The Houston Rockets have a lot of talent, but they’re still putting it all together. (Photo Credit: panamericanonline.com, Flickr.com)
On Sunday, March 17, the Houston Rockets were trounced on their home court by a score of 108-78 by the Golden State Warriors. For a team looking to secure a playoff spot and make a name for itself, it was a truly humiliating defeat. It was also more of an upset than one might guess from simply looking at the standings.
Right now, the Rockets and Warriors have nearly identical records, with the Rockets at 36-31 and the Warriors at 38-30. Both teams are trying to make the playoffs and avoid being swallowed by the ever-surging Los Angeles Lakers. But while each team’s record would make this look like a fairly evenly matched game, the advanced numbers suggests that the Rockets should have had a clear advantage.
Throughout the season, the Warriors have been one of the biggest overachievers in the league. They only outscore opponents by 0.1 points per game, meaning their expected record would be somewhere around .500. Early in the season, when the Warriors were the breakout stars of the year, statisticians repeatedly named the Warriors as regression candidates and sure enough, they have struggled quite a bit, going 8-13 in their last 21 games. Even with that weak run, though, the Warriors continue to outpace their expected record due to their ability to win close games, which should lead them to their first playoff berth since 2007.
The Rockets, on the other hand, have actually underachieved a fair bit this year. This may be surprising, considering how young they are, and that before acquiring James Harden, they weren’t really expected to do anything, but if you look at the numbers, it’s all there. The Rockets have scored 106.5 points per game, while allowing 103.3, a margin of +3.2. This puts their expected record at 41-26, which would give them five more wins than they actually have.
No one has really harped on the Rockets for this because there a fun team to watch and young teams tend to struggle in close games, but the Rockets could be a much better team than they actually are. The problem is, they’re great at winning in blowouts, but when they don’t run away with the game, they tend to struggle. So much of this team depends on its high-scoring offense that when they can’t put it together on the offensive end, they have a tough time getting wins.
Of course, this wouldn’t explain why they lost by 30 to the Warriors. That can be written off as an off night against a Golden State team that made very few mistakes. Still, it’s intriguing that the Warriors have won more games than the Rockets when in theory, they should be a far worse team. Suppose both teams make the playoffs (which is fairly likely). Who would be scarier? The young team that has a lot of talent, but struggles when faced with a serious challenge, or the team that has its flaws, but plays tough every night and excels at winning close games against quality opponents? I think most teams would be more scared of team B, which is why the Warriors look more equipped for a potential postseason upset than the Rockets, who have a ton of potential, but are still finding their sea legs.
The Rockets have a lot of talent and more specifically, they have James Harden, which means they’ll be in the mix for years to come. For now, though, their inexperience shows in their struggles against teams who give them a fight. The Warriors might have less overall talent, but they’re better at eking out every single win they can get. We’ll see both teams in the playoffs, but if we’re looking for either one to still be here in round two, the resilient Warriors have a much better shot than the inexperienced Rockets.