The Houston Rockets, it seems, are back. After winning 54 games two years in a row the team limped to just a 41-41 record last year and were no match for Golden State in the playoffs. Major changes were in order, and that's what the team got - new coach, shifted roster, major spotlight on James Harden, and so on.
Well, so far it's sure working.
The team won their ninth straight on Tuesday night, and they are currently on pace to win 63 games. It's impressive. But how are they doing it? Can they keep doing it? And what does it mean for bettors? Here are seven factors to help you answer those questions:
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James Harden: I could go on and on about how special Harden has been this year, but I assume I really don't need to. All you need to know is that Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double this year, and yet if voting were done now Harden would be the runaway MVP. He's on fire, and his 53-17-16 performance on New Year 's Eve was profound. He's clearly having a lot of fun playing, and he is in his element. The pairing with Mike D'Antoni was clearly made in heaven.
Mike D'Antoni: After disastrous stops in L.A. and New York it was easy to scoff when the Rockets tabbed D'Antoni as the main man heading into this season. What he has been blessed with here, though, is management that has a strong vision - one that works well with what D'Antoni does best. The team just doesn't shoot long two-pointers. Or even mid-range ones. It's three-pointers, which they are shooting at a record pace. He believes, management believes, and now the players entirely believe as well. It's impressive to watch. And as long as Harden stays healthy and bought in there is no reason to think it can't stay together for a while to come.
Three pointers: That record-breaking commitment to threes has been driven by some surprising characters. Eric Gordon is healthy, which is a bit of a miracle in itself, and has been great off the bench - like potentially Sixth Man of the Year great. He and fellow new addition Ryan Anderson are shooting well from beyond the arc. So is Harden and Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley is when he is healthy. You combine a complete commitment to shooting threes with a lot of guys who are good at shooting them and you have, well, the Houston Rockets.
Defense: A Harden and D'Antoni combination is never going to set the world on fire defensively. This team will still never be mistaken for the Spurs - only five teams in the entire league have allowed more points per game. The team is much better than they could be, though, and Harden is showing more discipline and commitment to defense than he ever has. Jeff Bzdelik gets a lot of the credit for that. D'Antoni knows his limitations, so he brought the former Denver head coach, who is a defensive savant, over from Memphis where he was an assistant the last two seasons to run the defense here. It's an area where we should see some continued improvement as the season progresses.
Dwight Howard: Addition by subtraction is a very real thing in sports, and the Rockets are living proof. Saying goodbye to Howard is one of the biggest contributing factors to the turnaround this team is enjoying this year. There are a number of reasons. For one, the lumbering Howard isn't in the paint all the time now, so there is room for Harden and others to create shots. D'Antoni preaches that if you aren't shooting a three you should be laying it up, and Howard would have made that tough for anyone but him. More significantly, though, Howard had turned into a whining baby, and his attitude and work ethic left a lot to be desired. There was a funk hanging over this team last year, and Harden seemed miserable. Howard gets the blame for that in large part, and everyone, including presumably him, is much happier that he is in Atlanta.
The path to a championship: To win it all the Rockets would have to beat, presumably, both Golden State and Cleveland. Ouch. In many years this team would be a strong title favorite, or at least one of two at most with a top chance. This year, though, they are a bit of an afterthought - proof of just how good the top two are. All you need to do to get a sense of how wide the gap is despite their excellence this year is look at the futures odds. BetOnline has Golden State favored at -130 to win it all (just think about that - we are halfway through the season and we would have to bet $130 to win $100 if the Warriors win four playoff series. That's remarkable.), and Cleveland is second at +225. Houston is tied with the Clippers in fourth at +1800, well behind third choice San Antonio at +850. Oddsmakers and bettors don't even see this Rockets team in the same stratosphere as the top two or three teams.
Betting performance: The team has been a joy to bet on. At 26-14 ATS they are the most profitable team in the league at this point. They have gone "over" in 23 of 40 games thanks to that three-point prowess, too, so there are profits to be had there.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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