The NBA season is still young and teams have yet to reach their full potential, but there are already squads who are showing signs of brilliance. The Raptors in the East, and the Grizzlies in the West, have been scorching hot out of the gate, while we know others — such as the Cavaliers, Bulls, Spurs and Warriors — will be making noise come playoff time. But it is the Rockets who are finally becoming the team many predicted after signing Dwight Howard to play alongside James Harden two summers ago.
Houston is currently 13-4 in the ultra competitive Western Conference, sitting in 2nd place in the Southwest division. As great as the opposition is, the Rockets have maneuvered themselves into the conversation with the league’s elite and have sprung new life into Space City.
Below are the five reasons why you shouldn’t be surprised if the Rockets are hoisting up the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy come June.
*** *** ***
5. Three-Point Shooting
The loss of Chandler Parsons this past summer, a rising star who knocked down 130 three-pointers and shot above the league average last season, was expected to hurt Houston’s offense, but the signing of “three-and-D” extraordinaire Trevor Ariza and sharpshooter Jason Terry have rightfully eased all concerns.
Ariza is currently leading all small forwards in three-pointers made with 43, while the rejuvenated, 37-year-old Terry – whose NBA career appeared to be coming to an end last season in Brooklyn – has drained 40.8 percent of all attempts from beyond the arc.
As a team, the Rockets knock down 12.2 three-pointers per game and have made 207 overall, both marks are the tops in the league.
4. Ability to Endure Adversity
The season is less than a quarter of the way through and the Rockets have already used eight different starting lineups due to numerous injuries — including Dwight Howard’s knee issue that has kept him off the floor since Nov. 17. Compare that to other perennial teams in the West, such as the Warriors (who have used two lineups), Blazers (three lineups) and Grizzlies (four lineups), and you may begin to appreciate Houston and their resilience just a bit more.
While their competition has — for the most large part — been subpar, you may be surprised to know that Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule, places them at a respectable tenth in the league at 3.32. The Rockets’ perseverance will serve them well down in the NBA’s season-long marathon where most teams are one ankle turn away from a losing streak.
3. The Inexperienced, but Mature Bench.
Houston’s bench finds themselves in the bottom six in points per game (22.8), rebounds (11.5) and assists (5.8), but a lot of this is due to the aforementioned injuries that have unexpectedly thrown bench players into the starting lineup with heavier on-court duties. This, in turn, has spread the bench thin.
Once Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Isaiah Canaan return from the injury list, the extra time on the court for the Rockets’ role players may be gone, but the experience they acquired will surely remain.
Third-year player Donatas Motiejunas is averaging career-highs across the board, dropping more points, dishing more assists, grabbing more rebounds and shooting better than ever before in his career. Rookies Tarik Black – who wasn’t even guaranteed to make the team – and Kostas Papanikolaou have both emerged as legitimate pieces in Houston’s title run.
2. James Harden, The Superstar
While the above reasons are important ingredients to Houston’s final product and ultimate success, the team would not have a chance for a deep playoff run without their superstar. As frustrating as it may be to watch James Harden play at times, there is no denying that he is one of the league’s best scorers.
The 25-year-old ranks second in the league in scoring, notching 25.2 points per game, which only trails Kobe Bryant. He boasts the highest PER among all shooting guards at 25.13 and has continued his knack for finding his way to the basket and drawing fouls. He shows this off through his league-leading 8.7 free-throw attempts per game.
Defense? In Houston? These three words do not typically mesh well, but these Rockets are no longer the team to allow opposing offenses to embarrass them. Damian Lillard’s epic game-winning, series-ending three-pointer to knock out the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs last season was a microcosm of their perimeter defense throughout the year – there wasn’t much happening.
This season, however, Houston is leading the league in wing defense, holding opponents’ attempts from beyond the arc to a lowly 28.3 percent, the top rank in the NBA. They’re also only allowing opponents to connect on 42.2 percent of their field-goal tries, which is good for second in the league.
Oh, and James Harden, that bearded dude who was ridiculed (and rightfully so) for his lack of effort on that side of the court? Well, he ranks No. 1 the league, along with Marc Gasol, with 1.3 Defensive Win Shares and leads all shooting guards with 33 steals on the season.
As the saying goes, “defense wins championships” (Although Houston’s three-point game won’t hurt, either.).
What do you think?
Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewHochberg.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.