During FPC NBA’s contenders series, the staff will analyze one of five teams who could potentially take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this season. These five teams include the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors. Michael Wesner tells us what the scorching Rockets need to do to push into the finals.
As February ends, the Houston Rockets are currently the NBA’s top team. With a record of 46-13, they lead the Southwest Division and the Western Conference. Despite this, they are still considered underdogs to the heavily favored defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. Though they are the first seed, the Rockets need to focus on a few issues going forward in order to improve in time to face the Warriors in the playoffs.
First of all, it’s important to give credit where it is due to an amazing Rockets team. In the offseason, they were able to pull off a sign and trade for veteran point guard Chris Paul while still maintaining the majority of their roster. Although they lost the hopeful Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, the Rockets bench is currently third in net rating and second in offensive rating. Meanwhile, they’ve successfully employed what is essentially a two-point guard backcourt with Paul and James Harden, the latter of which is on an MVP-caliber tear, averaging 31 points per game, nine assists, and five rebounds.
Eric Gordon is their third best scorer and he’s only started half of the Rockets’ games so far. Fourth-year player Clint Capela is having a career-best season as the league’s only player rated top three in both offensive and defensive rating. Orchestrated by defending Coach of the Year, Mike D’Antoni, this Rockets team is nothing short of the perfect team for James Harden to work around.
Unfortunately for Houston, the Warriors still exist and, despite their current status as the second seed in the West, they are the same team that swept the Western Conference in the playoffs last year. The first thing the Rockets need to do to improve is to make a concerted and consistent focus on defense. Though they’ve improved tremendously since last season, the Rockets are only eighth in team defensive rating, far too low to be considered the best overall team in the league.
Coach D’Antoni is an offensive mastermind, with his poor defensive focus often excused by critics because of his legendary offensive schematics. Last year, that couldn’t have been the excuse, as the Warriors put up the second-best offensive rating in history, trailing only the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers. This year, however, the Rockets have beaten the same Showtime Lakers, with their current rating of 116 topping the all-time chart.
Whether this great offense will thrive against the superteam Warriors is a question that can’t be answered yet. In the meantime, it’s in the Rockets’ best interest to focus on defense early so they can prepare for any adjustments the postseason Warriors make. Chris Paul has made a big difference this year and Clint Capela has exceeded expectations as a defender. Still, part of the Rockets’ downfall against the Spurs in the semifinals last season was in their failure to defend the low post against veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
With Capela’s presence in the paint, this will improve. They still need to learn from their mistakes and enhance their overall team defense. At points during last season’s semi-finals, Harden was forced to guard the Spurs’ big men, a challenge that drained him. Should a matchup with the Warriors ensue, Harden will have to prepare to switch onto Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. With Paul manning the perimeter and Capela protecting the rim, it will be up to Harden to make every possession count when defending teams that rely on heavy pick and roll offense.
Speaking of which, the second big focus the Rockets should have is preparing Harden for consistent physical effort in the playoffs. Though this sounds like a no-brainer, Harden’s most recent playoff downfall is a big mark against him. To point again to their series against the Spurs last postseason, Harden was downright fatigued, forcing him to take entire possessions off on defense. He was inconsistent on offense, putting up 43 points in one game and 10 in another. The aggressive agility and handles that Harden employs to get to the rim failed him due to exhaustion. His usually phenomenal shooting dwindled to a low 41% field goal percentage, including an abysmal 30% from three, unacceptable for a player of Harden’s caliber.
To combat this, Harden may need to spend more games off this season, either exerting less effort day to day or fully resting for a few games before the postseason. This may be difficult as it will harm his chances at winning the MVP award. One alternative solution is to allow Chris Paul more minutes in the playoffs to lead the Rockets’ powerful bench unit. Either way, Coach D’Antoni is going to have to make a decision between rest and accolades unless Harden can prove himself resilient to the physical stress that seemed to break him last year.
To emphasize that latter point, the third and final area of focus for the Rockets hinges on Chris Paul. While Harden is the undeniable leader of this team, Paul has more playoff experience than him, despite never moving past the second round. Should exhaustion cause Harden to become inconsistent again, Paul will need to step up and lead the rest of the roster during the playoffs. Paul plays his best basketball in the postseason — just last year he went from averaging 18 points and nine assists in the regular season to 25 points and nearly 10 assists. While he is known as a player who makes his teammates better, he has also never carried a team out of the second round.
Should Harden need considerable rest time after his push for the MVP award, Paul will need to rise to the occasion and lead the Rockets, even better than he led a Clippers team that featured All-Stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Though there shouldn’t be any doubt about his personal statistics, his past success rate with the Clippers and Hornets makes his ability to lift entire teams through adversary questionable. Even so, this Rockets team may be the best cast he’s ever performed with, and should Harden rise through the fatigue, Paul’s play could only build upon a strong foundation.
With a heavy focus on scoring from three and the paint, and a renewed revival in defensive effort compared to years past, the Rockets could easily be considered the league’s best team if it weren’t for the Warriors. As we enter March, Houston needs to make efforts to improve their defense, rest James Harden, and practice playing with Chris Paul as the de facto leader should Harden fall to fatigue. Though their record says the Rockets are momentarily the best team in the league, the Warriors’ postseason domination in 2017 says otherwise. Hopefully, Houston’s addition of Chris Paul and the depth of their bench will make them a legitimate threat. If they make an extra push on defense to suffocate the Warriors in May, it will leave a glaring opportunity for Harden and Paul to step up and scorch Golden State on offense.