Since January 1st, the Houston Rockets have been the second-best team in the league in terms of pace-adjusted point differential.
Before I lose some of my readers, here’s what I’m talking about:
Looking at pace-adjusted statistics is a modern technique that allows us to take into consideration the fact that different teams play at different speeds. Instead of focusing on points scored and points allowed over four quarters, we boil our analysis down to the smallest unit of a basketball game, which is one possession.
And while I could write an entire article detailing the ins and outs of how modern statistical breakdowns are changing the way we look at the NBA, I really only want to look at how pace-adjusted stats can give us a more accurate picture of how good the Houston Rockets really are this season.
If you’re a total stat nerd, check out this fascinating article on the NBA.com blog. But get your ass back to CommentaryBoxSports before I lose my job for linking you elsewhere. Better yet, why don’t you just print it out and stuff the sheet into your backpack for when you need interesting impromptu toilet reading material and don’t have access to Wi-Fi.
The league’s #19 ranked defense is the #1 transition defense in the league, and this makes all the difference.
Again, more gobbledygook, so bear with me.
Houston gives up 101.7 points per game on average, and by traditional metrics this ranks them in the bottom half of the league. But much of the reason that the Rockets give up so many points is that they play a high-tempo style of offense and love to run the fast break.
Naturally their opponents are forced to mimic this quicker brand of play, and more transition play means more possessions for both teams. More possessions clearly translate into more points.
The catch here is that Houston kicks ass in the open court on both sides of the ball. They are extremely efficient offensively in the fast break and hold their opponents to fewer points per fast break possession than any other team in the league. Their attacking style lends itself to a huge advantage overall for the team, despite negatively bloating their overall mark in points allowed per game.
To simplify all of this, the Rockets are ranked #9 in the league in points allowed per possession, which is a much more accurate representation of the strength of their defense compared to 19th in total PPG.
While they don’t boast an “elite” defense, top ten in points allowed per possession is more than good enough when coupled with the third highest scoring offense in the NBA at 106.2 points per game.
What this all simmers down to is the fact that Houston is emerging as a legitimate second-tier title contender. And while they just lost last night to Blake Griffin (23 points, 16 boards) and the L.A. Clippers 101-93, and trail the Blazers by a full game in the Western Conference standings, the argument can be made that the Rockets are the front runner out of all teams that don’t qualify as one of the four horsemen (Heat, Pacers, Thunder, Spurs).
And here’s why:
It’s not so much that the Rockets are “heating up”, although winning 10 of their past 12 games certainly qualifies as a hot streak. It’s that they are finally finding the stability that has been lacking due to injuries and inconsistent play. This isn’t a two-week anomaly, but steady success that they’ve been working up to since November.
Houston is no longer weak at power forward as Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have greatly improved their play. Omer Asik is also settling in and finally over his injuries, giving the team a legitimate change-of-pace guy to sub in for Howard fifteen minutes per outing. Patrick Beverley is healthy again at point guard and James Harden has been on fire in February, averaging 29 points per game while boasting the largest beard for any shooting guard in the history of the NBA.
If Houston is able to stay healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them wind up as the #3 seed in the West.
It’s unlikely that the Rockets will surpass the Spurs, seeing as how six of their remaining 24 games are against the best four teams in the league (Miami and OKC twice), but if they can come even close to replicating their success over the last two dozen games (18 wins to just 6 losses) they’ll be riding high on momentum at the most important stage of the season.
From Beverley’s ability to torment opponents in the back court with tenacious defense that set up easy fast break hoops to Harden’s knack of getting ridiculously hot from beyond the arc, the Rockets have the ability not only to score, but to score mountains of points fast.
Houston doesn’t snatch the lead and then slowly build on it, they surge forward in bursts of scoring that leave opponents wondering where it all went wrong. Unconventionally they tend to do most of their damage in the first half, coming out of the gates looking to run the court and seize an early advantage.
All that being said, one major flaw remains with this Rockets team that will need to be remedied before we can consider them a serious threat to make it to the Finals.
Turnovers: Houston’s Achilles heel.
The Rockets are second from the bottom in the league in turnovers at 15.6 per game. The only club that’s worst is Philadelphia and the 76ers have lost 22 of their last 25 games. Sloppy play won’t cut it once it comes playoff time.
Stopping the bleeding when it comes to giving the ball up all starts with James Harden, who coughs it up an incredible 3.7 times per game. Harden was a stud in February and a driving force behind their hugely successful month, but then it’s up to the teams’ leaders to set the standard for protecting possession (Dwight Howard’s also got greasy fingers with 3.3 turnovers a night).
The bottom line is that the Rocket, along with the Trailblazers and Clippers, could very well shake up their conference playoff bracket. While I can’t see anyone other than Indiana or Miami coming out of the East, a smart gambling man wouldn’t put too much money down on picking the winner of the West in 2014.