What to make of the Houston Rockets’ first place start

I published the Rockets’ updated weekly rankings to Twitter this morning, seen above.  Here are some related thoughts along with my response to the query above:

  • 19 games out of 82 is a pretty determinative sample size.  At this point, the Rockets are who they appear to be – an elite team which would probably be the odds-on title favorite to win the whole damn thing in a non Golden State World.  They lead the East leading Celtics by three points in net rating.  The only thing that can slow down Houston is injury, a concern which shouldn’t be taken lightly given the history of several of their top players.  Still, history has shown, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned, that the floor for a team constructed around James Harden–ironically Houston’s most durable player–is around 55 wins.  It’s possible that Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Clint Capela could all each miss extended periods of time, as they typically each do, with the Rockets still finishing amongst the top seeds on the strength of Harden alone.

  • It’s remarkable to consider that the bulk aggregate of Houston’s sparkling rankings in several categories (second in offense, seventh in defense, first in defensive rebounding) has come without Chris Paul or Patrick Beverley (in essence, while still subtracting last year’s replacement level production at point guard).  This essentially means that even without Beverley, by simply adding P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, and with an unexpected leap from Clint Capela, the Rockets vastly improved, possibly even to another tier.  The team sustained its offensive potency while ascending to championship level defensive and rebounding production.
  • As I mused earlier this morning, the season has transpired basically as a best-case scenario, thus far, and this is without Chris Paul.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted the team to jump to first in defensive rebounding; seventh in defense this soon in the game is also quite the pleasant surprise.  And with Paul and Harden, there appear to be no growing pains offensively as the pair have meshed seamlessly.
  • I noted yesterday that while the team, at that time, was on a 64 win pace, last year’s Rockets were as well.  However, that iteration of the team reached such a zenith after the return of Patrick Beverley.  As I’ve been writing, this year’s analog to Beverley’s return is Paul except that the Rockets have already reached the comparable high mark.  A thought experiment: what translates to the greater impact?  Reducing Eric Gordon’s minutes by adding a Hall of Famer or replacing an absolute and complete zero in Tyler Ennis with Patrick Beverley?  It’s a serious question.  Ennis was virtually unplayable, yet they had no choice but to play him.
  • Where do the Rockets project going forward now that Chris Paul has returned?  In the four games since Paul’s return, the team has been first in net rating with a whopping 24.1, first in offensive rating at 119.9, and tied for first in defensive rating at 95.9.  But what’s of greatest predictive value is that the team has shot 42.9% on 3’s during that span, good for fourth in the league, and vastly higher than their overall 35.9% average.  Indeed, the greatest cause for optimism going forward, apart from Paul’s return itself is that despite Houston’s jaw-dropping offensive output to date, they’ve converted from downtown at an accuracy below expectations.  (For example, one does not imagine that Eric Gordon will not improve upon his current 33% shooting).  Having Paul, the game’s best passer, will free up even more looks.  I said after I had seen enough in the preseason that I thought Houston could challenge Golden State for the top ranking in offensive rating, and I am even more confident now in that belief.
  • Were it not for a hip check from Robert Horry, Mike D’Antoni would have won a title with Steve Nash.  He now has two players who are each vastly superior to Nash.  Incredible.
  • How did the entire league overlook Luc Mbah a Moute?
  • About the only criticism one can muster thus far about the Rockets, and its a valid one, is that they’ve faced a relatively weak schedule.  Of the quality opponents they’ve faced, they’ve lost twice to Memphis, once to Philadelphia, and once to the Raptors.  That’s fine.  My counter is that they’ve done all of this without their second best player.  Still, the early prognostications regarding “closing the gap” with Golden State are a tad premature.
  • And to the above point, and in responding to the reader’s question above: first, one would still construct the team as it is, in a vacuum, because this style of play works and has worked in pulverizing the entire league.  About the only characteristic of this roster created as a dependent variable to Golden State’s existence is the flexibility defensively at the wings.  That probably would not have been such a priority in any other world.  Secondly, it’s important to understand the distinction between “closing the gap” with Golden State and overcoming them head to head.  While statistically, the Rockets may appear to have significantly closed the gap, the key point is that the data above was amassed as Houston’s output against the entire league in relation to the entire league.  Thus, while the Rockets are decimating the other 28 teams with Ryan Anderson at the ‘4’ shooting 3’s and Clint Capela rolling to the rim, there still isn’t evidence those two players are playable against the Warriors.  And as I said a few days earlier, if two of Houston’s five most important players are unplayable against the Warriors, does any of this matter?  The Tucker/Mbah a Moute lineups serve as a viable alternative where previously one did not exist, and we are all optimistic about them, but dependency on such lineups is not ideal.  For one, that’s an incredible offensive burden to place upon Paul, Harden, and Gordon.
  • A league-wide note: this has been Gregg Popovich’s most impressive season.

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

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