Why the Houston Rockets Are a Real Championship Contender
Flashback to last offseason most people saw the Westbrook trade as a panic move and didn’t think it could work. Skip ahead to the trade deadline and the narrative was that trading their only true center away was crazy and that this style of play can’t win a championship.
Now as of August 8th, the Rockets have the best record in the league against teams above .500 (18-11). Since the Robert Covington trade the Rockets are 9-2 against the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Mavs, and Jazz (with one loss being at the buzzer). It’s also worth noting how much the hiatus likely helped James Harden preserve his body, along with other older guys like Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon.
But the fact that they’ve done well against the other contenders isn’t the driving force behind why they themselves are a real contender -- the driving force is the math. The Houston Rockets have never had more of a math advantage than they’ve had as of the 6’7” and less era.
There are three main reasons for this: their advantages from the three point line, the turnover battle, and the charity stripe.
Advantages from Down-Town:
The Rockets have shot more threes than their opponents by the following amounts: Dallas shot 1 more than them (48 to 49), Milwaukee – 26, Portland – 22, and Los Angeles – 38!!!
Everyone knows the Rockets have the most analytically correct shot chart, but since the deal for Covington and the addition of Jeff Green, they always have Harden or Westbrook surrounded by 4 shooters and have opened up the court so much more.
With all of the shooting on the court there’s much more space to get to the basket and if opposing bigs decide to help there is always someone open for 3. The following video shows how easy Houston has been creating some 3s during this bubble period.
These videos do not even show any of Harden’s stepback 3s, he is still able to get those and knock them down at a high rate whenever he wants, as that shot has an insanely high Point Per Shot rate.
Winning the Turnover Battle:
The Rockets have won the turnover battle every game since the hiatus by the following amounts (in order of games played): Dallas – 8, Milwaukee – 13, Portland 2, and Los Angeles – 5. This is by no accident.
On a game by game basis, because of the lineups Houston plays with, teams think they have mismatches in the post (this is usually incorrect). This results in teams trying to feed the post.
Not only is post play not an efficient form of offense (unless you're Joel Embiid, Jokic, or KAT) but it presents so many opportunities for turnovers. There will always be turnovers on entry passes, there always be turnovers from long wings quickly getting a hand in on light doubles, and players will always commit turnovers passing out of hard double teams in the post.
The Rockets defense is also full of long wings with quick hands, who routinely makes all of these things come to fruition. Not to be remiss, the Rockets also have many people who are capable of taking charges.
The following video shows about one minute’s worth of turnovers the Rockets forced in post up situations over the bubble games.
It also must be mentioned that this style of play does occasionally result in decent offensive bigs posting up and getting into quick moves before doubles can come on guys like Austin Rivers but even then, if it is not a layup or dunk, players will miss a lot of jump hooks right around the rim.
So what it essentially comes down to is these turnovers aren’t random – they are a result of the lineups the Rockets play. And despite the easy bunnies they’ll give up right at the rim, the turnovers and other quality post defense possessions more than make up for it.
Free Throw Advantage:
James Harden already leads the league in made free throws every year.
Pre hiatus, the Rockets are 2nd in both made and attempted free throws per game. Post hiatus, the Rockets are 4th and 5th in free throws attempted and made per game, respectively. They get to the line a significant amount, and they knock them down.
James Harden already leads the league in made and attempted free throws every year, now that the court is spread even wider you can only expect him to continue to get to the basket and get in position to either finish layups or get to the free throw line.
At the end of the day, the Rockets are winning the turnover battle, winning the shot-chart battle, and shooting more free throws, the math is very much in their favor. They already had a puncher's chance to beat anyone due to their shooting and high-end talent but now that puncher's chance has evolved to them being a real contender.