The Rockets are who we thought they were -- and intoxicatingly fun to watch
Houston is 1-1 but there's a lot of reasons to like how its season has started
The Rockets are fun as hell. They lost to the Lakers -- the Lakers! -- in their opening game, and so the jokes rained down, understandably. But everyone that was tuned into that contest, and then caught the Rockets' follow-up win Friday against the Mavericks knows that watching them is engaging and slightly intoxicating. It's like wandering through Bourbon Street or Beale Street or 6th Street at 1 a.m. on a Friday. There's just a lot going on and you're mostly just trying to take it all in without freaking out.
Houston's 1-1, and there's been honestly more good than bad, even with the loss to the Lakers. It's important to remember how tough home openers are traditionally. Teams have statistically held an advantage greater than typical home-court advantage, and extra time in L.A. doesn't help matters.
Plus, you've got teams implementing new systems and personnel. Opening games are always a little wonky.
Here are five quick takeaways from the Rockets' start to the Mike D'Antoni era:
1. Yes, James Harden is that awesome in this system.
Through two games (small sample size alert), Harden is averaging 30 points, 7.5 rebounds and 13.5 assists. Just absurd numbers. Much was made, and even more made in response to how much was made of Mike D'Antoni's preseason comment about Harden playing point guard, but there very much is a notable difference in how Harden is playing. He's bringing the ball up every time, and initiating the offense from the get-go, rather than trying to clear space and then create something.
Harden's touches through two games (small sample!) are up by about 8.5 touches per contest. That would jump him from 13th most per game last season to third-most. He's gotten more control, and he's doing more with it, all while still only shooting 31 percent from 3-point range through the first two games.
Part of the key with his success is the talent that's around him. The Rockets have had good teams, but their biggest flaw offensively was the lack of shooters. With Trevor Ariza's resurgence (we'll get to him in a sec) and Eric Gordon on board along with Ryan Anderson, Harden has weapons, properly spaced, all around.
Look at the room and options he has when he splits the double here. This is a score mainly because the Mavericks essentially have to play J.J. Barea or Seth Curry half the time due to injury, but the spacing remains.
Check the options:
That opens the door. And half the time, Harden's just playing with incredible confidence which is what has made him a top-five offensive player the last four seasons.
Harden has a legitimate chance at leading the league in scoring and assists this season, which hasn't been done since Tiny Archibald back in the day.
2. Trevor Ariza looks alive.
Ariza's struggles were the most shocking last season. He wasn't just off his game or missing good looks, he genuinely looked defeated. He was sluggish on rotations, didn't give second or third efforts defensively, and generally exemplified the collective Rockets misery.
He's back. Ariza is diving on the floor for loose balls, being disruptive, playing overall sound defense and maybe most importantly, knocking down shots early for the Rockets.
You want a Mike D'Antoni shot chart? Here's a Mike D'Antoni shot chart.
At the rim and from the perimeter. If Ariza continues this, it's a great sign for Houston.
3. Eric Gordon fits like a glove ... and that's going to complicate things.
Gordon has never gotten to choose where he played before. He was drafted by the Clippers, traded to New Orleans, signed an offer sheet with Phoenix, and the Pelicans (then the Hornets) matched it. He looks comfortable (and healthy) with the Rockets early on, and the success is easy to come by. D'Antoni is a coach that enables confidence. It's an odd phenomenon, but there are certain coaches whose players just shoot better. It's not just spacing, flow or how open they are. They just inspire quality shooting. D'Antoni's one of those.
And Gordon is letting it fly.
Gordon's also capable of running the floor with the ball. His handle is tight and he can create. This helps the Rockets immensely because for the first time in Harden's tenure, there's another guard who can create offense with the ball on his own.
This is a great start for Gordon, just from the eye test.
What will be interesting is what happens when Patrick Beverley gets back. Notably, Harden and Gordon together are a plus-14.2 with a survivable 104.2 defensive rating. The idea has been that Beverley will return to the starting unit, but those two are so good together, it might actually be better to bring Beverley off the bench to run the offense and try and focus on defense, then smoke teams with the starting unit. Either way, Gordon and Harden will play a lot together this season and early on, the combo is working.
4. Yes, the defense is as bad as we expected.
The talk in preseason from Houston's perspective was that assistant Jeff Bdzelik would provide the defensive rock it needed. Against the Mavericks, the Rockets performed much better defensively than they did against the Lakers. They gave up a 103.6 defensive rating, which is not good, but at least isn't eye-gougingly bad. Two things to consider: Dirk Nowitzki sat out, that's kind of a big deal. Also, with Devin Harris out, Seth Curry and J.J. Barea both had to play serious minutes, and defensively, their size is a big issue, especially against the Rockets' overall size.
Dallas had to put Wesley Matthews on Harden full-time, which meant in certain lineups, Curry was guarding Ariza, who has several inches on him.
There's still very little defensive communication, still a lot of breakdowns. They are going to be in a shootout every single game.
5. Other guys look ready to step up.
Man, K.J. McDaniels, after being stuck on the bench the past two years, has picked up Corey Brewer's minutes early on, and the results are pretty fantastic. He's knocking down 3-pointers, running the floor and attacking passing lanes -- perfect for a D'Antoni system. He hasn't been a threat to hit from deep in the past, so defenders are abandoning covering him to help strong side, which means when he uses his athleticism to attack:
Nene looked disastrous in the first game, but much better against Dallas. Ryan Anderson didn't have a strong shooting game against Dallas but the way he fits makes a lot of sense, even if he's an offensive specialist. And D'Antoni is still trying out deeper reserves in a very un-D'Antoni way. (D'Antoni typically plays short rotations.)
And as we predicted this summer, Harden and Clint Capela have shown a great chemistry already.
The Rockets are 1-1, but even with the loss to the Lakers, watching how they play, it's clear that they will be maybe the most fun watch in the league (especially with the Warriors looking very meh), and Houston is still trending in the right direction.
Now about that defense ...
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