Last season, the Rockets were 26-20 before finishing off the season 27-9. This season, they are ahead of last year's pace after beating New Orleans on Sunday to up their record to 31-18. But, it has felt a lot like the 2018-2019 season with injury issues and some underwhelming performances.
Still, they are fifth in the West and in good position to make a run like they did last season assuming they can improve in the one area they did last year: defense.
For roughly the first half of last season, the Rockets ranked in the bottom third of the league defensively. After the All-Star break, they ranked in the top three. This season, they are better — currently 15 smack dab in the middle — but they will need to get that into the top 10 if they want to make a deep playoff run.
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The question is if they can do that with the current roster of players. Clint Capela will likely be out until after the All-Star break with the bruised heel that has caused him so many issues this season. But they have been pretty good in his absence, going with a very small lineup — one of the shortest in decades — opting for quickness over even marginal size.
As a result, they are getting crushed on the boards, but the speed and ability to switch everything has them 3-0 with the mighty mite lineup. It's not really sustainable, but probably something that can get them through the break and give them some options as they get closer to the playoffs.
One thing it has done is give more chances to Ben McLemore, who has made the most of it. And though Danuel House has struggled on offense, he is still a good defender. With those two plus James Harden, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker, they can be pretty aggressive defensively and try to play with speed on offense.
Eventually, they will need to get Capela back in the lineup and increase their defensive intensity if they want to have any chance in the ridiculously deep Western Conference. For the moment, they are keeping their heads above water, but they will need to turn it on soon. They are nearly as close to the lottery as they are to first place and fortunes can change quickly in the NBA. If the Rockets want those to change for the better, they'll need to dial up some of last year's defensive magic.