With the NBA playoffs set to begin tomorrow afternoon, I feel obligated to make a case for the Houston Rockets as possible champions. Even though the Rockets have the third overall record, Vegas put them in a three way tie with Toronto and Los Angeles (Clippers) for the fifth best odds to win the championship behind Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio and Boston, respectively. While someone could make the argument that all these teams have more “star” power than Houston, James Harden, aka Beardface, is unstoppable.
Let’s rewind two years when Harden finished second in MVP voting to Steph Curry, willed the Rockets to the #2 seed in the West by himself (Dwight Howard only played 41 games) and a conference finals appearance. Now granted, if it wasn’t for Corey Brewer and Josh Smith going on a fourth-quarter tear against the Clippers in game six, then there wouldn’t be a conference finals appearance on Harden’s resume. HOWEVER, he closed out the Clippers in game seven with a classic stat stuffing performance of 31 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 1 block. Then followed up with two highly competitive games against the 67-win Golden State Warriors. Although Harden cost his team game 2 by inexplicably passing the ball to Dwight in the closing seconds before turning it over with no opportunity for a potential game winning shot; his 38 pts, 10 reb and 9 ast while shooting 62% from the field is the only reason they had a chance in the first place. Between that conference finals loss, Damian Lillard’s famous opening round series clinching fadeaway the year before, and last year’s uneventful first round exit to the Warriors, Harden’s ready to win. As for additional motivation, Beardface failed to make an All-NBA team last season while averaging 29 points, 7.5 assists and 6 rebounds while playing ALL 82 GAMES and will most likely finish runner-up in MVP voting for the second time in three years. When asked about his thoughts on who should win the MVP award this year, Harden said, “I thought winning was what this is about. Period.” What better time to win than in the NBA playoffs???
As for Houston Head Coach Mike D’Antoni, aka Mr. Offense and soon to be Coach of the Year, he’s reinvented himself after two atrocious stints in the metropolis cities of New York and Los Angeles. His offensive philosophy, “seven seconds or less,” played an instrumental role in Steve Nash’s back-to-back MVP awards and the Phoenix Suns two consecutive conference finals appearances in 2005 and 2006. D’Antoni put the ball in Nash’s hands, ran a heavy pick-and-roll offense featuring power dunker Amar’e Stoudemire and reaped the benefits. When he got hired before the season and said he’d like Harden to play more of a point guard/decision maker role, curiosity instantly followed. What kind of numbers will he put up?? Well if his averages of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists (league leading), 8.1 rebounds and 22 triple doubles don’t impress you, then look at his league leading 15.0 win shares which is 0.7 above the next closest (Rudy Gobert) and 1.9 more than Westbrook. Simply put, win shares is a player statistic which attempts to divvy up credit for team success to the individuals on the team. While D’Antoni turned James Harden into Steve Nash 2.0, the conversation remains who’s more complimentary? Harden or his teammates?
Rockets GM Daryl Morey, strong analytics proponent and creator of “true shooting percentage,” heavily favors three-point field goals over mid-range jumpers. Much to the delight of Harden and D’Antoni, Morey brought in free agents Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon (likely 6th man of the year) and Lou Williams this season, who all enjoy and excel shooting behind the arc. Sprinkle in additional shooters Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza and now we have some serious floor spacing for Harden to operate. With Morey’s preference for three pointers and D’Antoni’s “let it fly” mentality, these Rockets are shooting deep bombs at a historic rate. For instance, they set records for 3-pointers made (24) and 3-pointers attempted in a half (31) and in a game (61) on their Dec. 16th matchup against New Orleans. Also, the Rockets 40.3 per game average of 3-pointer attempts is the most in NBA history and six more than the next closest team this year! Front court depth includes quickly emerging big man Clint Capela, 15-year veteran Nene, and young Montrezl Harrell, who put together a good stretch of games while Capela & Nene battled through injury. Harden definitely benefits from extensive floor spacing, quality shooting and efficient front court play, but he’s the engine of this team. His averages from the last two seasons are nearly identical (assists and rebounds increased) while teammates are having some of the best shooting percentage seasons in their careers.
The Rockets prolific offense this season turned many games into a shootout with them clearly prevailing more often than not. While they fared well against majority of the league, the Warriors and Spurs both won the season series 3–1. [Take a moment and look at these games though]
SA (1)W 101–99 /(2) L 106–100 /(3) L 102–100 / (4)L 112–110
GS (1)W 132–127 OT/ (2)L 125–110 /(3) L 113–106/(4) L 107–98
Houston contended in every single one even including games where they failed to post adequate shooting percentages behind the arc. Harden’s prowess on the offensive end alone provides an opportunity to win any given night, even against the top tier teams.
To be clear, this year’s NBA Championship is the Warriors to lose. The “title or bust” phrase applies more to them this year than Lebron, Dwyane and Chris Bosh’s first season in south beach together. The Warriors, Spurs, Cavs and maybe Boston (still not convinced) headline the title conversation for good reason, but I’m telling you, “Don’t sleep on these Rockets.”