Everything filters through James Harden. The MVP debate is in full swing, and will continue through April. The reality: Harden and Westbrook have been absolutely and utterly dominant offensively. Though the defense of Kawhi, the constant superiority of LeBron, and the ridiculously efficient Kevin Durant can be thrown into the mix, the burden could not be greater on Harden or Westbrook.
Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system isn’t static, both in terms of the way the system itself operates and in terms of the trajectory of his coaching career. He isn’t simply repeating the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns, replacing Nash with Harden, though the system does still rely on enormous helpings of pick-and-roll, constant reading of the defense, and wide-open spacing resulting from the range of their three long-range assassins and the rim-running Clint Capela. These Rockets are flowing because James Harden has been unleashed as a playmaker and is obviously enjoying himself on the court again. The trust flows both ways, and has now spread out among the entire roster. The departure of a certain unhappy center and the addition of two catch-and-shoot geniuses has the Rockets pushing the three-point boundaries of the NBA once again.
In early January, the Houston Rockets were lighting the league on fire (sorry, the Heat and Rockets cause these terrible puns to spill out onto the keyboard). The Rockets have won 9 of 10 and are challenging the Spurs for the second seed in the West. A second seed mean a chance to avoid Golden State in the second round.
The Rockets are 3rd in offense, 15th in defense, and had a robust +6.6 point differential, which is 3rd in the Association. Most projections have them closing in on 60 wins. After delightfully gritty guard Patrick Beverley returned in mid-November, they had been models of perfect health, going a scorching 15-2 from mid-November through mid-December. Despite losing upstart center Clint Capela to a broken fibula (how does a player miss only one month with a broken leg? Science continues to perplex) the next-man-up mentality and team chemistry showed up in the mix of second-year forward Montrezl Harrell, savvy veteran Nene, and the scoring outbursts of swingman Sam Dekker. Has there ever been a more productive offensive environment than the one Houston has going right now? One could make a case for the historic Raptors offense, but Houston’s actually seems more sustainable, barring injury. No, the Warriors can’t count in this conversation.
Effectively, the Rockets played without a center in Capela’s absence. Nene, who is stronger and a more nuanced defender, started against bigger teams. Harrell, only 6’8” but with the ability to sprint past traditional big men, has provided great offensive production. Nene was acquired for the playoffs, and the Rockets want to keep him as healthy as possible for April. Capela returned a week ago, and is rounding back into form.
Threes, free throws, and layups
46% of Houston's field-goal attempts this season have been from beyond the three-point line (39.5 out of 86), with 24 of those 40 taken from 25-29 feet (shooting 37%). Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are doing most of the shooting from deep, stretching the floor more than any team in the NBA, which alters the floor balance. Golden State is second in long threes with 19 per game and makes them impossible to defend. Not surprisingly, they're only averaging 7.8 mid-range shots per game.
Beverley’s perimeter defense is top-10 in the NBA, probably the best under 6’6” defender in the West. Houston’s record with Beverley: 25-9. Through January 10th, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson had yet to miss a game, which is both surprising and hugely important to their success. Gordon hasn’t played more than 64 games in a season since his second year in the league, 2009-10. Consequently, in July’s free-agent salary-uncapped sweepstakes, Morey was able to sign Gordon to a comparatively modest deal, at 4 years/$53 million.
Since then, Ryan Anderson went down with the flu and the Rockets have dropped 4 of 7. He tried to play through it for the first two games, then missed three of the last four, with the exception of a 9-minute, 1-shot stretch against Golden State, before returning last night in Houston’s loss at Milwaukee.
Trade Needs and Possibilities
- Corey Brewer needs replacing, though Sam Dekker has emerged lately
- Take pressure off Harden, add a third player to create/run offense and ease Harden down the stretch
- A bigger backup center would help if Capela injury lingers, better for certain playoff matchups
In discussing the trade deadline, this year’s crop of available players is more of an unknown than usual. In the West, there are four teams (Blazers, Kings, Nuggets, and Pelicans) who are all in the hunt for the worst playoff prize imaginable: a matchup with either Golden State or San Antonio, who will both win 65+ games. In the East, there is a swamp of teams (all but Brooklyn, Miami, and Philadelphia) who are in the thick of an ugly race for the 7th and 8th seeds. The lack of clear definition between playoff contenders and sure-fire tanking teams makes this year’s trade rumor mill all the more unsure, and more likely to heat up right after the All-Star Break, as we near the February 23rd deadline.
Thabo Sefolosha, Hawks
Morey would no doubt interested in Hawks wing Thabo Sefolosha, an excellent defender who will only add to the chemistry in Houston. Sefolosha would knock down those corner threes that Brewer has been missing. The Hawks are likely to put Millsap and Sefolosha back on the trade market at some point in February. If Sefolosha isn’t available, Suns forward P.J. Tucker would be next on the list. Chance of happening: 50%
Kosta Koufos, Kings
Sacramento center Kosta Koufos has the ability to protect the rim, and would add versatility in terms of playoff match-ups. Corey Brewer probably won’t get it done, even though the Kings just lost Rudy Gay for the season. Chance of happening: 30%
Will Barton, Nuggets
Denver’s Will Barton is an electric athlete, who can create. Though it doesn’t seem to need boosting at the moment, Barton would make the Rockets even harder to guard, if Harden were to sit for a few games. Chance of happening: 20%
Tyreke Evans, Pelicans
If the Pelicans start to lose ground soon, Tyreke Evans is a possibility to spell Harden as a high-quality creative off-the-bounce force. Evans will be a restricted free-agent this summer. Chance of happening: 10%