Remember how fun it was to watch the Warriors in 2015-16? Before Draymond Green kicked Steven Adams in the dick. Before they blew that 3-1 lead. And before Kevin Durant had to go and ruin everything…It’s felt like the NBA has been missing something since the day the “publish” button was clicked on that fateful Players Tribune piece revealing KD’s next chapter. But in the Rockets hope has emerged.
It’s been a year and a half since Durant joined Golden State, a move that effectively squashed competitive balance in the only conference that’s had any semblance of it over the past decade. At the start of last season, it was basically a foregone conclusion that the Cavaliers and Warriors would reach the NBA Finals, and that the Dubs would likely come away from that battle victorious. And that’s exactly how it went, with the two teams combining for just one playoff loss in the three rounds preceding the Finals, where Golden State finished off Cleveland in five lackluster games.
Entering this season, many expected a similar outcome. But two months in both teams are lagging behind the Rockets, who sit atop the NBA with a 22-4 record.
Since suffering three losses early in the season, Houston has won 17 of its last 18 games dating back to Halloween and is a perfect 11-0 since the return of Chris Paul from a knee injury a month ago. Since getting Paul back, the Rockets have boasted an average margin of victory of more than 17 points per game. During that span, Paul has combined with 2017 MVP runner-up James Harden to average 50.1 points and 17.8 assists per game since November 16, good for a ridiculous 96.6 points created by the two each night. That’s more than the Sacramento Kings score per game as a team…
But it’s not just Harden and Paul who have made Houston one of the most compelling teams in the NBA this year. From Clint Capella’s tenacious interior defense, to Ryan Anderson’s 28-foot bombs, to Eric Gordon’s sparkplug scoring off the bench, the Rockets have legitimate role players to back up their superstars. The Rockets are on pace to win just shy of 70 games this season, and in terms of playing style there are similarities to the Strength In Numbers Warriors of yesteryear.
Watching the Rockets this season feels a lot like watching the pre-KD Warriors. They’re tossing up—and knocking down—threes with reckless zeal.
Back in 2015-16, the Warriors led the league with 31.6 attempted threes a night. This season, the Rockets are pushing the boundaries of perimeter reliance. In fact, they’re the only team in league history attempting more 3-pointers (43.3) per game than twos (40.7). Houston has five players who attempt more than five threes a night—Paul, Harden, Anderson, Gordon, and Trevor Ariza, and of those five only Gordon (32.6%) is shooting below 39% from distance. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, who join center Nene to round out the Rockets’ regular rotation, are respectable three-point threats as well.
With so many shooters on the floor at any given time, Harden and Paul are able to use their superb ability to penetrate in order to create open looks on the perimeter. According to NBA.com, the Rockets currently lead the NBA with a 12.5% assist percentage out of drives to the rim and as a result attempt the second-most catch-and-shoot threes in the league (26.6 per game). Their ability to break the backs of their opponents with timely threes, gimme buckets at the rim, and momentum-killing trips to the free-throw line makes them one of the scariest teams in crunch time. The only problem is that they never see crunch time, as they’ve played only 27 minutes of action this season in which the score was within five points with under five minutes to play.
Watching the Rockets this season feels a lot like watching the pre-KD Warriors. They’re tossing up—and knocking down—threes with reckless zeal. They inexplicably have a top 5 defense in the league to complement their NBA-best offense. James Harden is dropping nearly 32 points a night on 62.8% true shooting. And unlike the Dubs of today, it doesn’t feel wrong to enjoy their greatness.
The NBA needed this, we needed this. And when the playoffs come, the Rockets will be an easy team to root for.