Feb 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) celebrates with center Dwight Howard (12) after a play against the Golden State Warriors during the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets 102-99 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Rockets Are Legitimate Championship Contenders

Feb 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) celebrates with center Dwight Howard (12) after a play against the Golden State Warriors during the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets 102-99 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets are a legitimate championship contender. Aren’t they?

That’s a question that the NBA community has been grappling with since Daryl Morey pulled off the mega-signing of superstar center Dwight Howard in July 2013. The name value is present on this relatively well-balanced roster, but many feel that Houston is missing one final trait to push it over the edge.

Here’s why you should believe in the Rockets’ legitimacy right now.

Red-Hot Rockets

Want a reason to believe? Try this: the Rockets are absolutely torching the rest of the NBA over the past two months. And that’s understating their dominance.

Check the numbers before you try to dispute that.

Since ending 2013 at 21-13, the Rockets have won 17 of their past 22 games en route to a record of 38-18. In the process, Houston has earned wins over some of the hottest teams in the league.

Since Jan. 1, Houston has defeated the likes of the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs—teams that are currently slated to reach the playoffs.

There’s no question that a two-month stretch of success is a brief indication of championship contention, but it’s hard to ignore this consistency. The Rockets have a strong rotation of players that’s led by a pair of stars who can take over along the perimeter and on the interior.

Most importantly, those players are experienced where it counts.

Quick to Forget

I’m beginning to think that legacies are made from season-to-season. Even if a player is able to achieve extraordinary feats in the not-to-distant past, fans and analysts like to forget what has been done and replace it with what’s happening now—a fair, but dangerous approach.

For Houston, stars James Harden and Dwight Howard have both led teams to the NBA Finals. Sort of.

Howard’s status as an elite performer is only questioned because of the obvious elephant in the room: fans aren’t too fond of his character. The reality is D-12 led a relatively underwhelming Orlando Magic team to the 2009 NBA Finals and brought Stan Van Gundy’s club right back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

With career postseason averages of 19.7 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 60.1 percent shooting from the floor, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is about as trustworthy a player as they come in the playoffs. He’s also the definition of a difference-maker.

In Orlando’s first season without D-12, the Magic went 20-62 with virtually the same core.

As for Harden, he was the sixth man and third-best player on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that reached the 2012 NBA Finals. Harden performed poorly against the Miami Heat, but prior to that series, Harden performed very well against the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs in the first round and Western Conference Finals.

Harden didn’t shoot very well in last year’s postseason, but he did take over games without an elite interior player like D-12. Now, he has Howard and his job will become significantly easier because of it.

That’s what you call a championship-caliber tandem.

Defense is Stronger Than It Seems

The on-the-surface statistics paint a picture of the Rockets possessing a subpar defense that will cause their ultimate collapse in the playoffs. A more in-depth look leads one to believe that Houston could potentially rely on its defense to make key stops.

That’s not as crazy as it seems.

The Rockets may be 19th in scoring defense at 101.7 points allowed per game, but that’s an unfair representation of the caliber of this defensive unit. While some will rely heavily on that number, it’s a product of Houston’s pace, which ranks sixth in the NBA.

That’s where digging deeper plays such a significant role in evaluation.

Houston is fifth in the NBA with an opponent field goal percentage of 43.8 percent. Houston is also an adequate No. 11 in 3-point field goal percentage at 35.1 percent, which is just .1 behind the No. 10 Washington Wizards.

So much for those struggles on defense.

The reality is, the depth that Houston may lack on defense will not play as prominent a role in the playoffs. Instead, a likely eight-man rotation will feature the players who can help Houston the most on both ends.

Most significantly, that means D-12 and Omer Asik will see a healthy amount of playing time as defensive stoppers. Per NBA.com, Asik holds opponents to 43.6 percent shooting when he meets them at the rim.

Howard checks in at 47.0 percent in those same situations.

With those two players protecting the rim and the likes of Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons guarding the perimeter, the Rockets are ready to adjust to a slower game. The personnel in place has been wonderfully crafted, and come the playoffs, Houston will make noise.

With this balance established, it’s time to believe in the legitimacy of the Houston Rockets.

Tags: Chandler Parsons Dwight Howard Houston Rockets Omer Asik Patrick Beverley

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