By all accounts, the Houston Rockets are not supposed to be where they currently are. The team meandered through a subpar 2015-16 season, one plagued by uncertainty at the head coach position, an egotistical center on the decline and a star shooting guard wasting away his prime years in a conference that included a 73-win team. Unsurprisingly, the Rockets made a first-round exit as the No. 8 seed.
The 2016 offseason did little to clear the ominous cloud of mediocrity in Houston. The nightmare with center Dwight Howard was over, but his departure left a gaping hole to be filled by then-second-year center Clint Capela.
The Rockets subsequently spent most of their remaining cap space on two former New Orleans Pelicans sharpshooters, guard Eric Gordon and forward Ryan Anderson, in addition to signing veteran forward Nene Hilario from Washington. The team was destined for another fridge playoff appearance based on roster talent alone.
Yet, with the All-Star break quickly approaching, the Rockets currently sit in third place in the Western Conference — only five-and a-half games behind the super-team Warriors. In my opinion, this is attributable to three major factors that have helped guide Houston to its improbable success.
The first major piece was the hiring of Head Coach Mike D’Antoni. The former Phoenix Suns coach is renowned for his offensive mind but garnered questionable reactions for a team lacking in defensive discipline. The 2015-16 NBA season saw the Rockets finish with the ninth-worst defense in the league on the heels of questions surrounding guard James
Harden’s lack of effort on the defensive end.
Despite the uncertainty of the D’Antoni hiring, his first roster change contributed to much of the team’s success. In Phoenix, D’Antoni ran a fast-paced system that was often dubbed “seven seconds or less.” The offense was dependent on guard Steve Nash’s ability to create space, both for forwards on the pick-and-roll and the shooters on the wing. Wanting to implement a similar style of offense on a team lacking such a floor general, D’Antoni moved Harden from his shooting guard spot to an unconventional yet natural position: point guard, pairing him with newcomer Eric Gordon to complete the backcourt.
Harden’s move to point guard has been nothing short of spectacular for Houston. A lineup of Harden, Gordon, forward Trevor Ariza, Anderson and Capela is a nice nod to D’Antoni’s days in Phoenix. The Rockets offense is simple, featuring high-screens from Capela, which allow Harden to drive and either dish the ball to one of the three shooters spotting up, hit Capela on the roll or take it to the rim.
As both an elite passer and finisher, this kind of system has allowed Harden to thrive, leading the league in assists per game with 11.6, well above his career average of 5.5 per game.
The final reason Harden and the Rockets’ offense is so successful is because of the rise in play of Houston’s role players. Gordon, Ariza and Anderson are shooting 39 percent, 40 percent and 37 percent, respectively, from deep, and Capela is shooting 63 percent from the floor.
Often left to create their own offense in New Orleans behind forward Anthony Davis, Gordon and Anderson have both carved a niche in Houston, receiving many benefits from Harden’s uncanny ability to create space and pass the ball. Houston attempts 40 three-pointers per game and converts on a staggering 37 percent of three-point attempts.
While nobody truly anticipated the success Houston has realized, there are still questions surrounding the team. They currently give up the seventh most points per game to opponents and do not feature a deep bench. D’Antoni has a history of poor playoff coaching, and the
Rockets still play in the same conference as the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors.
Regardless, this team, more so than any other team in the league, has the firepower to overcome poor defense and play at a faster pace than anybody. No one will favor them against Golden State or San Antonio, but with the leading MVP candidate at the helm, Houston is only a few three-pointers away from being serious title contenders.
Evan Couture is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. At The buzzer appears every other Friday.
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