In a rivalry that features the two fastest and highest scoring offenses in the league, Houston seems to have the upper hand. Golden State holds a 3.5 game lead in the standings, but that is nothing compared to last season’s margin.
Last season, the Rockets finished 12 games behind the Warriors. They lost the season series 3-1, only winning in double overtime in the first game. The other three games were not close, with the Warriors winning convincingly 125-108, 113-106, and 107-98.
After a disappointing playoffs in which the Rockets failed once again to reach the conference final heights of 2014-15, General Manager Darel Morey made wholesale changes. Of course, his seven-player trade for Chris Paul was the biggest splash. Paul has not disappointed, averaging 19.1 points and 8.9 assists per game. However, he injured his knee in the first game of the season and missed almost a month. The Rockets must monitor the 32-year-old Paul’s minutes. They may, in fact, need another point guard so that they can limit his time and prepare him for the postseason.
Despite flying under the radar, Gerald Green was probably the Rockets’ biggest signing this offseason. An NBA journeyman, Green has played for eight teams. He also spent two seasons in Russia and a couple months in China. Green’s play had been on the decline since his career mark of 15.8 points per game in Phoenix in 2013-14. Nevertheless, Boston almost resigned him, but decided against it because they already had enough wings. So Green signed with Milwaukee, only to be released after just four preseason games.
Morey saw a chance and pounced on it. He signed Green and let coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense turn him back into a guard that averaged 15 points a night. The additions of Paul and Green have Houston sitting pretty at second in team points per game for the second season in a row. Both players have made big contributions as the Rockets close the gap to Golden State.
Harden all but carried the team to its win over the Warriors in the season opener. His 27 points led all scorers and Paul’s injuries meant two more signings had to step up. P.J. Tucker added 24, including the game-clinching free throws, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute added 14 in the victory.
Eric Gordon has also been instrumental in Houston’s rise. The 2016 signing has upped his point total from 16.2 to 19.5 per game. He led all scorers with 30 in the loss at the Oracle Arena on January 4. He also contributed 24 in the season opener. Despite an off-night on Saturday in which he shot just 2-14, Gordon was beneficial on the court. He led the team with a +15 plus/minus rating.
Houston does not have the star power of Golden State, but they have exceeded expectations so far this season. The key now will be keeping the team healthy for a deep postseason run. Their depth at guard with Paul, Harden, Gordon, and Green is encouraging. However, they still lack a true backup point guard to keep Paul and his oft-injured knees off the floor. Mario Chalmers is one name that’s been tossed around, but Houston has strangely been linked with more frontcourt players.
Rumors abound that the Rockets are interested in Jazz wing man Rodney Hood and that they turned down a Clint Capela for DeAndre Jordan swap. Many rumors are made up by media or sources outside teams. Nevertheless, if these rumors are true then Morey is looking in the wrong direction. Harden, Gordon, Green, Trevor Ariza, Capela, Ryan Anderson, and Mbah a Moute are all already averaging double figures.
The Rockets’ problems lie in the fact that they have experimented with Briante Weber and Bobby Brown in Paul’s absence. These players cannot cut it. If the Rockets don’t focus on a backup point guard replacement, they will not defeat the Warriors in a seven-game series.
Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr is great at game planning for other teams. His expertise when he is able to zero in on Houston should still give Golden State an edge. The team with Kevin Durant and a healthy Stephen Curry will be the favorites if they meet in May. But the Rockets have closed the gap and are starting to make the NBA Western Conference Playoffs interesting again. If they can land a backup point guard and stay healthy, Golden State could be in for one hell of a series.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (James Harden) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons