This was a team that was supposed to be figuring things out while they were in between second superstars. When Dwight Howard left for Atlanta via free agency, it was assumed there would be some degree of addition by subtraction, but most expected a step backward, particularly on defense, where Howard provided a substantial backstop during his handful of seasons in a Rockets uniform.
Many wondered if Moreyball had run its course. Would owner Les Alexander send GM Daryl Morey to the unemployment line as he had with Coach Kevin McHale only 11 games into last season? When the offseason netted only Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, along with a coach in Mike D'Antoni, who had a lot to prove after unsuccessful stints in New York and L.A., the grumbling from fans got louder. After an opening-game loss to the terrible Lakers, in a blowout no less, it was fair to wonder if this would be another season lost to disaster.
But it didn't take long to see things were quite the opposite. With Morey's statistically driven approach to basketball in full bloom under D'Antoni, the guy who essentially invented the pace-and-space style of offense Morey and Alexander both coveted, the Rockets have become one of the most dominant teams in the league, winners of eight straight and on pace to eclipse a franchise-best 58 wins. There is still a half a season to go, but there are good reasons why this team has been so fantastic and why they can and should remain so.
In sports, injuries are the great equalizer. Look no further than the Oakland Raiders. Before losing quarterback Derek Carr to injury late in the season, they were odds-on favorites to make a deep playoff run. Instead, armed with only a third-string rookie, they were crushed by an underwhelming Texans team.
The Rockets have stayed mostly healthy so far. Patrick Beverley has missed a handful of games and Clint Capela remains out for at least a few more weeks with a broken leg, but the core of the team is intact and must remain that way. Fortunately, D'Antoni is stubborn with minutes and has approached the status of players like aging center Nene with the same gentle hand as his counterpart in San Antonio, where older players routinely sit out games for rest, a tactic used increasingly by teams as a means of preserving the health of not just stars but role players for the playoffs. The way they are playing now, they will need to be full strength come May.
Winning Games They Should
One of the more frustrating issues with Rockets teams of the past was their tendency to play down to the level of their opponents. This led to inexcusable losses and cost them valuable playoff position. Not so this season. Of their nine losses, only one has come to a team under .500, that opening-night loss in Los Angeles.
The Rockets are third in the league in point differential, besting opponents by nearly eight points per game. But after that first loss of the season, they have absolutely crushed opponents at or below .500, beating them by an incredible average of 15 points per game. They aren't just beating weaker teams; they are murdering them, burning the corpses and dancing on the ashes.
Commitment to the Offense
D'Antoni has admitted in recent interviews that even he struggled to buy in 100 percent to the notion that mid-range jumpers should all but be abandoned by teams. He isn't the only one who found it difficult to accept that the 18-foot jumper, a staple of the traditional NBA offense for decades, is, in essence, a bad shot. When the percentage of making it is only slightly better than with a shot from behind the three point line, statistically speaking, you back up and try to get the extra point despite the 23-foot distance from the basket.
But the hesitation is clearly gone as the Rockets are on pace to shatter their own record for shooting threes (more on that shortly) and they are focused, more than ever, on getting into the paint. With no Howard in the lane taking up space, Harden is free to create off the dribble. Putting four shooters spaced around him is, at times, almost unfair, and the team is reveling in the style of play. Much like the Warriors, the Rockets are burying opponents under an avalanche of offense that is nearly unstoppable.
Harden was mocked repeatedly for his defensive lapses. Even now, no one is going to mistake him for a lock-down defender, but his overall game on that end of the floor has improved markedly and the team, behind wiz defensive assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, is substantially better. They aren't the Grizzlies or the Spurs, but what they are is a team that can make stops when it needs to and one that has the ability, combined with its otherworldly offensive game, to turn double-digit deficits into laughers.
In Toronto Sunday night, 14 points down in the third quarter, they buried the Raptors under a barrage of three pointers and then proceeded to force them into bad shots and turnovers. On two key possessions, Harden took a charge on former Rocket Patrick Patterson and blocked the shot of guard Demar Derozan. Yes, Harden. They may not be dominant on defense, but as good as they are at the other end of the floor, all they need is to be adequate and they are more than that so far this season.
Few would have thought the acquisition of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon would shift the fortunes of the team so radically. But both are shooting better than 40 percent beyond the arc and Gordon is a legit candidate for sixth man of the year, allowing Harden a chance to rest without losing much on the floor. The emergence of the Rockets bench, one of the strongest in the league, has a lot to do with the ability of guys like Anderson and Gordon to space the floor even with Harden on the bench.
More important, as the threes are being shot at a record pace, the sheer number of distance shooters (Beverley, 42 percent; Tevor Ariza, 38 percent; Harden, 35 percent) makes them nearly impossible to defend. And the Rockets' confidence in their shooting is evident. When they miss, they keep taking them with reckless abandon. In any other season, that might have been ill-advised, but not this year. Last season, they were first in threes attempted, but twenty-first in percentage. This year, they still take more than anyone else, but their rank in percentage? Sixth.
With all due respect to Russell Westbrook, who is having one of the most unreal seasons in the history of the NBA, the MVP at this point in the season is Harden. Never mind that he leads the league in assists, is top five in scoring and on pace to break the NBA record set more than 40 years ago for the number of points a player is responsible for per game (points plus assisted points), it is impossible to overlook some of the incredible single-game performances. He's had 10 triple doubles this year, more than the entire rest of his career combined. Twice, those came with 40-point outbursts, a rarity. Against Toronto, he did it while adding two blocks and two steals, something only LeBron James and Michael Jordan had accomplished previously. Then there was his monster 53-17-16 game, a feat no player had ever managed in the history of the sport.
But set all that aside for a moment and think about where the team is. Not only do they have the best record in franchise history to this point, but they are legitimately a contender for the title in a year most expected them to be spending rebuilding or, at the very least, regrouping. This is the same player who was inexplicably left off the All NBA team last season and was probably better known last year for his relationship with a Kardashian and that moronic YouTube video of his defensive lapses. Now, with his move to "points" guard, as D'Antoni called it in the preseason, his game has exploded, making him, arguably, the most dangerous offensive weapon in basketball.
The fact is, Harden is better this year than he was two seasons ago when he was the runner-up to Steph Curry in the MVP race. Were it not for the fact Westbrook might average a triple double for the season, this would be a runaway before the halfway point of the season. There are very few guys who have sniffed the rarefied air Harden is inhaling this season, and the Rockets are taking full advantage.