Fluke or for real? 5 teams wildly exceeding expectations in 2023–24

Indiana Pacers v Minnesota Timberwolves
Indiana Pacers v Minnesota Timberwolves / David Berding/GettyImages
6 of 6

Houston Rockets (13-12)

The Houston Rockets are in a similar position to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic as a young team on the rise. So is it better than average to start as a sign of what's to come (like the former) or more of a fluke (like the latter)?

In the offseason, Houston demonstrated its desire to take the next step by bringing in Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks on the court and Ime Udoka off the court. The plan was to turn the Rockets from a long rebuild towards Western Conference playoff contention, which is where Houston finds itself.

Not everything is going to plan. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. still haven't broken out the way they've been expected to, though Smith recently had a career night in Atlanta with 34 points. Other things are breaking Houston's way.

The biggest thing is the development of Alperen Sengun. He's become one of the best young big men in the entire league, averaging 19.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 5.2 assists through 25 games. Some of the league's best teams are built around their big men and Houston could start leaning in that direction if Sengun keeps elevating his game.

If defense is the path to championships, Houston is doing that right, too. After being one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year, the Rockets are hanging around the top three in defensive efficiency this year. Udoka and Brooks have something to do with that.

To this point, the Rockets haven't had the easiest schedule. So even though they're just a blink over .500, that's more impressive than it looks. The Rockets need more from the young players who are supposed to be stars, but the Rockets' goal to level up this season is certainly taking shape.

Verdict: For Real