Had Chris Paul started the season healthy, there’s a good chance the 2018 Rockets would be getting the 1996 Bulls treatment right now.
Houston is 37-4 when Paul and James Harden start and 35-2 when they’re joined by Clint Capela. Those records would put them on pace for 74-8 and 77-5 records, respectively. They’re as good as any team that has ever been assembled—nevermind any team in the league this year.
Despite this, the Rockets aren’t even favored to win the Western Conference this season. They face the unfortunate reality of playing in the same conference as the Warriors, who are still, by and large, the favorites to win it all. VegasInsider.com gives the Warriors extremely safe odds, 2-to-3, to win their third championship in four years. The Rockets are a distant second at 4-to-1.
But if you’re planning to visit Vegas soon, you might want to take those Rockets odds while you still have the chance. Because the Rockets—not the Warriors—are the best team in the NBA right now, and they should be the favorites to win the West.
While the Warriors do pose a substantial roadblock for Houston, it’s not an insurmountable one. The Rockets have already defeated them twice in three games this year, and the two teams have nearly identical records. It’s clear Houston has the best chance of denying the Warriors an NBA Finals berth and perhaps, more accurately, Houston is the only team in the NBA capable of pulling it off.
It might sound a little ridiculous to say the Rockets’ star power can top that of the Warriors. After all, Golden State has arguably four of the 10 best players in the NBA. But there’s a case to be made.
We’ll start with the Rockets’ impressive 35-2 record when Harden, Paul, and Capela play. By comparison, when the Warriors have had Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in the lineup, they’re 33-11. That’s a .944 winning percentage for Houston versus a .775 winning percentage for Golden State. So the Rockets could potentially put Golden State in the rare spot of being outmatched in star power, which hasn’t happened since they acquired Durant.
The Rockets also have a deeper bench and better options outside of their primary stars than the Warriors. Eric Gordon—Rockets sixth-man extraordinare—is averaging 18.5 points per game. Trevor Ariza has a 117 offensive rating. Ryan Anderson is shooting .383 from beyond the arc. Nene is averaging 8.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. P.J. Tucker has 2.9 win shares. There are a lot of players that can step up if Harden, Paul, or Capela aren’t having a great night.
Meanwhile, Golden State has no players outside of their Big Four averaging more than David West’s 7.1 points per game. Andre Iguodala is averaging a career-low 5.8 points per game, and his field-goal percentage is the lowest of his Warriors career. And while human memes Nick Young and JaVale McGee have been surprisingly efficient this year, neither of them get the kind of minutes to suggest they could be counted on during extended stretches in the playoffs.
The Rockets have also fared better in the Western Conference than the Warriors have. Houston is 32-8 against the West, while the Warriors are only 28-13. Additionally, the Rockets have a better winning percentage against Western Conference playoff teams. They’re 12-5 (.705) against them, while the Warriors are 14-8 (.636). They’re both about even against the top six teams in the league (Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, Blazers, Celtics, and Cavaliers). The Rockets are 7-4 against those teams, while the Warriors are 7-5.
The prospect of home-court advantage could also be a tipping point in what looks like it’ll be a competitive series between the Rockets and Warriors. If the season ended today, it would be the Rockets who would have home court throughout the playoffs, as Houston is currently a half-game up on Golden State. If Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals is in Houston — where the Rockets are 25-6 this year, and 1-1 against the Warriors—that will easily be Golden State’s toughest challenge in the Western Conference playoffs since their first Finals appearance in 2015. And given the fact the Rockets are 25-3 since Jan. 6, it doesn’t look like they’ll be giving up that No. 1 seed easily.
Making the NBA Finals four years in a row has been done just once in the last 30 years. It isn’t easy. And this year, the Rockets have a real chance to show the Warriors that first hand. So take those 4-to-1 odds on Houston while you still can, because if the Rockets continue this tear they’re on, those odds might not be available for much longer.