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Ahead Of The Curve

Posted by JLin

By Jason Friedman

BOSTON - Admit it, you never saw this coming. Then again, who did?

Here we are, two weeks into 2013 and the Houston Rockets, a team most NBA prognosticators picked to win somewhere in the vicinity of 30+ games before the regular season began, are currently on pace to win 48 games, a mark that would place them comfortably within the Western Conference playoff picture.

That represents quite a rapid ascension for the youngest team in the NBA, especially given the fact its roster was completely reshuffled and reconfigured during the offseason, then recalibrated once more with the blockbuster trade that brought James Harden to Houston just days before the start of the regular season. Hopes for this team were bright when the Beard came to town but even the most optimistic of objective analysts would have been hard pressed to predict this sort of success this quickly.

And yet, here we are. Beginning December 14 with Houston’s 12-point win over the Celtics, the Rockets have been on a tear, going 11-4 with a whopping nine of those victories coming via double-digit margins. This, then, is not a team that’s simply sneaking past people; more often than not they’re blowing them out, making this stretch doubly promising in terms of what it portends for the future.

Of course, whenever we start looking ahead, there’s always far more that falls into the “unknown” category rather than the “known.” Injuries, trades and the like can change the equation in a heartbeat and there’s simply no way to account for how those variables will alter both the Rockets’ landscape and that of the other 29 NBA teams. Fortunes change fast in this league, something Houston fans know all too well. The Rockets were red-hot late last season as well and looked like a lock for the playoffs before an ill-timed six-game losing streak ruined everything. The lesson: There’s always more work to be done.

So let’s allow the future to take care of itself for now and focus instead on how exactly the Rockets have managed to expedite the growth process, exceed expectations and place themselves into the position they currently reside. It is of course a multi-layered conversation, but one that has a very discernible and obvious starting point.

MVP Performance

The Rockets knew they were getting a game changer when dealing for James Harden. But true to the theme of this Rockets season to date, Harden has been even better than advertised. The 23-year-old, quite simply, is one of the most brutally efficient scorers in the game today. What’s perhaps been most impressive, however, is his ability to rapidly adapt to being his team’s No. 1 offensive option and, consequently, the primary focus of every opponent’s defensive game plan.

After bursting onto the scene with a pair of Jordan-esque performances to open the season, Harden went through a period where he struggled somewhat (at least by his ridiculous standards) over the course of the next two-to-three weeks that followed. This was hardly surprising given his new role and the way the opposition was loading up to stop him. If anything has been surprising, in fact, it’s that Harden seemed to only require those few weeks before adjusting and returning to the business of laying waste to opposing defenses.

Here are Harden’s eye-popping numbers over the course of the past 15 games: 28.5 ppg, 5.2 apg, 4.0 rpg, 2.1 spg, .481 FG%, .387 3-pt%, 87.3 FT% and 11.1 free throw attempts per contest. I think it’s safe to safe that meets pretty much everyone’s standard of MVP-level production. He is a living, breathing model of efficient offense, all 3-point shots and attempts at the rim, and his propensity for drawing fouls in bunches is a huge reason why the Rockets rank fourth in the NBA in free throw attempts per game and third overall in free throw makes. A couple more statistical tidbits of the more advanced variety: Harden is No. 5 in the NBA in estimated wins added and in a league that uses the pick-and-roll as its primary life source, Harden is the most effective practitioner of the play according to Synergy Sports, racking up more points per possession than noted pick-and-roll masters Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul.

Now make no mistake: what LeBron James does – on both ends of the floor, it should be noted – is second to none, and the seasons Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are having absolutely merit their names being in the MVP conversation as well. Just know this: Harden has been an offensive dynamo, a closer and the single biggest reason the Rockets have climbed so high so quickly. Houston has won some games (recent contests against Minnesota and Cleveland come to mind) simply because it has James Harden and the other team doesn’t. He is exceedingly valuable by any measure. His production speaks for itself. And provided he keeps it up, he’ll have earned the right to have his name added to the MVP mix, too. 

Punishing Pace

One of the benefits of playing at the league’s fastest pace (which the Rockets do): it can wear out the opposition. Teams that aren’t accustomed to playing such up-tempo basketball might be able to hang for a while, but so long as the Rockets keep attacking for the full 48, sooner or later those opponents feel the burn and become vulnerable to Houston’s relentless offensive aggression. They watch helplessly as the Rockets rack up easy buckets, and get dejected when a big shot on one end is instantaneously answered with a Rockets response mere seconds later.

Break down Houston’s performance by quarters and the numbers show there might be something to this theory. For the season the Rockets are actually being outscored in the first quarter (they’re -8 on the year), but they’ve topped opponents by 46, 57 and 25 in the second, third and fourth quarters respectively. Houston shoots the 3-ball better in the third and fourth quarters than it does in the opening half (fatigued defenses don't close out to the perimeter as quickly), and it gets to the line more in each of those periods as well (tired teams also tend to reach rather than move their feet on D).

The Rockets coaching staff has done a tremendous job hammering home the importance of pace since day one of training camp and the players have clearly embraced it. It’s a fun, player-friendly style but it also requires a total commitment and buy-in from every player and position on the team. The guards and wings have to resolve themselves to push the ball up the floor after both makes and misses and the bigs have to rebound the heck out of the ball on the defensive end before making an outlet and then sprinting the other way themselves in an effort to beat their man down the court. It’s a credit to the conditioning work the players and coaches put in this summer that the club has been so successful implementing this strategy thus far.

Chemistry 101

One of the things that makes basketball such a beautiful and, at times, vexing game is the fact that fit matters. You can’t just throw five scorers on the floor together at the same time and expect it to all work itself out. The best lineups operate like a band, each member knowing his or her own role and working together in perfect harmony to ensure the outfit makes beautiful music together.

That process, of course, takes time, which is precisely why it remains somewhat mind-boggling to realize just how quickly this Rockets team has coalesced. Two things, however, have helped to expedite the learning curve of a roster that is still discovering new things about itself every day.

One: There are a lot of high basketball IQ players on this roster. Omer Asik, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Carlos Delfino – each of those guys really understands the game; they think it, they study it and they consistently demonstrate a strong awareness of the sport’s subtleties with regard to scheme, angles and rotations.  

Two: The pieces fit together fairly well. Harden is the superstar scorer, Asik the defense and rebounding anchor (more on him in a moment), Parsons the quintessential glue guy (and so much more - in truth, he really is more like the Rockets very own Swiss Army knife) while Patterson and Marcus Morris have both provided solid production and floor spacing from the four-spot. And after all the public hand wringing during the season’s opening month over whether or not Jeremy Lin and James Harden could successfully share the floor together, the two players have taken significant strides to show they can create some pretty sweet music together, too. On December 9, the Lin-Harden combo ranked as the Rockets’ fourth-worst two-man pairing from a plus-minus standpoint (-34). Today, it ranks in the team’s top-10 (+79). They just needed time, and the more combined experience they deposit, the better they’re going to get as a backcourt.

Then there is the Rockets’ reserve unit which has been nothing short of a revelation. Carlos Delfino, in particular, has been extraordinary by virtue of the spacing and veteran savvy he provides every time he sets foot on the floor. Want proof: The Rockets’ offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) when Delfino is on the court is 112.5 – a number that trumps Oklahoma City’s league-best 110.5. Then mix in Toney Douglas’ team-best 3-point shooting (.405 for the season and an incredible .452 in fourth quarters), Greg Smith’s beastly finishing touch and the boost provided by a rejuvenated Patrick Patterson and suddenly the Rockets have a nine-man rotation that gives them the luxury of being able to play just about any style depending on each game’s particular matchups.

Houston may be young and inexperienced, but when the players are smart and the pieces fit, that youth can grow up in a hurry.

The Asik Effect

That the vast majority of this piece has focused on the offensive end likely comes as little surprise given that the Rockets’ offense has thus far come together much faster than has its team D. Houston has, however, become a middle of the pack defensive team and much of the credit for the club even ranking that high has to do with the presence of Omer Asik. The 26-year-old center is the glue that holds the team together on that end of the floor, protecting the rim and cleaning up mistakes with his incredible length, quickness, footwork and understanding of defensive principles. When he’s on the floor, Houston’s defensive rating is actually 99.4 – a number that would be good for 6th best in the NBA. When Asik rests, so too does the Rockets’ D. Houston’s defensive rating drops all the way down to 108.8 with Asik on the bench – a number that would rank dead last in the league. Yes, he’s that important.

His impact is just as vital on the boards as well. Asik leads all centers in defensive rebound percentage and he represents the biggest reason (by far) that Houston is the fourth best team in the NBA in that category – a mark of massive importance since it is frequently his board work that triggers the Rockets’ transition game.

Going forward

As Wednesday nights disappointing defeat in New Orleans illustrated, this team still has plenty of room left for improvement. Turnovers have been a season-long problem and though that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, it’s an issue that must at least be mitigated. A continued commitment to better transition defense is a necessity as well. So, too, is picking up more wins against Western Conference competition.

By and large, though, the Rockets will be well served if they can simply stay the course. Given the nascent stages of this team’s overall development, natural growth and improvement should arrive just by having the opportunity to play and practice together every day. Greater familiarity will ensue and increased chemistry will come.

So, too, of course will adversity. That much is certain. But this squad has already weathered a trio of three-game losing streaks and stood by its head coach during the most tragic of times. Toughness and resilience should not be issues for this team. And based on the impressive results recorded thus far, neither, it seems quite certain, is talent.

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