Are Houston Rockets Still a Western Conference Threat?

Last season, the Houston Rockets came within a game of defeating the defending champion Golden State Warriors and going to the NBA Finals. But after key departures from Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last summer, their improved defense took a hit, and the chances of getting back to the Western Conference Finals—much less the NBA Finals—were questionable.

Clutch City was anything but clutch to start the year, getting annihilated by the New Orleans Pelicans on opening night. Things got worse from there, as they were just 11-14 after 25 games, and second-to-last in the Western Conference on December 8 according to Basketball-Reference.

Since then, however, their 32-12 record is second-best, per, and their plus-5.1 net rating is fourth-best. They own the NBA’s top offensive rating at 115.7 and their defense has improved steadily.

Since the All-Star break, they are tied for fifth in defensive rating.

And while they were doing all that, they’ve slowly climbed up the standings. They now sit at the West’s third-best record, with a slight chance of catching the Denver Nuggets for the 2 seed. They’re three games back, with one home game remaining against the Nuggets. And while the Rockets’ remaining opponents have a 47.7 winning percent, the Nuggets’ remaining SOS is 54.6, according to Tankathon.

A combination of factors has contributed to the Rockets’ improvement.

James Harden Doing MVP Things

Mar 15, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives against Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) in the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

First, James Harden has been otherworldly. Since Dec. 9th, he’s averaging 39.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.8 blocks. He is on pace to become the only player in NBA history other than Michael Jordan to total 2,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists with 60 percent true shooting.

His oft-critiqued defense has continued to improve, as well. This year, his 179 defenses on post-ups are by far the most in the NBA, and the 0.69 points per possession put him in the 88.7 percentile.  He is also well above average in isolation defense (66.6 percentile)  and defending the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll (64.6).

Harden’s patented, barely legal (sometimes not) stepback 3 has become even more lethal than last year.  His 262 unassisted treys are the most in NBA history already, and he’s still piling them up. The 308 total threes on the season are a new career-high and the third-most in NBA history.

For the fourth time in five years, the MVP is down to James Harden and another guy.

Midseason Acquisitions

Mar 11, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Kenneth Faried (35) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the season, general manager Daryl Morey has done a great job replacing losses to his Rockets roster. First, he added Austin Rivers after he was waived by the Phoenix Suns. Then, Houston picked up Kenneth Faried off waivers (from the Brooklyn Nets). After that, Morey landed Iman Shumpert ahead of the deadline in a three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings.

In addition to all that, Danuel House, who was initially signed to a two-way contract, emerged as such a valuable contributor that he was brought on as a full-time player after exhausting his two-way status.

The Rockets went from having a weak bench to a solid one during the past couple months.

Since completing the moves on Feb. 7, the Rockets have the fifth-best bench in the league with a +2.3 net rating.  That’s up from 15th over the course of their terrible start.

Getting Healthy and Gelling

Jan 24, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (center) head coach Mike D’Antoni center Clint Capela (15) and guard James Harden look on during a break in the action from the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets are also finally getting healthy, whereas Paul or Harden were gone for seven of the 14 losses at the start of the Rockets’ season. Then Paul got “really” hurt when he pulled his hamstring. Before he could come back, Clint Capela needed surgery for ligament damage on his right thumb.

When they’ve had their three stars, the Rockets are 23-10, the equivalent of a 57-win team.

Even that might understate things, as it takes a bit for new players to fit in. And that gets complicated when you have key players out: When they work their way back into the lineup, everyone has to adjust again.

The Rockets are peaking right now as all those pieces are tumbling into place. They’ve won 10 of their last 11—their lone loss by two points against the Warriors.

Can they beat the Warriors?

Mar 13, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) react after a play during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Which brings us full circle. Houston’s March 13th two-point loss to Golden State was the fourth meeting between the two teams this year. And while the Warriors were without Durant, it was the Rockets’ third game in four nights, a traditional trouble spot for any team. Nor can you dismiss the fact the Rockets won the other three.

Over the last two seasons, Houston is 8-6 against Golden State, including the playoffs. No team that has played the Dubs four times has a better winning percentage against them, and no other team has beaten them more than four times.

At the beginning of the season, the Rockets would have been a long-shot to beat the Warriors.  But now they may be as close as anyone in the Western Conference. They play the Dubs as well as anyone and are playing better than anyone in the West. They’re deeper now as well and may even have the better chemistry. (Though we know Golden State likely has a non-boredom reserve of this just around the corner.)

Nonetheless, the Rockets have the defense. They have the offense. And they have the star power in Harden, Paul and Capela.

The Warriors have also had more tension this year than in previous seasons, with Draymond Green testing the patience of Steve Kerr and Kevin Durant possibly eyeing other teams next season. Would they be able to handle the pressure of being down 3-2 again this year?

Golden State might still be the favorite, but Houston has as good a chance to upset them as anyone.