A look at the early returns on the Houston Rockets’ season

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.

The Rockets right now are fourth in offensive rating (108.8) and 20th in defensive rating (105.2).  Their net rating of 3.6 is ninth in the league.  Last season, Houston finished eighth in offense (105.5) and 21st in defense (105.6).  Last season’s net rating of -.2 was 16th in the league.  Recall that I had theorized repeatedly over the course of the offseason as to Houston’s potential path to 50 wins, wondering if a top-5 offense and a defense in the 20’s would be better served than a more modest offense with a defense in the teens.  With Beverley back, one could expect that defensive rating to climb closer to the teens, with the offense remaining as potent.

This was a surprise: in total rebounding percentage, the Rockets are third in the league this year; they were 22nd last year.  They are fourth in offensive rebounding percentage, and tenth in defensive rebounding percentage.  The Rockets were sixth in offensive rebounding percentage last season, and dead last in defensive rebounding percentage.  This is not insignificant: I had argued that the greatest challenge in replacing Dwight Howard would not be at the rim, but on the boards.  It seems that the Rockets have not only done so, but improved on that front.

Turnovers are still a huge problem.  The Rockets are third this year, and were fourth last year.  That’s not really a surprise considering that the team is not only integrating a new system, but playing a career shooting guard at point guard for the first time.

Houston is fourteenth in pace after finishing seventh last season.  This comes as a surprise as observers expected a near replication of D’Antoni’s Suns teams and the frantic pace displayed during the Nash era.  In actuality, aside from the occasional outlet pass, James Harden typically walks the ball up the court in initiating the offense.

Lineup data will drastically shift with Beverley’s inclusion going forward, but thus far, here’s what we have: the lineup of Anderson, Ariza, Capela, Gordon, and Harden has a net rating of +18.3 in 154 minutes played!  That quintet is second to only the Clippers lineup of Griffin, Jordan, Moute, Paul, and Redick, among league lineups having played at least 150 minutes.  For comparison’s sake, Golden State’s best heavy minute lineup is Curry, Durant, Green, Pachulia, and Thompson, producing a +11.4 net rating in 164 minutes played.

That same quintet of Anderson, Ariza, Capela, Gordon, and Harden, with an offensive rating of 117.8, is tops in the league among groups with over 100 minutes of shared court time.  That’s better than the Clippers and better than the Warriors.  The Houston Rockets’ starting lineup was really good.

Replace Capela with Nene, and in 80 minutes, Anderson, Ariza, Gordon, and Harden have a net rating of -.9, an offensive rating of 103.5, and a defensive rating of 104.5.  Capela is very important to this team.

Just for fun, Houston’s best lineup overall has been Brewer, Dekker, Harden, Nene, and McDaniels, with an offensive rating of 143.4, a defensive rating of 110.2, and a net rating of 33.1, in 23 minutes together.

And lastly, via basketballreference.com: the Rockets have an offensive rating of 117.3 with James Harden on the court, and a rating of 97.1 with him off, for a difference of +20.2.  They are also better defensively with Harden on, as opponents have an offensive rating of 106.5 when Harden is on the court, and one of 110.0 with him off.

In totality, these numbers are extremely encouraging, especially considering the replacement of Tyler Ennis with Patrick Beverley.  Houston’s starting lineup has been at worst the second best in the league; production has fallen off a cliff when James Harden has taken a breather.  With Beverley spearheading the second unit, the bleeding there should stop to some degree.

And just fourteen games in, one would also expect the production of Clint Capela, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell to continue trending upward.  While K.J. McDaniels has mysteriously been purged from the lineup despite early promising signs, each of the other young players has broken out this season.  I argued early on that contributions from at least one of Harrell, McDaniels, or Dekker was essential for this season to be successful.  They’ve all looked good; the Rockets aren’t wholly dependent on aging veterans.

As it has been all along, the biggest wild card will be injuries.  It looks like Houston will be able to withstand mediocrity defensively with one of the league’s best offenses.  Add in Beverley to the early returns, and you’re probably looking at a 55 win projection.  But if James Harden goes down for any significant period of time, the Rockets are toast.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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