it is going to be tough to bet against the current champs. Winning game one will help, but it's going to take a lot more than that to hoist the trophy next summer.
Rockets final record: 57-25
Playoff prediction: Lose to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in six games.