The Rockets are Fun and Really Good… But They’re Not a Serious Threat to the Warriors

Posted: 01/27/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

In today’s NBA, it’s all about how you match up with the Golden State Warriors (if you’re in the West) or the Cleveland Cavaliers (if you’re in the East). That’s kind of a shame, because it’s really hard to match up well with those two teams, but that’s how it is when two teams meet in back-to-back Finals and seem set on a collision course to meeting #3. Actually, I don’t even think it’s fair to group the Warriors and Cavs together this year. It’s really Golden State, a big gap, and then everyone else. But while nobody is going to be favored to knock off the Warriors in a series, there are teams that are better and worse suited to make things interesting. I said earlier that a full-strength L.A. Clippers team would be tough for the Warriors. Today, I’m going to talk about why the Houston Rockets, while a serious threat to win 60 games and make the Western Conference Finals, are unlikely to win more than a couple of games against Golden State.

The people who brought up the Rockets as darkhorse WCF candidates before the season were generally ridiculed. They’ve been validated (and then some) by a 34-15 start that has Houston on track for the West’s third seed. The Rockets have a +6.3 point differential, third in the NBA behind the Warriors (+12.7!) and Spurs (+8.9), and they’re averaging 114.3 points per game. A lot of the credit has to go to Houston’s front office, led by GM Daryl Morey. The decision to let Dwight Howard go has paid off and then some, and their two under-the-radar signings (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) have fit in perfectly and are the team’s second and third leading scorers. More importantly, Morey hired Mike D’Antoni, the perfect coach for James Harden and this roster. D’Antoni has never won a championship, but he has to be considered one of the two or three most influential coaches of this century. When he was in Phoenix, he invented the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, which was basically just the “Give the Ball to Steve Nash and Let Him Do Stuff” offense. He moved Amare Stoudemire to center (which seemed crazy at the time) and emphasized three pointers and layups while generally playing smaller lineups. In other words, his teams around a decade ago played the way that most of the league plays today. Gregg Popovich readily admits that he’s taken a lot of D’Antoni’s offensive ideas. The guy’s an offensive mastermind.

It’s certainly made a difference for Harden, who’s probably the MVP favorite. He has a chance to be the first player to lead the league in points and assists per game since Tiny Archibald, and he’s putting up 29 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists per game. More importantly, he’s doing it efficiently. Harden’s shooting 45% from the floor and 35% from three point range, and he leads the NBA in free throw makes per game (9.1, 86% clip). He scores almost all of his points at the rim, from beyond the arc, or at the line. He’s doing all of this as the de facto point guard. Harden says he was blindsided by D’Antoni’s decision to push him from shooting guard to point guard, because he’s been a shooting guard for his entire career. But he listened to his coach (offensive talent respects offensive talent, I guess), and it’s more than paid off. Harden’s a genius with the ball, finding ways to get to the rim and the line at will and — crucially — getting his talented teammates open (hence the 11.6 assists per game). When he’s on the floor, Houston’s offense is pretty tough to stop. They score 114.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, a number that would rank first in the NBA (overall, the Rockets are third at 111.8). Predictably, the offense is a lot better under D’Antoni than it was last season. In fact, their improved offensive efficiency (up from 105.5 last year) is the only reason that Houston is much better than the team that went 41-41 last year, because their defense is actually slightly worse.

That’s why this is such an interesting experiment. Most teams try to beat the Warriors by slowing them down, tightening up defensively, and crashing the offensive glass. The Thunder almost beat GSW last year because they were stifling defensively due to their length (having Russ and KD didn’t hurt), while Cleveland did defeat the Warriors because they gained so many extra possessions thanks to Tristan Thompson’s rebounding work. Golden State’s chief competitor this year looks likely to be the Spurs, who deserve (and will get) a post of their own. San Antonio is going to try to take Golden State out of its element, make Steph and KD feel uncomfortable, and win with their depth. But Houston? They are going to play fast (fourth-fastest team in the NBA behind Brooklyn, Golden State, and Phoenix). They’ll turn the ball over a lot (sixth-highest turnover rate in the NBA at 15.2%). Their defense won’t slow anyone down. In other words, they’re going to play right into Golden State’s hands.

If anyone’s going to beat the Warriors at their own game this year, it’ll be the Rockets. But I don’t think anyone’s going to beat the Warriors at their own game. They lead the league in fastbreak points, and it isn’t even close. They have the best offense in the NBA and the best defense in the NBA. They easily lead the league in assist percentage (although the Sixers are closing fast!). They turn the ball over, but not as often as the Rockets. And when they win the turnover battle, they won’t often lose. It’s worth noting that the Rockets did knock off the Warriors once this year. In the Bay Area. In a game in which they turned it over more than Golden State. But that was pretty much the perfect storm for Houston, at least defensively. The Warriors hit only 12 of 44 from beyond the arc. Klay Thompson shot 4-20, Kevin Durant shot 12-28 (doesn’t seem bad.. until you learn that he’s shooting 54% on the season), and Steph Curry shot 9-22. Golden State only ended up scoring 127 points in a double overtime game. They had 113 at the end of regulation, and that was with everything going right for Houston. Was that performance more luck or skill? If there was any doubt about that, it was erased last week in Houston. The Warriors came in and won 125-108. They shot 53% from the field and 40% from three. Durant scored 32 points on 19 shots, Curry added 24 on 18, and Draymond Green had a near-triple-double. Harden had a bad game, but they would have lost if he had played out of his mind, too.

Houston’s reliance on offensive firepower (and the heroics of Harden) is both a blessing and a curse. A less explosive team is going to have a tough time playing at their pace or stopping a lineup with at least three knockdown shooters on the court. The Rockets are going to shatter records for three point attempts and makes, and their dedication to advanced metrics have clearly paid off. But you need more than Harden and a bunch of shooters to beat the Warriors, because Golden State doesn’t need to stop the shooters. Last year, the Warriors were great but beatable in fast-paced games. This year, the first question every opponent has to ask is: who’s going to guard Durant? For the Spurs, the answer is obvious: Kawhi Leonard. Likewise for the Cavs (LeBron, in what will be an amazing matchup if it happens) and Clippers (Luuuuuc Richard Mbah a Moute). What’s the answer for the Rockets? Is it a past-his-prime Corey Brewer, who’s playing 15.8 minutes per game? Is it Ariza? It’s definitely not going to be pretty. The thing is that the Rockets don’t have any illusions about stopping Durant. They’ve been all in on their offense ever since the offseason, when they signed Gordon and Anderson (known to be two of the worst defensive players in the NBA) and hired D’Antoni. It’s paid huge dividends so far, but things tighten up in the playoffs, and you need to be able to get a stop in a key situation in order to be considered a real threat to Golden State. Houston won’t be able to get that stop, which is why I think they’re ultimately a pretender. It’s not a popular opinion right now, but I think it’s much more likely that the Clippers will knock off the Warriors (although admittedly still unlikely).

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