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Houston Rockets

Why you should watch the Rockets in 2017-18

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Chris Paul (3 )high five in the first half of an NBA exhibition basketball game against the Shanghai Sharks Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/AP photo

The Golden State Warriors are indisputably the best team in the NBA, but if there is a squad that can give them a run for their money, it’s the Houston Rockets with their future Hall of Fame backcourt, consisting of James Harden and Chris Paul.

Last season, the Rockets set an NBA record for most 3-pointers made and attempted in a season, but they were just below average in 3-point percentage. So what happens if they shoot them with the same volume or an even higher volume with greater accuracy?

That looks like it’s a very realistic scenario for the Rockets, who have all but set fire to the nets this preseason.

Granted it’s just preseason, but according to RealGM.com, the Rockets are leading the NBA in points per game (121.7), field-goal percentage (.527), 3-pointers made (22.7), 3-pointers attempted (51), assists (30.7) offensive rating (120.8), net rating (90.7) true shooting percentage (68.0) and effective field-goal percentage (66.7).

They are also in the top-5 in steals (third at 11.3), defensive rating (fourth, 90.7) and assist percentage (second, 71.9), though that doesn’t have much to do with their shooting.

Yes, there are all kinds of qualifiers to those numbers: one game was against a team from China and another was against the New York Knicks — who are arguably just as bad as the team from China. The game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was against a contender, but the Thunder were without their MVP.

I get it. The Rockets aren’t going to have an offensive rating over 120 for an entire year. But they’re going to put on one heck of a scoring show. Preseason doesn’t mean everything, but it doesn’t mean nothing either.

They aren’t running a particularly fast pace. They’re not running opponents off the court. It’s not an outlier.

This isn’t just volume shooting masquerading as good offense; it’s player movement creating good shots with two elite passers picking apart defenses.

Harden is averaging 10.3 assists per game and Paul is notching 9.5. That combined total is more than the Thunder, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Knicks have as teams.

Probably one of the more understated things about the Rockets this offseason is how they upgraded at the forward position, replacing Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell with Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker. While the defensive upgrade was obvious, the two new combo forwards are also very good on catch-and-shoots. In fact, the Rockets are suddenly rife with players who can bury the deep ball. Here is a list of the key rotation players and what they did off passes last year:

PLAYER FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% EFG%
Chris Paul 0.6 1.2 47.4 0.5 1.1 49.3 69.1
Ryan Anderson 2.5 5.7 42.9 2.4 5.7 42.7 64.0
James Harden 0.9 2.4 38.7 0.9 2.3 38.3 57.2
PJ Tucker 1.0 2.5 39.5 0.8 2.2 37.1 55.8
Eric Gordon 2.4 6.6 36.6 2.4 6.6 36.4 54.7
Luc Mbah a Moute 0.8 1.9 41.8 0.5 1.3 39.0 54.6
Trevor Ariza 2.0 5.6 35.5 2.0 5.6 35.5 53.1
Total 12.2 30.9 39.4% 10.9 28.8 37.8% 57.1%

 

Having seven different shooters who play a total of four different positions (and Tucker or Anderson could play the 5 in a small-ball lineup) means a lot of open looks for a lot of decent shooters. But what makes that even more dramatic is having two guys in Harden and Paul who can both break down defenses and shoot.

Add to that the future Hall of Fame guards are able to break defenses down off the bounce and are willing passers. Based on data at NBA.com last year, Paul’s teammates’ effective field-goal percentage was 2.7 points better when he passed them the ball as opposed to another teammate. Harden’s fellow Rockets shot 1.8 percentage points better.

This raises one thing that doesn’t get a lot of consideration: Last season, 64.2 percent of Harden’s shots were with a defender “close” (between 2-4 feet)  or “very close” (less than 2 feet).  And for all the complaints about the fouls he draws, a player can’t draw a foul unless there’s a defender close enough to foul him. By comparison, Stephen Curry had 42.3 percent of his shots with a defender within 4 feet. Having Paul draw defensive attention away from Harden is going to give Harden more freedom.

That’s some very lethal poison to be picking from.

The conversation about whether they can share the ball also ignores another fact: They aren’t always going to play together. The Rockets plan on playing the two together for about 20 minutes per night, but that leaves about 14 minutes for each to be running the offense by himself. Where that gets terrifying is that the Rockets can have a Hall of Fame-caliber point guard on the court at all times.

Make that a Hall of Fame point guard who embraces passing and will be surrounded by shooters. That is going to cause a steady onslaught of shooting that will have defenses running around and chasing shooters 48 minutes a night.

And all of this is in an offense designed by general manager Daryl Morey, who is so famous for hit attachments to shots inside the little arc and outside the big one that we call them Morey zones. Also, in coach Mike D’Antoni, they have one of the original architects of “pace-and-space” offense.

If you like 3-point shooting, you will love the Rockets. Because of that shooting, if you want a team that has a prayer of upending the Warriors, they’re your best hope.

Either way, the Rockets are going to be fun to watch as Harden and Paul take turns playing with that deep arsenal of shooters — while assisting each other.

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