• Dalton Pence

OTG Team Awards: Houston Rockets

Houston Chronicle

After falling in the Western Conference Finals just a season ago, the Houston Rockets began the season with hopes of a successful dethroning of the Golden State Warriors. But lack of effort, defensive woes, and injuries resulted in an alarming 11-14 record to start the 2018-19 campaign. The Rockets rebounded to go 39-14, though, and pose a serious threat to take the second seed in the Western Conference standings in the final week of the season -- a remarkable turnaround.

It’s been a roller coaster year in Space City; injuries have often decimated the squad, but the heroics of James Harden have not only kept Houston afloat, but propelled them to excellence. A season that almost look lost early on has returned to its singular goal; beating the Warriors to represent the West looks as possible as ever. Let’s look at the players who got them there in our Houston Rockets’ regular-season team awards:

Sixth Man of the Year: Austin Rivers

Any other year, Eric Gordon would win this easily, and often be in the running to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. But Mike D’Antoni decided to start Gordon alongside Harden and Chris Paul ruining his eligibility. Although he started a dozen games in Paul’s absence, Austin Rivers wins this award due to his work off the bench. Averaging just 8.8 points, 2.3 assists, and 2.0 rebounds per game, Rivers has given Houston much more than just numbers on a box score. His playmaking ability has given the team a much-needed ball-handler in the second unit, and while Gerald Green is often the literal sixth player into the game as the first to come off the bench, Rivers played a much more pivotal role alongside Harden in keeping Houston afloat when both Paul and Gordon were out with injury early in the 2019 calendar year.

Most Improved Player: James Harden

WHAT? The reigning-MVP is the team’s most improved player? You better believe it. For many, Harden had reached the peak of his career…or so they thought. After averaging a league-high 30.4 PPG last season, the 6-foot-5 guard has increased that by a staggering six points, on pace to become only the fifth player ever to average more than 35 points per game for a whole season.

Other statistics don’t necessarily point to growth, but since late December, the Beard has had to endure large portions of the season without some combination of Paul, Gordon, or Clint Capela, so the entire world has known that the Rockets go as Harden goes. Opposing teams have thrown a plethora of different defensive strategies at him, but instead of struggling, Harden took his game to the next level. The infamous step-back three-pointer has become more revered, and the improving ability to make floaters has made the pick-and-roll game even deadlier.

Newcomer of the Year: Danuel House Jr.

One of the reasons Houston has been able to go 39-14 in its last 53 games is the emergence of Danuel House Jr. The wing checked off three needs for the Rockets: wing depth, perimeter shooting, and defense. Though he has only appeared in 35 games thus far, House’s impact on the court makes him an appropriate selection.

Scoring 9.7 PPG on 41% shooting from deep, House has not only given the Rockets another three-point shooter, but also an athletic player who can get to the rim. Since the signings of Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis III did not pan out, the need for a contributing wing was considerably urgent. Bringing up the 25-year-old from the G-League was a no-brainer: his electric style of play and motor have helped Houston recover from the early season woes.

Defensive Player of the Year: PJ Tucker

Tucker’s impact will forever be overlooked because he does not typically light up stat sheets. At 6-foot-5, he does not look like a daunting defender, but his persistence and effort get under the skin of every opponent, and make him the best defender on this Rockets team. Houston has the luxury of utilizing Tucker’s versatility as he is proficient in switching and guarding multiple positions.

Disrupting an opposing player’s ability to receive a pass and showing off his quick hands while trying to get steals are just some of the exceptional defensive qualities that Tucker possesses. Although he is a not franchise centerpiece, he plays an essential role that is highly valued by the organization.

Most Valuable Player: James Harden

Was there ever any doubt? 36.4 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.5 RPG, 30.67 PER. Those aren’t just team MVP numbers -- Harden has a 50-50 chance of becoming the 14th multiple-MVP winner in the Association’s history. Harden has seen significant improvements from his MVP season last year, and Houston’s revival rests almost solely on his 32-game streak of scoring at least 30 points -- second in NBA history only to Wilt Chamberlain’s almost-incomprehensible 65 gamer in his 50.4 ppg season. Harden leads the league in 50-point (7) and 60-point (2) games, but an even more eye-opening statistic is that he has more 50+ point games than he does sub-25 point games.

After long being maligned for his defensive effort, Harden has stepped up on that end of the court as well. Averaging 2.1 steals per game, Harden ranks amongst the league’s leaders, and a notable increase in effort has made his post defense well above average. Without Harden, it is very difficult to imagine this Rockets team even being in contention for the playoffs, let alone hosting potentially more than one round. The only question is if this will be the only MVP recognition he’ll get this year.

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