Expert NBA Handicapping: Reasons for Houston Rockets Success
It's a week into December, and the Houston Rockets have the best record in the Western Conference. Golden State has two more wins than Houston's 18, but they also have two more losses. Obviously, this doesn't mean that Houston is unquestionably the best team in the NBA, or anything close to that. It does mean, though, that we can really look at the question of whether Houston can be poised to finally be a real challenge for the Warriors. They invested heavily in making themselves a threat. So, are they? Here are five factors to consider when pondering those questions:
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Chris Paul: The grade is absolutely an incomplete here so far. Thanks to his injury absence, Paul has just played eight games this season. Since returning from injury he has just been trying to find his game and figuring out how to play with his new team. There is progress being made, and his last game was his best in a Houston uniform, but it will take a while before his impact is fully realized - which is positive given how solid they have looked without him.
James Harden: Houston's star is playing like a star again. He's being more careful with the ball and shooting better, and he is scoring more than last year - though that is likely to change somewhat with Paul back. In short, he is doing everything that a guy like this needs to do. There is absolutely nothing to complain about on his front.
Schedule: Only a quarter of the season is over, so the sample size is still small. And the schedule the Rockets have played to this point doesn't accurately represent the challenges of trying to win the conference in the playoffs. They have only played Golden State once, and that was in the first game of the season, so its meaning was limited. They haven't played the Spurs at all. They played Cleveland before the Cavs found their game, and they haven't played Boston. They haven't played flawed-but-talented Oklahoma City, either. Oddly, they have already played Memphis four ties - and have split those games. They lost to Toronto and Philly as well. Nine of their wins have come against teams that are easy to call actively bad. As good as the team has looked so far, their biggest tests are absolutely in front of them.
Defense: We got those first three factors out of the way in a hurry because this is the one that really mattered. The team, and really any Mike D'Antoni team, had to rely on offense to overcome highly-questionable defense in the past. They just weren't good and didn't seem too bothered by their shortcomings. Well, that has clearly changed. Paul's addition doesn't add too much on that front despite his defensive strength, because he and Patrick Beverley, who he replaced, are essentially a wash defensively. What the biggest shift has been, though, is the addition of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker. Those two show how tough it is to build a winning roster. They are not profound difference-makers on paper - they have combined to start just five games on the wing this season and only barely average a full game's worth of minutes combined. But they have been incredibly responsible defensively and have taken pressure off Trevor Ariza, who is defensively excellent but had to do far too much alone in recent years.
Their impact is wearing off on others, too, as last year's Sixth Man of the Year, Eric Gordon, is playing the best defense of his life as well. They are the best defensive rebounding team in the league this year, whereas the last couple of years they were in the bottom third. And their improvement in guarding against the three has been just as dramatic.
This isn't all to say that the team is perfect defensively and all issues are fixed. They still aren't hugely strong in transition, and a certain team from Northern California plays fast enough to exploit that. And they have compiled some of those numbers against that weaker schedule we have discussed. But this is certainly trending in the right direction, and this, even more than the addition of Paul, makes it easier to take them seriously. They still aren't a match for Golden State from where I'm sitting, but they certainly can make it interesting.
Betting performance: The team is better for bettors so far than their 42-40 ATS mark last year, but still not stellar - they sit at 13-9 ATS on the season. They are a strong 8-3 ATS on the road, though, compared to just 5-6 ATS at home. They have gone "under" the total 13 times in 22 games.
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