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At the time of writing, the Houston Rockets are on pace to win 61 games, a sum which would surpass the franchise record set in 1993 when the team finished 58-24 en route to their first NBA championship.  The team’s offense, ranked third overall in the NBA, is every bit as good as was expected, and the defense, now 19th, but sixth since in December, has been better than anyone could have ever imagined.  James Harden is the MVP and others (Mike D’Antoni, Patrick Beverley, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon) could be in consideration for the other awards.  To date, the 2016-2017 campaign has been a remarkable ride, and the most unexpected season perhaps in Houston sports history.

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After the quest for the elusive second star, perhaps the greatest subplot of the James Harden era has been the search for an appropriate backcourt running mate.  In Harden’s first season, the team paired the Beard with fellow blockbuster acquisition Jeremy Lin, another ball dominating guard who thrived in the pick and roll.  While its been my opinion that Lin fared better than history will recall, the fit was awkward at best.  Patrick Beverley then supplanted Lin, but his playmaking limitations left the ball handling responsibilities on Harden entirely too burdensome.  Beverley was then moved to the bench and Ty Lawson was acquired, resulting in one of the most disappointing seasons in Houston sports history; Lawson was useless off the ball and Harden needed it, not to mention the other demons the former was facing.  Enter Eric Gordon, who shared the backcourt with Harden in the season’s opening stretch, and now is anchoring Houston’s formidable bench mob after the return of a resurgent Patrick Beverley.

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The Rockets decided last offseason to part ways with Dwight Howard, a decision partly motivated by a belief that his cap figure could be better spent, and partly borne from confidence that third year big man Clint Capela was ready to take over at the position.

I detailed extensively last season how production-wise, Capela was just as good as Howard, and how the team fared better with Capela at center.  This data formed the basis of my argument that Houston would be best served in parting ways with Howard in free agency.

So how is Capela doing thus far?  In games played through Friday night (December 3), Capela is averaging 12.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocked shots in 26.3 minutes per game.  While he’s shooting a sparkling 63% from the field overall, he’s still shooting an abysmal 45% from the free throw line.  Extrapolated out per 36 minutes, those numbers come out to 16.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, a stat-line that would have Capela mentioned amongst the top tier big men in the league, except that at this point in time, he’s incapable of playing such heavy minutes.  Unbeknownst to me before this season, stamina is a hurdle Mike D’Antoni and the coaching staff hopes Capela is able to eventually overcome.

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At the time of writing, November 23, the Houston Rockets sit at 9-5, and tied for the fourth best record in the Western Conference.  Their .643 winning percentage projects out to a 53-29 final finish, with most of their games having been played without starting point guard Patrick Beverley.  Were the season to end today, James Harden would have the second highest odds of winning the league’s MVP award.  Newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have contributed, and Clint Capela and Sam Dekker (and K.J. McDaniels)–young players from whom the team desperately needed contributions–have each broken out in a big way.  By almost all measures, the season to date has gone best-case-scenario for these Rockets.

Thus far, the Rockets are fifth in the league in shooting, and fifth in three point percentage (19th last season, despite attempting the second most).  The Rockets are leading the league in attempts thus far from downtown.

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For as long as I’ve been watching this team, especially since the time I’ve been covering it here on this page, in the minds of the fans and Houston sports commentariat, there has been some understood path towards contention.  As far-fetched as the plan may have been, its existence was settling, evidence of greater hope and a sense of direction.  Hakeem, Clyde, and the gang would hold on for one last run.  Steve, Cuttino, and then Yao would grow into a power, and then after them, McGrady and Yao – maybe they’d stay healthy.  Later, the hope was to pair Chris Bosh with Yao, but we know how that ended, and we’re still waiting after all these years to get back that iPad.

The Harden era always involved some eye towards free agency, driven by public comments regarding future cap flexibility.  First, the [successful] target was Dwight Howard.  Then, Carmelo Anthony, Bosh again, and LaMarcus Aldridge.  Daryl Morey’s focus was squarely pinpointed upon finding that elusive third star to complete his Big Three.

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