Give it up for Daryl Morey. The Houston Rockets are now third overall in the Western Conference standings with a 36-17 record, riding a 7-game winning streak into the All-Star Break. This is a perfectly built team.
Anyone who has followed the Rockets closely this season has probably had some doubts, but here they are with ranked no. 3 in NBA.com’s Power Rankings, if that means anything: http://www.nba.com/2014/news/02/10/power-rankings-week-15-for-mobile/index.html.
It wasn’t always pretty but since the beginning of January the Rockets have been turning the corner. They have learned to better optimize Dwight Howard in the post, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. That’s a trust that needs to be built over reps in game-time situations, more nuanced than say feeding a hot shooter.
Equally, it took Howard time to get comfortable scoring out of the post. It’s a give-and-take process. Scoring from the post requires as much confidence as shooting from the perimeter. You have to believe your moves will be effective, but you also have to trust that your teammates will get you the ball when you’re open. Timing is everything on an entry pass, as much as a lob. Confidence here is a two-way street. Knowing your teammates will get you the rock, and them knowing you’ll make the right play.
This turnaround alone would be progress, but the Rockets offense has been exceptional in their last 7 games, scoring 109 ppg on 51% FGs, and 39% 3FGs. That has as much to do with getting star guard James Harden to buy in to a more team-oriented ball movement approach to the offense. For a guy who feels he can beat anyone one-on-one, and often looks like it, let’s give him some credit. He appears to have bought in since the beginning of January.
The Rockets are 15-4 in 2014. They started by winning 8-of-10 with a solid decision over the Portland Trailblazers. Then they faced two miserable losses to the Memphis Grizzlies. This could have been an easy excuse for a young team like the Rockets to start backsliding to old habits.
So, give it up to the Rockets coaching staff, too. Houston bounced right back and won seven straight including wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, and Phoenix Suns.
Every core player on the Rockets seems to be playing well right now, and Omer Asik appears to be willing to be a part of all this.
What the Rockets lack is the commitment to defense that contenders such as the Thunder, Pacers, Heat, and Spurs put on display every game. But, that also seems to be coming around. Slowly.
As much as being a young team can be unpredictable in emotion and effort, it also means that for the most part, these players are hardly set in their ways. The Rockets have at least three players who have shown they can defend. Howard, Parsons, and Patrick Beverley. This can still be a sufficiently good defensive team.
That commitment to defense will likely determine how far they advance in the playoffs. And as mentioned, the malleable nature of youth on this team can also be a vulnerability, in that there will likely be some adversity before this season ends, and how the younger players on this roster will deal with that is uncertain. But, if this 7-gm win streak after the two ugly losses to Memphis are any indication, the kids will be all right.
Dork Elvis has done it again—but this may be his best work yet. Just two off-seasons ago, this was a team looking at Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to be cornerstones of the franchise. It was rebuilding time. This was a very quick respawn. The Rockets already have every piece they need to win a championship right now. They won’t, but the pieces are there on paper. Compare Houston to the roster of any contending team. They have as balanced a roster as any of them—assuming Omer Asik buys in.
They have a viable low-post threat in Howard who can dominate on defense as much as offense. They have an elite scorer in Harden who can fill it up, and get to the free throw line 20 times in a game. They now have a legit third option in Parsons. They have 3-pt shooters, role players who can surprise you with big games, and they have a sixth man in Jeremy Lin who can provide a consistent offensive spark off the bench.
The question isn’t so much whether the Rockets have the talent in each position to play for a championship. It is how or whether these young players grow to become champions. None of them are there yet, but this season can be the first huge step toward getting there. And, even now, the Rockets locked in to any one path. Morey has assembled a collection of young “assets” who have come into their own this season that should provide Houston with plenty of flexibility in the coming off-season to re-tool as needed. — R.H.