NBA PM: Houston Rockets Learn On the Fly
The Houston Rockets weren’t supposed to be a playoff team. The Rockets did a terrific job of stockpiling assets and starting the rebuilding process last summer, but they were projected to finish with one of the worst records in the league by just about everyone. Everything pointed to Houston being lottery-bound.
The Rockets are the youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of just 23.9 years old. They’re also the least experienced team in the league, with an average career length of 1.7 years in the NBA. Their three big offseason acquisitions – James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik – had started a combined 34 games entering this season. Four of their five starters have never started a playoff game. There’s no question that the team’s young core was in place, but nobody was expecting immediate success.
However, the Rockets have exceeded all expectations and now seem like a lock to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Not only have they been wildly successful, they’ve become wildly popular. They run one of the most exciting offenses in the league, in which only three types of shot attempts are welcome: three-pointers, shots at the rim and free throws. They also get out in transition as much as possible. The result is that Houston has one of the most efficient and high-scoring attacks in the league.
Not bad for a team that has been learning on the fly for much of the season. Harden, who is the motor that makes this team go since he’s equal-parts elite scorer and unselfish facilitator, adjusted to being a number one option and full-time starter for the first time in career. Lin and Asik had to do the same thing because this was their first time showing up to an NBA training camp on top of the depth chart. Chandler Parsons, a sophomore, and Donatas Motiejunas, a rookie, round out the team’s starting five.
“We’re all in this together,” Harden said of the adjustment. “A lot of us hadn’t been in this role, as far as playing a lot of minutes and starting for an NBA team. We’re all in this together.”
“With this new role that I’m in, I’m just trying to find ways to get better at it every single day whether it’s in practice or in games,” Harden added. “It’s completely different for me, but my teammates have been helping me come along and my coaches have been helping me a lot.”
Harden has been terrific, averaging 26.2 points, 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals, while recording a 23.7 PER, which is the 10th-best rating in the league. Lin has followed up last year’s stretch of Linsanity by averaging a solid 12.8 points, 6.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals. Asik has been a difference maker on the defensive end while also contributing 10.4 points and 11.6 rebounds. Parsons continues to be one of the biggest bargains in basketball, averaging 15.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists despite making just $888,250 since he was a second-round pick in last year’s draft.
Now, this group of players who were cast off or overlooked by other NBA teams are taking the league by storm and looking like a team that nobody wants to see come playoff time. The Rockets understand the position that they are in and they desperately want to enter the postseason with some momentum.
“Every game is huge from now on,” Parsons said. “We’re trying to make a playoff push and we’re not just trying to get in, we’re trying to get a better seed. Every win is going to count at the end of the season. We know we control our own destiny. It doesn’t matter what other teams do as long as we focus on our next opponent and stay together and keep working on the little things we have been doing all year.”
“All of these games count as we make this playoff push,” Harden added. “We’re going to take it one game at a time. That’s all we can control. We try not to [focus on the standings] because we don’t want to get sidetracked and worry about too many other things. Our main focus is on each game and how we can get better and impact that game. We’ve been doing a good job of that.”
While Houston has piled up victories due to their offense, they understand that they need to play better defense if they want to compete with the league’s top-tier teams, especially in a seven-game series.
“This whole season is because of our defense,” Harden said. “We score a lot of points on the offensive end, but the way we get out in transition is because of our defense.”
“We have to definitely sharpen up defensively,” Parsons added. “We can score on anybody and lead the league in scoring. We have to put all of our energy on the defensive end. We have to be able to win games when we don’t score over 100 points.”
The Rockets have been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012-13 season, and they should provide a very entertaining first-round matchup, whether they’re playing against their fellow Texans in San Antonio or against Harden’s former team in Oklahoma City.
The Wild, Wild West
The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is all but set. While it’s likely that there will still be some movement in the standings over the next month and a half, the teams occupying the eight seeds shouldn’t change. The Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks will likely represent the East in the playoffs. While teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors haven’t been mathematically eliminated just yet, it would take an extraordinary run coupled with an epic collapse for the East’s playoff picture to change.
The bottom of the Western Conference, on the other hand, is still wide open. The top five seeds in the West will likely be locked up by the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers are fighting over the remaining three seeds in the West, and the playoff race seems to change on a nightly basis. The West always seems to be entertaining down the stretch, and this season is no different.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Warriors, Rockets and Jazz would finish with the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the conference, with the Lakers on the outside looking in. However, a lot can change between now and the final day of the regular season on April 17, especially when you consider that the final month and a half of the season is a lot easier for some teams than others.
The Warriors are currently 34-27, with 21 games remaining. Golden State looked like one of the top-tier teams a few weeks ago, but they followed up a recent six-game losing streak with a four-game losing streak this past week. Luckily for the Warriors, they have a relatively easy final stretch. Fifteen of their remaining games will be played at home, which is more than any of the other teams competing for a final playoff spot in the West. They’ll be the away team just six more times this season. Also, they’ll have plenty of winnable games, facing only nine opponents with a .500 record or better. Barring a huge collapse that features plenty of losses at home to below-.500 teams, the Warriors should make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, when the “We Believe” team stunned the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Golden State has an 85.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds, which simulates a team’s final stretch 5,000 times and projects the most likely outcome.
The Rockets also find themselves in good position, sitting at 33-28 with 21 games remaining. Houston’s schedule is somewhat similar to Golden State’s final stretch, since they also face just nine opponents with a .500 record or better. The Rockets have 12 home games and nine away games remaining, but they’re playing better than Golden State and Utah as of late. The Rockets have won five of their last eight games, including impressive wins over the Warriors, Thunder and Nets. Because of their recent success, relatively easy schedule and large quantity of home games, the Rockets are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. It would take a significant setback for them to head back to the lottery. In fact, Houston has a 98.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds.
The Jazz and Lakers will likely be the teams fighting for the West’s eighth and final seed. These two teams have equally tough schedules. The Jazz are currently 32-28 with 22 games remaining (11 at home and 11 away). They have 12 games remaining against opponents with a .500 record or better, which is the most among these four teams in the playoff hunt. The Lakers are currently 30-30 with 22 games remaining (10 at home and 12 away). They have 11 games remaining against opponents with a .500 record or better. The difference between these two teams is their recent performance. The Jazz are struggling and have dropped six of their last 10 games. The Lakers are hitting their stride and have won seven of their last 10 games, which is just what you would expect from the team with a flair for the dramatic. This will almost certainly come down to the wire. According to ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds, the Jazz have a 58.6 percent chance of making the playoffs while the Lakers have a 49.2 percent chance.
Teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks haven’t been mathematically eliminated in the West, but they’ll almost certainly be on the outside looking in. Not only does Portland have four and a half games to make up in the standings, they also have a whopping 18 games remaining against opponents with a .500 record or above. Dallas is in the same boat, sitting six and a half games out of the eighth seed with 15 games remaining against opponents with a .500 record or above.
The final seed in the West will likely come down to the Jazz or the Lakers. All eyes will be on these two teams over the next month and a half as this is shaping up to be a very interesting race for eighth.