The Houston Rockets have solidified themselves as legitimate contenders, sitting in third place in a competitive Western Conference.
If you told me halfway through the 2015-2016 NBA season that the 2016-2017 Houston Rockets would be 2.5 games back of the Golden State Warriors, and 1.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs 39 games into the season, I would have laughed at you.
The 2016-2017 Houston Rockets have completely changed their team from last season, and are now a top 5 team in the NBA. Last season’s roster included Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Michael Beasley, Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Ty Lawson, and head coach Kevin McHale. The lacklustre play of the Rockets at the beginning of last year’s season led to the firing of McHale after a 4-7 start, which led to the hiring of J. B. Bickerstaff.
Last season, NBA fans were exposed to poor chemistry between Harden and Howard, and the Rockets were unable to create any kind of roll as Harden, Howard and Bickerstaff all had different approaches on how to be successful. After waiving Lawson in May, the Rockets barely slipped into the playoffs with the 8th seed with a .500 record of 41-41.
Finishing in 8th did them no favours, as their opponent was the reigning world champions, Golden State Warriors. The Golden State Warriors manhandled the Rockets, and sent them home in the blink of an eye. At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Rockets lost Dwight Howard to the Hawks, and some of their bench players left to other teams.
Fortunately for Houston, the Rockets gained Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Nené and hired new head coach in Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s new offensive map has worked extremely well with Harden so far. His plan was to use Harden as the complete main option, but also allow him to play point guard and to make his own decisions on where the ball should go.
Without Dwight Howard, the Rockets needed to take a risk on Clint Capela, who was with the team last year but never got anything going. This year, he was given the chance with the starting job and has really excelled with Harden. Although Capela isn’t the tallest centre in the league, he outworks other big men, and prior to breaking his leg, was putting up solid numbers. The gain of Eric Gordon has been extremely beneficial to the Rockets because it allows Gordon to have the right usage for his capabilities instead of being behind Harden and his offensive plan in the starting lineup.
With Gordon averaging 17.8 points-per-game off the bench, and being a potential 6-man of the year candidate, it has allowed the Rockets to be strong both with the starting lineup, and the bench. Growing stars such as Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are proving to be key bench players on a successful Rockets team thus far. Now you cannot forget about the growth that Harden has showed from last year to this year. Last year with Howard in the lineup, Harden averaged a career-high 29 points-per-game, with 7.5 assists-per game, and 6.1 rebounds per game.
These numbers had him in the MVP contention, but he was no match to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double tear, and Curry’s one-in-a-kind offensive season. With the new head coach, and no Howard, Harden has been able to show his capabilities both on the offensive and defensive side of the basketball.
Through only the first half of the season, Harden is averaging just under his career-high in points with 28.2 per-game, but is averaging a career-high in rebounds, (8.2) and in assists (11.8). The loss of certain players like Dwight Howard and Houston’s head coaches (McHale and Bickerstaff), have completely modified the Houston Rockets.
Having D’Antoni come in with complete trust in Harden to lead the point has put James Harden on a mission to both win the 2017 MVP award, and take his team deep into the playoffs.