This fall, the Rockets’ front office and new coaching staff telegraphed their intentions. They wanted to make James Harden their point guard, giving him more touches and control over the offensive flow. They wanted to surround him with better shooters. They wanted to take a record-destroying number of three pointers. And they wanted to improve their defense enough to keep them in close games. Check, check, check, and check. The most amazing thing about the Rockets’ hot first half—at 34-14, they’ve got the NBA’s third-best record through January 24—is just how precisely they’ve followed their own script.
Let’s start with Harden, because it would be silly to start anywhere else. No NBA player has finished a season ranked first in both points and assists since Nate Archibald did it during the Nixon administration (1972-73). With 34 regular season games to go, Harden—fourth in scoring and first in assists—has a realistic shot. (He’s yanking down 8.2 rebounds a game, just for good measure.)
Per Synergy Sports, for every 48 minutes he’s on the floor, Harden is creating, assisting, or scoring 82 points by himself. These are MVP numbers, plain and simple. “People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?’” general manager Daryl Morey told Howard Beck earlier this month. “I’m like, ‘F**k no!’”
And it’s not just The Beard. The supporting cast is thriving alongside him. Free agent signees Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are just as lethal from the perimeter as expected. (Gordon is a front-runner for 6th man of the year award.) Center Clint Capela is replicating much of what sad sack Dwight Howard brought to Houston, without the massive contract and grating attitude. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer are "rediscovering their collective spark." Forward Montrezl Harrell is an energetic maniac. With Harden at the helm, the Rockets are scoring 6.6 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season; only one other team has improved by that drastically since 2015-216.
And the defense has been … not bad! They currently rank 16th overall in defensive efficiency, which puts them right in the middle of the pack, league-wide. Considering both their lethargy last season and head coach Mike D’Antoni’s (well-earned) defensive reputation, this is arguably grounds for a parade. And since December 1, after backup point guard (and ball-hawking bulldog) Patrick Beverley came back from injury, they rank sixth. This, combined with that scoring firepower, is a recipe for playoff success. “What the Rockets now have,” writes Beck, “is an extraordinarily rare, near-perfect philosophical alignment that extends from ownership through the front office and the head coach to the franchise star.”
What stands in their way? The pesky Spurs and high-flying Warriors. Both have a better record than Houston, along with a better efficiency profile. It’s conceivable that Harden and company will have to knock off both franchises solely to advance out of the Western Conference. (LeBron James awaits after that.) So far this year, Houston is 2-3 against their conference rivals, with three more games to come in March. Shea Serrano is already writing speculative playoff fan fiction. Brace yourselves for a wild ride.