After an 11-14 start to the season that forced James Harden to go supernova to get his team back into the playoff picture, the Houston Rockets have almost been hiding in plain sight.
The slow start suggested that the Rockets were no longer capable of the same heights they achieved in 2017-18 due to their roster makeover, and their eventual ascension through the standings was credited to Harden’s individual brilliance, not the overall play of the team.
Nevertheless, Houston sits in third place in the Western Conference (yes, divisions still matter when it comes to multi-team ties) and is surging. After a string of wins over the best teams in the league, the Rockets have reclaimed their mantle and reestablished themselves as the Warriors’ primary opposition to winning another title.
In its current six-game winning streak since a baffling loss to the Lakers after the All-Star Break, Houston has notched convincing victories on the road against Golden State, Boston, and Toronto, the first one coming without Harden. Since Chris Paul returned to the lineup on Jan. 27, the Rockets have the fifth-best net rating in the league, bolstered by the NBA’s best offense (116.9 points per 100 possessions) and a defense that has risen from 27th to 19th in the league, per NBA.com.
Paul has been magical. Despite a hamstring injury suffered just weeks into his new four-year, $160 million contract, his current play has helped put to rest the worries about his health, especially after he missed the last two games of Houston’s 2018 playoff run. He has averaged 32 minutes per game since he came back, including playing all of the non-Harden minutes as head coach Mike D’Antoni runs perhaps the most successful stagger in the NBA. Paul has a plus-9.6 net rating in that time period and a 59.1 true shooting percentage, which is even higher than in his heyday with the Clippers.
The point guard may lack his former burst in getting to the basket, but his trademark midrange jumper has returned to form (even if the very act of taking that shot is antithetical to the Rockets’ ethos). Paul is shooting 45 percent from midrange this season, a bit lower than the last four years when he canned half of them, but he has made 12 of his last 17 from that distance. Combine that with a stellar assist and low turnover rate and Paul might not be capable of leading a team to a title himself, but he is the best second banana south of Stephen Curry.
While Paul has helped settle the Rockets in the minutes Harden is off the floor, the team has been able to thrive because of its revamped wing rotation. At the beginning of the season, Houston was relying on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom are quite literally no longer NBA players. Now, the Rockets are blessed with wing depth that includes Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert, supreme upgrades over the departed pair.
Rivers has been the best defender among the regular rotation with a 103.2 defensive rating in the last five weeks. He has been successful alongside Paul in the second unit and closed games when necessary, all while buying into the Moreyball principle of lay-ups and threes to a remarkable extent (he has taken one midrange shot the entire season).
Shumpert hasn’t been healthy for much of his Houston tenure, but Kenneth Faried has also been another strong midseason pickup. He can perform similar offensive functions to Clint Capela at the five and also slide down to the four in a pinch due to his mobility. He will not be a defensive presence comparable to Capela, or even Nene, but Faried’s ability to soak up bench minutes is still an asset for a team, and a head coach, that has historically had trouble trusting its depth.
The defense remains a concern. Even in the recent strong stretch of play, the Rockets are still worse than average defensively, and the only thing they really do well is force turnovers. They don’t create a lot of stops otherwise and rebound the ball poorly, meaning they rely heavily on giveaways to stop opponents. Harden remains a liability on defense, and his inactivity forces Houston into an unusual scheme where all of the non-Harden actions are defended one way, and then screens involving Harden have to be switched.
Nonetheless, even as Harden persists in being a rotating turnstile on one of the end the floor, he inflicts even more damage on the other end. His play is the singular reason that the Rockets are the greatest threat to Warriors hegemony, so long as Paul is present to tone down some of the astronomical usage Harden was shouldering in his absence.
Houston may have been playing a long game of chicken with the rest of the league as it sorted through its issues throughout the first three-quarters of the season. The Rockets have the high-end talent, the depth, and the experience to challenge Golden State more than any other team in the NBA. It may have been hard to tell earlier in the year, but that fact is now crystal clear.