The All-Star break—also known as the regular season’s most significant benchmark—has arrived for the Rockets. What’s that mean? Well, for the fastest team in the league, it’s time to rest. For me? It’s time to reflect on the season’s first 55 games by taking a close look at three important pros and three improvable cons as the Rockets prepare to make their first playoff appearance in four long years.
James Harden: Where do we begin? James Harden is everything the Rockets have hoped for, and more. An All-Star at 23 years old, he’s exploded in his first season as the focal point of an NBA offense (and the opposing team’s defense), playing a fearless, relentless style of basketball that’s gone so far as to launch his name in all the MVP discussions sans LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
He’s fifth in points per game, first in free-throw attempts, first in made free-throws, second in minutes, third in offensive win shares and offensive rating, eighth in usage percentage, and ninth in PER.
Here’s a fun stat: Only nine players in NBA history have gone an entire season averaging at least 10 free-throw attempts and 5.7 assists per game. All are either in the Hall of Fame or headed there shortly. James Harden is on pace to be the tenth.
Corner threes: In many ways the Houston Rockets are a cutting edge organization, from their hiring of advanced stats guru Daryl Morey, to their implementation and obsession with smart, efficient shots. The corner three being one of them, widely regarded as the second best shot in basketball behind the dunk. This season the Rockets are attempting more corner threes than any team in the league. And they make 40.4% of them, making them one of the 10 most accurate teams in the league.
Exciting fast-paced style: Everyone loves watching offense. Those who deny it are lying. The Houston Rockets not only attack in efficient spots, they get more offensive possessions than anybody else in the league, running to the tune of a ridiculous 98.6 possessions per 48 minutes (highest in the league, though since January 1st they’ve been outpaced by the Nuggets, Bucks, and Lakers).
Even in the instant after they give up a made basket, the Rockets look to run, utilizing transition offense in 17% of their possessions. Part of the reason for this is their youth, and the difficulty it’d take for them to consistently find efficient looks at the basket running 48 minutes of half-court sets. But apart from masking their adolescence, the idea of running makes a ton of sense. Jeremy Lin and James Harden are two of the best guards in basketball at getting to the rim, and there’s no easier way to do that than catching a disorganized defense on its heels.
Should they eventually land a marquee low post presence like Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, or even Paul Millsap, time will tell if the Rockets continue to deploy an up and down tempo. But watching it unfold in the first half of the season has been an undeniable nightly pleasure, and you shouldn’t take it for granted.
The power forward position: Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris are the two main power forwards, alternating alongside the other four regular starters throughout the first “half” of the season. And while Patterson’s individual numbers are more impressive, the team is noticeably better with Morris on the court.
It’s all a moot point. The Rockets are set at every position except this one, and with the likes of Josh Smith, Zach Randolph, Pau Gasol, and Paul Millsap all available either at this trade deadline or over the summer for the right price, it feels like a matter of time before the Rockets use their cap space to improve the most glaring weakness on their roster.
Whenever Omer Asik hits the bench: Nobody confuses the 2013 Houston Rockets with the 2008 Boston Celtics, but these Rockets DO have Omer Asik, a brilliant defensive anchor who rotates throughout the lane, guards pick-and-rolls, and ends offensive possessions by routinely vacuuming the glass.
When he’s on the court, Houston holds opponents to 101.5 points per 100 possessions, which translates to a top 10 defense. When he sits, everything falls apart; the Rockets give up 109.0 points per 100 possessions, making them the NBA’s worst defense.
Struggles in the clutch: Whenever they trail or lead by five points with five minutes to go, Houston deteriorates. Their blinding pace slows down, and their offense devolves into a stagnant, isolation heavy quandary in the half-court; they average 0.96 assists per turnover, good for 24th in the league.
On the defensive end, the Rockets allow 1.13 points per possession, a bottom 10 ranking. They ignore the three-point line more than any other team in the league, which doesn’t help, and they send the opposition to the free-throw line far too often. Their transition defense in clutch situations couldn’t get any worse, giving up 16.8 fast break points per 48 minutes, also a league worst.
The Rockets are SO young, so none of this should come as a shock, but if they want to make the playoffs/give themselves a puncher’s chance at winning a first round series, they’ll have to loosen up when the games get tight.
All stats in this article came from NBA.com/Stats