Houston Rockets Must Get To No. 6 Seed In Western Conference

Oct 30, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket during the fourth quarter as Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) defends at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket during the fourth quarter as Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) defends at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

Houston needs to get out of the No. 7 seed to avoid playing either San Antonio or Golden State in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs.

A fair warning for the No. 8 and No. 7 seeds in the Western Conference this year; good luck. Kenny Loggins ‘Danger Zone’ is an accurate metaphor for those willing to embark on the journey to enter the playoffs then subsequently get destroyed by San Antonio or Golden State in the first round of the playoffs. It’s also worth noting that neither team has lost at home in the 2015-16 season.

For the Houston Rockets, it’s time to rev up the engine and make a push to escape the doldrums of the No. 7 seed they’re currently in. To avoid facing either head coach Gregg Popovich and star Kawhi Leonard or the unparalleled Stephen Curry in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, James Harden is going to have to play hero once again. It’s a title he’s familiar with, sporting an absurd 32.6 percent usage rate and taking a career-high 19.2 shot attempts per game.

However, it’s paramount for the high-volume superstar to reclaim the efficiency that had him entrenched in the MVP talk last season. Harden’s numbers in the shooting department have declined, forced to produce in a more turbulent 2015-16 season.

James Harden Season Comparisons
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The firing of Kevin McHale in November was a sudden and impactful move that has paid off so far for Houston. McHale might not have been able to reach general manager Daryl Morey’s sky-high expectations placed on the team in the beginning of the season. In addition, Harden shot 28.6 percent, or worse, in five out of McHale’s 11 coached games.  The perennial All-Star wasn’t leaving, but the theme has remained the same for Houston.

J.B. Bickerstaff, who is progressing the Rockets to a more viable seed to handle the gauntlet in the West in the postseason, has given Harden the keys to Houston’s high-octane offense.

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He’s also one of Space City’s primary distributors. With the ball in his hands in countless half-court sets per game, Harden’s vision and ball skills allow the Arizona State product to be a dual threat in the scoring and passing departments. His 6.9 APG trumps both Patrick Beverley and Ty Lawson, the two point guards Bickerstaff has utilized to run his offense.

Beverley has played off the ball, as well as run the offense, for Houston and gives the Rockets a versatile option opposite of Harden in the backcourt. His numbers don’t explode off the page, averaging just 8.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG and 2.5 APG, while dealing with the ailments of an ankle injury throughout the season.

For Houston’s 2-guards, not having to play the Warriors or Spurs in the first round would be ideal since Oklahoma City’s contingency of shooting guards are inefficient in comparison. Per hoopsstats.com, the Thunder’s 2-guards rank 29th in offensive efficiency, 17th in field goal percentage and 28th in points scored per game. It’s a selling point for Houston to ascend the standings, as the Thunder’s weak point arguably resides at the aforementioned position.

Oklahoma City/San Antonio/Golden State Shooting Guard 2015-16 Season Stat Comp.
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For the defensively lax Harden, he wouldn’t have to handle the abundance of competent shooting guards at the Spurs’ disposal or three-point ace Klay Thompson for the Warriors. Guarding the non-jump shooting threat of Andre Roberson and high volume guard Dion Waiters should be a simpler task for the offensively-driven superstar.

The Rockets should be confident in knowing they have the advantage in two positions on the floor, as neither OKC, San Antonio nor Golden State boasts the shooting guard-center duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard.

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Howard’s been stricken with injuries, missing nine games already in the season, but showed promise last night against San Antonio. He finished 3-of-5 from the floor with 13 points and hauled in eight boards in the 130-99 throttling at the hands of LaMarcus Aldridge and Co. Howard might be averaging his lowest point-per-game total since he rookie season (14.4 PPG), but he’s been a fiend on the boards and is shooting a robust 61.2 percent from the floor.

The Rockets aren’t ready to face off in a seven-game series against either San Antonio or Golden State. A tandem of Harden and Howard is elite, but the supporting cast is lacking and could be a major burden come April.

Houston’s bench is among the worst in the league in points scored per game, field goal percentage and offensive efficiency. It’s a product of general manager failing to piece together a roster that could spell the Rockets’ two superstars. The Ty Lawson experiment has been an arguable bust so far and bringing in power forward Josh Smith from Los Angeles hasn’t provided the expected jolt.

Houston looked to be built to last, as veterans flourished in their respective, albeit limited, roles in last season’s playoff run. Trevor Ariza has been productive as a starter in the 2015-16 season (12.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG) but his expectations have been watered down due to age and declining mobility on the defensive end. With heavyweights littered across the Western Conference landscape, the 11-year pro operating as a third offensive option is a scary thought come playoff time for Houston.

Luckily for the Rockets, Dallas is their primary obstacle impeding their progress to finish No. 6 in the West. The Mavericks consist primarily of aging vets who are fueling their surprising playoff run. In two under-the-radar moves, they added one of their most productive point guards in years in Deron Williams and a near-All-Star in Zaza Pachulia (10.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG).

Currently, basketball-reference.com has Dallas finishing above the Rockets to conclude the season and enter the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. However, with Houston’s evident firepower and Dallas’ surprising opening half of the year, expect the Rockets to eventually jump over the Mavericks in the standings and fight off the aging opposition. Tomorrow, Houston faces OKC in a pivotal Western Conference matchup with playoff implications on the line. It’s the first of five contests the Rockets have against the top-3 juggernauts in the West for the remainder of the season.

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Houston needs to maximize their ceiling, this year, by securing the easier first-round matchup and having to square up against the heavyweights later in the playoffs. It’s like facing MMA’s Ronda Rousey or former UFC fighter and current WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar. You don’t want to do it, but eventually, you might have to in order to claim the gold.