The Houston Rockets have won 13 of their last 14 games, and do not seem to be cooling off anytime soon. They’re owners of the second best record and most efficient offense in the NBA. Houston is scoring an absurd 116.0 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, a mark that outranks the Warriors, and that is even roughly comparable with last year’s more engaged and consistently dominant Golden State team.
The Rockets’ scoring success is due to a combination of individual brilliance and tactical intelligence. We already knew James Harden was absurdly talented, and within head coach Mike D’Antoni’s free form, uber-efficient framework, he’s as close to unguardable as the league has to offer.
Harden makes it nearly impossible to guard the pick-and-roll. Take one step too far forward to cut off a driving lane, and he’ll throw a perfect alley-oop. Stay back a beat too long to take that pass away, and Harden is on your chest finishing through contact in a flash. His sense of timing is utterly impeccable, and his bevy of dribbles moves endless.
Opponents that like to drop their big men in the pick-and-roll are frequently forced into alternative coverages. Some will trying switching, but Harden feasts on all types of bigs in isolation. Others opt to bring a third defender from elsewhere on the court, only for Harden to exploit even the smallest of mistakes when they do, rifling cross-court passes with a unique blend of flair and genius.
None of this is new knowledge to basketball fans. Harden was a legitimate MVP candidate just a season ago, and has been confounding opposing defenses for years. Houston averaged 115.0 points per 100 possessions in 2016-17, just one point less than their current rate, but Harden now has more elite-level support in the form of Chris Paul.
Covering Paul in the pick-and-roll comes with all of the nightmare decisions that dealing with Harden brings. He’s less explosive going to the rim, but CP3 is plenty capable of his own brand of scoring, and one of very few players able to match Harden as a lob tosser and laser thrower.
Houston has the luxury of keeping one of their offensive savants on the floor at all times, and the whole roster is benefiting dearly. Of the Rockets’ 10 major rotation players, nine rank in the 75th percentile or better in points per shot attempt. And the offense isn’t the only reason for excitement.
For the first time ever, D’Antoni is leading a team that ranks in the top-five defensively. That has a lot more to do with roster construction than it does with any real shift in coaching philosophy. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has surrounded his two stars with hard-nosed defenders, capable of knocking down open threes, and interested in doing little else (feel free to exclude Ryan Anderson from this categorization).
In Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah Moute, and P.J. Tucker, specifically, Houston has assembled a trio of talented wing defenders that are capable of guarding multiple positions. D’Antoni can rotate all three through a variety of hybrid starter/bench units.
Mbah Moute and Tucker are frequently deployed in tandem as reserves. The Rockets have held opponents to an outrageously stingy 94.1 points per 100 possessions in their 382 minutes together, and the offense isn’t suffering in the slightest. Houston is scoring at 114.9 points per 100 possessions of its own.
D’Antoni hasn’t explored the possibility of playing all three rangy, switchable wings at once much, but Houston has been exceptional when he has. The Rockets have allowed just 95.1 points per 100 possessions with Ariza, Mbah Moute, and Tucker on the court, and have scored at a ludicrous rate of 118.7 points per 100 possessions during that time.
Most teams don’t have the offensive firepower to force the Rockets to play all three of Ariza, Mbah Moute, and Tucker together for substantial minutes, but there may be some real utility to doing so against the NBA’s best team- the Warriors. For all of Houston’s staggering effectiveness to date, that is what will ultimately determine their success. Not the potency of their offense, nor the magnitude of their jump in defensive competency, but simply whether or not they are capable of beating one of the best teams the world has ever seen.
That’s not the fairest of measuring sticks, but it’s the reality of the world in which the Rockets are operating. As long as the Warriors’ core of future Hall of Famers remains in tact, the rest of the league will always be judged only according to if they can dethrone them. Traditionally, only the team with LeBron James, the league’s most dominant player since Michael Jordan, has had any hope of taking a series from Golden State, and even his efforts have proven to be utterly futile since the Warriors added Kevin Durant.
It’s a bit early for declarative statements, but Houston certainly has the look of a team that could push Golden State in a more meaningful way than anyone else has to date, LeBron included. They don’t have the same level of All-NBA talent on their roster, but at some point there are diminishing marginal returns on stars, and Houston has shown an ability to use their two superstars to approximate the same level of devastating offensive and striking defensive competence that the Warriors create with their four.
Golden State has held a unique advantage opponents not only in talent, but in being able to play a single lineup that is simultaneously its most effective offensive and defensive five man unit- what was originally the “Death Lineup” and has now morphed into the “Hamptons Five”. Most opponents are forced to choose between putting out a lineup meant to defend as best as possible, or hope to score enough to keep up with the Warriors’ constant stream of buckets.
With a Paul/Harden/Mbah Moute/Ariza/Tucker outfit, Houston may just be able to do both. Certainly that team won’t be favored to beat Golden State’s best combination of players, but they’ve got a chance, and given the Rockets propensity for shooting enough three-pointers to up the variance of their offensive production, Houston has as much potential as anyone to push for an upset.
It’s possible that the pressure of the playoffs will change the math. All of the Rockets central characters have been criticized for their postseason shortcomings. Harden for running out of gas, Paul for folding under pressure, and D’Antoni for being unable to adapt to creative defensive responses to his system. Those critiques come with varying degrees of validity, but there is certainly some truth to them.
Of the three, only Harden has ever appeared in the NBA Finals, a feat he pulled off with the Thunder in 2012, but each of their historical records have developed in unique contexts. Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni are all in a decidedly different situation than they’ve ever encountered before, and have varied enough mindsets and abilities to fuel a team that is better than any that they’ve been a part of in the past.
Just how much synergy the Rockets ultimately develop remains to be seen, but the early returns are extremely encouraging.