The Houston Rockets. The Dream. Two-time world champions. As the years have gone on, we’ve been blessed with watching Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake, Tracy Mcgrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds and, as of late, James Harden’s dazzling offensive abilities. When the story of the NBA is told, this franchise is one who has inserted itself in a plethora of ways. Now, we take our minds off the past and look at the present. Are the current-day Houston Rockets a title contender?
First, we take a look at the Rockets starting lineup. This lineup is led by former MVP and offensive guru James Harden. Harden is teamed up with arguably the most explosive point guard in NBA history, Russell Westbrook. The rest of the starters comprise of Robert Covington, Danuel House, and PJ Tucker. Looking at this starting lineup, it is clear that it lacks one thing: size.
With their tallest starter only being 6’7”, Houston has utilized the small-ball lineup, especially since the departure of their starting center Clint Capela. Like with everything in basketball, this comes with pros and cons. Having a small ball lineup usually opens up the three-point shot more compared to a lineup with a predominant center. Also, it usually gives you quicker guys on the court, meaning fast breaks and steals are more prevalent. Some bad things about this though are that when it comes to guarding big men in the post, they tend to score more over the smaller defenders. Another thing is, with a small ball lineup, rebounding is much tougher and therefore results in more second-chance points for the other team. Looking at it, the Rockets have done pretty well so far with the small ball lineup and it doesn’t seem to hinder them as much as everyone thought it would. They still have one of the most decorated scorers of all time in Harden and one of the grittiest players in the NBA in Westbrook. They have great 2-way players in Tucker and Covington and a solid starter in House. Many teams would love to play a small-ball starting lineup as they do.
The Rocket’s bench consists of Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, Ben Mclemore, and Tyson Chandler. This bench contains some players who could easily start for teams around the league. Eric Gordon, 2017 Sixth Man of the Year award recipient, provides some much needed shooting off the bench. Jeff Green and Tyson Chandler provide veteran presence while also being tough as rocks. Ben Mclemore is averaging 10 points per game off the bench and Austin Rivers simply comes in and attempts to emulate Westbrook’s intensity. When substitutions are made for the Rockets, the subs seem to play with the same volume and will to win as the starters, which is key when it comes to contending teams.
Furthermore, we look at how this team has done on both sides of the ball thus far. On offense, this team is explosive. They average around 119 points per game, which is second-best in the league (FoxSports.com). Although this explosiveness can be beneficial, it proves time and time again to be detrimental. Their shooting percentage as a team is in the lower half of the league, only making 45.5% of their shots. It doesn’t get much better from deep, as they only shoot 35.1% from beyond the three-point line. Another concern on offense has been James Harden’s recent struggles. Harden has been the clear breadwinner of the Rockets offense for the past couple of seasons. He started off the season strong but has slowed down to a point where people are leaving him off of their top 5 NBA players list. Although Houston has Westbrook now to pick up some of the slack, it is imperative for the team’s success that Harden finds his way back to how he played starting off the season. On defense, this team is fairly average. They allow around 114 points per game, which puts them at 21st in the NBA. They also allow their opponents to shoot 46% against them, which is the middle of the pack. One thing this team does do well defensively is stopping the three-point shot. Teams only shoot 34.4% from deep against Houston, which puts Houston at 5th in the league. Overall, it seems as though this team has many inconsistencies when it comes to both sides of the ball but when they are on, they’re close to unbeatable.
Next, we look at the Rocket’s “It” factors. The first candidate is James Harden. Harden has been one of the flashiest scorers in the league since joining the Rockets in 2013. As time has gone on, Harden has gotten a bad reputation around the NBA. This is mainly due to his defensive struggles and his unique ability to get to the free-throw line. Although there are some questions about his defensive capabilities, there is no doubt that Harden is an “it” factor. He has gone toe-to-toe with the stacked Golden State Warriors a multitude of times and overall, just proves to be a top 5 player in the NBA every year. People tend to forget that getting to the free-throw line is an art and imperative for a team’s success, so to not label someone an “it” factor because they utilize this tactic would be simply wrong. The next candidate is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook over the years has gone from the jumpy, much-liked hero to the stat-padding, can’t shoot villain. Although he constantly gets shamed by NBA fans, he is still an “it” factor. People like to forget that Westbrook averaged a triple-double three years in a row while leading the Thunder to the playoffs. Aside from this, Westbrook has stepped up immensely this year when Harden has struggled. Both of these guys constitute as “it” factors.
Finally, we look at how Houston has done so far this season. The Rockets are currently 39-20, good enough for 4th in the Western Conference. Their record doesn’t seem to show anything significant. There isn’t a team they consistently lose to and their home to away loss record is basically the same. The one thing that seems to hold this team back is simply their inconsistency. They could go from scoring 130 points against the Lakers to scoring 95 points against the Knicks. This inconsistent play could make or break this team come playoff time.
Looking at everything, the Rockets are a talented but inconsistent team. They have two all-stars who thrive while playing with each other and a bench who seems to want it just as bad. They can go from looking like a for sure title contender to a team that may barely make the playoffs. Their utilization of the small ball lineup isn’t seen often in today’s NBA and it should be exciting to see in the playoffs. There are so many question marks that come up when talking about the Rockets, such as their inconsistent shooting and their sketchy defense. This leads me to believe that they are a first or second-round team, no further. If they start to shoot more consistently and Harden falls back into stride, their chances of contending for a title increase significantly but for now, they are a first or second-round exit.