Houston, we do not have a problem. However, the rest of the Western Conference most definitely does. What exactly is this problem, you might ask? It happens to be the team that squeaked their way into the playoffs last year on the last day of the season only to get slaughtered by the eventual conference champion Warriors in the first round. Yes, I’m talking about the 30-9 Houston Rockets, a team that didn’t get their 30th win until March 2nd last season. The Rockets are 19-2 in their last 21 games, the best record in the league over that span and show absolutely no signs of slowing down.
This pack of shooters is led by the current favorite for MVP, James Harden. Unfortunately for Harden’s publicity, there happens to be a guy in Oklahoma City having a season for the ages. Unfortunately for Westbrook, at the end of the day, people care about winning and that’s what James has continued to do so successfully this year. There are plenty of superstars in this league who would be opposed to changing their style of play for a new coach’s system *cough cough LeBron*, but not Harden. He has added on to his ability to score at will and has morphed into one of the games premier passers. Sure, he still averages nearly 30 points per game and he remains the guy that the Rockets want shooting the ball in the clutch, but he has managed to successfully add a new regimen to his game that allows him to play at such a high level. He is able to lead the league with nearly 12 assists per game while still scoring 25-plus points on a nightly basis. He ranks first in the league in total win shares and accounts for an average of 82 points per night for the second best offense in the NBA. Not to shabby, but although James continues to produce astronomical numbers, the Rockets are the furthest thing from a one-man team.
Critics can talk all they want about how the Rockets are too reliant on NBA minutes leader James Harden, but truth be told, this team would not be where they are without the impressive seasons of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverly. Gordon, who comes off the BENCH, currently leads the league in three pointers made. Gordon, Ariza, Anderson and Harden have combined for more threes between the four of them than any other team in the league. James Harden’s assist percentage isn’t just up because we now refer to him as a “point guard.” The guy actually has sharpshooters who he can dish the ball to and trust to hit the open shot. We’ve seen that even on Harden’s “off” nights, the Rockets still have guys who are capable of scoring 25-plus points to help carry the load.
Don’t get me wrong, this team is not all the way there yet. They are far from reaching their fullest potential, which should scare the other contenders in the West. They continue to struggle defensively and turn the ball over regularly as Harden leads the league in giveaways by a hefty margin. For the second straight season, this team ranks deep in the bottom half of the league in both points allowed and turnovers, but the difference between this year and last? The Rockets rank 2nd in the league in forced turnovers and points per game, meaning that the Rockets are confident enough in their offense to get into a shootout with any team on any given night knowing that 4 of the top 10 three point shooters in the league are wearing red and white.
On the other side of the ball, just because the numbers aren’t there doesn’t necessarily translate to them lacking lockdown defenders. Trevor Ariza leads the league in steals and I cannot say enough about the impact Patrick Beverly has had on this team. If Patrick Beverly does not fall under the category of a premier defensive player in this league, then I’m not sure who does. When you look at the numbers you see that his steal numbers are at a career high while his defensive efficiency rating continues to rise as he recovers from his injury and gets back into his groove, but forget the stats. The importance of his presence on the basketball court cannot be statistically categorized. He has single-handedly made plays down the stretch in close games that have allowed the Rockets to come away with the win, one of which was followed by an unexpected chest-bump for Coach D’Antoni that almost sent poor Mike over the scorers table. He plays defense with a mamba mentality and there is not one star in this league that Beverly does not believe he can’t match up with.
Beverly deserves much more praise from the league than he receives for his defense; however, he is far from a one-way player. He could not be more of a better fit in this offense. He has great vision, he understands who the offense runs through, doesn’t take questionable shots, but is confident enough to shoot when necessary, shooting 43% from behind the arc this year. The Rockets are 20-4 this year in games which Beverly has played in. His unique ability to play lockdown defense on some of the leagues elite scorers leads me to believe that the importance of Beverly’s health is second to Harden’s for this Rockets team.
You may look at this team and think, “Wow, there is absolutely NO way a team that shoots 40 (not a typo) threes per game could possibly keep this up for much longer.” In most cases, you would be absolutely right. However, there is something different about this Rockets team. As hard as it may seem for a team to keep up this scoring pace with this style of play, its even more absurd to think that there’s going to be a night where Ariza, Anderson, Harden and Gordon are all off their game.
In a game against the Wizards last week in which the Rockets were down double digits at one point, Ariza and Anderson combined for 18 points while Harden shot 25% from the field. Those guys were not on that night, but Eric Gordon, who dropped 31 points on 18 shots was. The Rockets have shown on multiple occasions this year that they can shoot less than 30% from three on 30-plus attempts and still manage to win a game by double digits. A few weeks ago, we saw the Rockets march into Golden State and beat them at their own game. Sure, it took 44 three point attempts and two overtime periods, but this Rockets team managed to pull off an impressive road win, something that they were unable to do in six tries last year. I remember watching the Warriors last season, knowing even if they were down 15 points, that they were more than capable of going on a ferocious run and erasing that lead in the blink of an eye. That is the way I look at the 2016-2017 Houston Rockets.
Go ahead and make fun of the use of analytics in sports all you want, but I’ll tell you what. Daryl Morey knew exactly what he was going to get when he went out and bought these guys last offseason. Did he think that things would click this early on? Maybe not, but Daryl knew that by bringing in a coach whose forte was taking point guards to the elite level and surrounding his MVP with great shooters, he would be in the midst of creating an offensive juggernaut. Oh and that angry guy on Shark Tank who made fun of Morey for his use of analytics last year? Yeah, he’s in Kentucky right now deciding which one of Calipari’s players he’ll be taking with his top three draft pick, while James Harden continues to create only 12 less points per 48 minutes BY HIMSELF than the Mavericks team as a whole.