The season grows up so quickly, doesn’t it? It feels like just yesterday, the 2013-2014 NBA season was in its infancy, just crossing the threshold into November. Continuing the analogy, the season is finishing up puberty now, right at the one third mark. Sample sizes are extending from small to large, players are shifting to new positions, and notable players are coming out of unexpected places. The season is starting to give us an impression of the end of year standings, and we can finally try to figure out which teams are contenders and which have some more growing up to do.
A few teams tower above their peers, clear favorites to meet in the Conference Finals. The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers dominate the Eastern Conference with an undeniable superiority. Nobody else in that half of the league even has a shot unless some truly cataclysmic injuries or trades take place. The Western Conference is a bit messy, though a hierarchy is beginning to take shape. The same as the last few years, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are the rulers of the Pacific side of the country. Unlike in the east, there sits a group of usurpers right beside them, ready to claim that throne themselves. Where, then, do the Houston Rockets land? Are they a contender?
The one word answer is no. Of course, one word is seldom enough to answer any question, so here’s the three word answer: no, not yet. If we go up to six words, we get an even more telling answer. No, not yet… but probably soon.
How do we know the Rockets aren’t a contender this very second? The first clue is probably their record. At 18-10, the Rockets are currently the 5th seed. That’s a good record and a spot in the standings that can easily culminate in a trip to the second round. On the other hand, ofthe four definite elite teams in the league, the Heat have the most losses: six. Season record is a good indicator, but certainly not the best one. What else can we look at?
Average margin is more useful, and easy to track. Where do the Rockets stand right now? They currently sit at +4.2, a number good for 7th in the league. That’s respectable, but aren’t quite that of a contender. The last seven years have seen champions with margins of +7.6 (Miami, 2013), +6.2 (Miami, 2012), +4.5 (Dallas, 2011), +4.5 (Los Angeles Lakers, 2010), +7.6 (Los Angeles Lakers, 2009), +9.0 (Boston, 2008) and +7.5 (San Antonio, 2007). The Rockets aren’t too far from those 2010-2011 numbers, but those are the exception rather than the rule.
A look at offensive and defensive stats shows a team close, but not quite there. They sit at 3rd (107.2) on offensive efficiency, a measure of how many points they manage per 100 possessions. They had been dueling with Miami for first, but then the Portland Trail Blazers came blustering in to grab a mind-blowing rating of 110.5. Houston is definitely in the contention range on offense.
Unfortunately, there’s another half of basketball.
On defense, the Rockets lay claim to a rating of 101.3, a number which isn’t particularly bad; they sit at 9th overall. The truth comes in looking above and below. The break between 9th and the 8th place Los Angeles Clippers’ 100.0 rating is 1.3 points per 100 possessions. The only larger gap in defensive rating comes in the huge 3.1 gap between 1st place Indiana and 2nd place San Antonio. It’s said that a team needs to be top ten in offense and defense to contend. It might be more accurate to look at groupings, instead. Setting aside the Pacers creating some kind of defensive tier all of their own, the 2nd through 8th teams are a clear cluster, with the Rockets coming at the head of the much larger pack below.
That’s not good news. But it’s not bad news either. The upshot is that the Rockets are just a little distance from breaking into that group of elite defenses. It seems impossible, given the porous nature of the last few Rockets teams, but with a few tweaks, Houston could push that defensive efficiency rating down below 100, into the sweet spot. That margin of +4.2 is a little low, but it could soon jump. As a young team, just finding themselves, this Rockets team is right on track to try to win it all soon. There’s still track left, though, even if they’re trying to cover it all this season. The Rockets are almost grown up.