Clutch City

The Rockets Look Like Real Contenders

James Harden is rolling. His Rockets might be legit.

By Adam Doster December 7, 2016

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Image: Jeff Balke

We’re now one-quarter of the way through the NBA regular season, and one thing in Houston is clear: The Beard is thick, luxurious, and playing better than anyone on the planet.

Last Thursday, James Harden and his Rockets rolled into Golden State and out-dueled the defending Western Conference champs in a double-overtime slugfest. (Only Invisalign saved the team’s star from certain enamel destruction.) Then they hopped a flight to Denver, arriving at 5 a.m., and proceeded to dismantle a talented Nuggets squad on virtually no rest. (The Washington Post thinks it’ll go down as “one of the best sweeps of a back-to-back set this season.”) Three days and another “crazy” win later, the Rockets now sit at 14-7 overall, owners of the fifth-best record in all of basketball. Just as we’d hoped, Houston is starting to resemble a legitimate NBA title contender.

Most Valuable Facial Hair

It all starts with Harden, who has played himself right back into MVP contention. Through Tuesday morning, the team’s new “point guard” is averaging 28.7 points, 11.6 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per game. These are video game numbers. It’s unlikely, but not insane to imagine the 27-year-old averaging a triple-double, which nobody has done since Oscar Robertson pulled it off … in 1962.

It’d be an understatement to say Harden has taken kindly to new coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive scheme, which prioritizes flow and spacing; he’s second in usage rate (the percentage of possessions a given player is responsible for ending with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover) and he's leading the league in points created off assists. The team’s pick-and-roll offense has been especially lethal. “The dude is an artist,” writes ESPN’s Zach Lowe, “all calculated shoulder fakes and sideways glances designed to open up a pass two chess moves away.”

“He doesn’t try to control anything,” Harden has said, of his new coach. “If he has a play, he’ll throw it at me, and if I have something better, I’ll just tell him I have something better, and he’s cool with it.” Rockets fans should be, too.

Bombs Away

Ten days ago, in a win over Sacramento, the Rockets did something no NBA team has ever accomplished in the history of the sport: they attempted 50 three-pointers in a single game.

And this was no real anomaly—it was by design. For three seasons running, the Rockets have paced the NBA in the percentage of shots the team takes from beyond the three-point line. They’re doing so again, at an absurdly high mark of 43.1 percent. It’s probable that Houston will destroy the record for threes hoisted in an 82-game season. Most encouraging of all—they’re actually making some of those longballs, too.

Again, it centers around Harden, and his “innate ability to draw pressure and collapse opposing defenses.” This opens up all sorts of easy opportunities for his teammates. Pick-and-pop specialist Ryan Anderson, one of the Rockets’ high-priced free agent additions, is nailing 41 percent from deep while averaging over six attempts per game. Eric Gordon—another newcomer, and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate—is knocking down four per contest, too. Combined with timely offensive rebounding, the Rockets are trailing just two clubs (Golden State and Toronto) in overall offensive efficiency. They are fun and fast and confident, basically everything they weren’t at the end of their ugly 2016 campaign.

Somebody Stop Me

The bad news? The Rockets still don’t play any defense, like not even a little, a trait that doomed them in 2015-16. By advanced metrics, they’re somehow worse than last year’s squad, allowing an additional 1.6 points per 100 possessions (through 21 games). Anderson, so useful on one end of the floor, is a porous liability on the other end, “lethargic at a position where opponents can run him through pick-and-rolls until he breaks.”

The coaching staff claims they're all trying, and that, per ESPN’s Lowe, happy chemistry will “drive everyone to prepare a little harder, follow the game plan, and fight like hell for their teammates.” In a league this competitive, though, wishful thinking is not really a reasonable game plan. Predicts Lowe: “The Rockets look awesome when the shots are falling, and they are rolling. It's unclear if they can dig down and do the grimy stuff on nights when they are cold from deep, or an elite defense mucks up Harden's game.”

What’s that old cliche, the one about defense winning championships? Let’s cross our fingers and hope it’s outdated.

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