ON A ROLL

3 keys to the Rockets hot start after 20 games

James Harden is playing at an elite level once again. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With nearly one quarter of the season in the books, the Rockets have resoundingly established themselves as one of the elite teams in the NBA. Through 20 games, the 16-4 Rockets are currently tied for their third best start in the past 30 years, trailing only the 1997 (18-2) and 1994 (19-1) teams. In case you may have been distracted by the attempt of a football team the Texans have strained to field, don’t worry. I’m here to help take a deeper look at what’s led to the Rockets incredible start to the season.

If you’re assuming that the obvious place to start is James Harden, you are correct. In last year’s MVP runner-up performance, Harden began the season averaging just over 26 points per game. Through twenty games this season, Harden leads the league in scoring, averaging 31.6 points per game. That includes a career high 56 point performance versus the Jazz. In addition he leads the league in assists, at 9.8 per game. And in true Harden form, he also leads the league in free throw attempts, heading to the charity stripe for an average of 9.3 attempts per game. It’s too early in the season to make a big deal out of anything, but Harden’s blistering start to the season--despite Chris Paul’s 14 game absence--should soon catch the eye of the sports world once football finally crowns a victor (I’m calling Eagles over Patriots).

The other obvious key to the Rockets’ great start has been not only the addition of Chris Paul, but more importantly his actual debut on the court. Although sidelined for 14 games, Paul has proved invaluable when he plays. In spite of his lowest career points average (10.8)  for a season at the moment, Paul is on track for his third best season in assists (10.8). Again, a six game sample size is fairly small to consider in terms of potential impact, however there are two other factors to consider regarding Paul’s contributions to the team that paint a more compelling picture. The first is that the Rockets are undefeated with Paul in the lineup. The second is that the Rockets average 9 more points per game with Paul in the lineup than without. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems as though--at the moment--all of the concerns about Harden and Paul coexisting on the same court have been put to rest. It simply looks like a great point guard is jelling with a great shooting guard from here.

The third key to the Rockets’ success would have to be the increased level of production from 23-year-old center Clint Capela. Capela was always expected to be a productive member of the team, but no one could have expected the leap he would make this season. Capela finished last season averaging 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds. So far this season Capela is averaging 13.3 points and 11.2 rebounds through 20 games. In addition, he leads the entire league in field goal percentage at 67.1% and ranks sixth in the league in player efficiency. Through a combination of those stats and a simple eye test, you can see that Clint Capela, unlike the failed experiment that was Dwight Howard, understands his role in the system and is absolutely thriving. Most promising out of all of Capela’s stat improvements is his free throw percentage. Here’s a quick perspective:

2015-2016: 37.9% free throw percentage

2016-2017: 53.1% free throw percentage

2017-2018: 67.1% free throw percentage

There are few better indicators of a player putting legitimate effort into improving their game than their free throw shot. Traditional and advanced metrics would suggest that Capela is essentially a frontcourt machine that runs the floor like a guard.

Behind yet another MVP-caliber performance from James Harden, the recent contributions from newcomer Chris Paul, and impressive development of Clint Capela, it seems inevitable that the Rockets look poised to perpetuate their white-hot start to the season.

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The clock is ticking. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If he is indeed to become an ex-Astro George Springer can officially sign with his new team starting at four PM Houston time this Sunday. Michael Brantley the same. All free agents can sign contracts starting Sunday afternoon. If the die isn't cast that Springer is leaving, it certainly feels like his renewing vows with the Astros would be an upset.

The Astros will make Springer a 18.9 million dollar qualifying offer for 2021. He will of course reject that because contract offers of at least five years and over 100 million dollars likely await. Should Springer move on the Astros would then get a compensatory draft pick. Brantley won't get anything in close range of Springer's haul-to-be but still should at least get multiyear offers. The Astros should make the qualifying offer to Brantley (if they don't they forfeit any compensation for his departure). If they don't out of fear that he'd accept the one-year deal, the Astros would look lame. I don't think it comes to that. Losing Springer would be a huge blow on multiple levels, but if somehow they were to keep Brantley while getting back Yordan Alvarez at even 80 percent of his rookie performance level the Astros' lineup would look to be in decent shape.

With MLB's economic outlook shaky for 2021, it's unreasonable to say Jim Crane and his partners should give Springer whatever he wants. A six or seven year megadollar contract for a 31-year-old player with some durability questions on his resume is an iffy proposition. At the same time, the Astros have been quite profitable in recent years (before 2020), and Crane said over the summer the Astros were positioned to be "aggressive, whatever the market looks like." 13 million Josh Reddick dollars are off the books for 2021, 10 mil of Roberto Osuna is gone. After next year more than 57 mil of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke clear.

MLB's postseason awards will be doled out over the next couple weeks but for the first time in years the Astros don't have a credible candidate for any of the big ones (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year). The Astros do have three American League Gold Glove finalists. I think Carlos Correa wins the shortstop honor. Correa had a weak regular season at the plate but his defense was stellar, plus the two guys who divvied up the last four AL SS Gold Gloves (Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons) had down seasons and aren't finalists. Quick: name the teams of fellow finalists J.P. Crawford and Niko Goodrum. Hard to see either winning over Correa. Yuli Gurriel and Kyle Tucker were also named top three at their positions. For the first time the finalist selections were driven entirely by stats and analytics.

Big week for the Rockets

With the Rockets settling on Stephen Silas as their new Head Coach, that hire coupled with the in house promotion of Rafael Stone to General Manager makes it appear as though owner Tilman Fertitta is doing more things on the cheap. The NBA economic environment is challenging and huge portions of the rest of Fertitta's portfolio are submerged in a COVID-driven bloodbath. Silas has paid his dues for a good while and most recently worked under the outstanding Rick Carlisle in Dallas. He has earned a lead chair opportunity. But with no prior head coaching experience and no bidding war for his services, Silas signs on at a much lower rate than, say, Jeff Van Gundy would have commanded. Former head coaches (and former Rockets' player rivals of the 90s) Jeff Hornacek and Nate McMillan would make for two strong Silas assistants. From their playing days if you combined Hornacek's offense and McMillan's defense into one player you'd have one of the top 20 or so greatest guards in NBA history.

Silas and Stone take the reins at a challenging time for the Rockets with their messy salary cap sheet, reduced draft capital, and one of the oldest core player groups in the league. Polite public statements aside, it's part of why Daryl Morey left. Maybe Mike D'Antoni too though that seemed more about feeling disrespected by the lack of a contract extension before this past season. D'Antoni may have overplayed his hand since he did not get fill any of the coaching vacancies elsewhere in the NBA. Only Oklahoma City remains open, and D'Antoni has gotten no run there.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. It seems sadly appropriate that the first meaningful positive in the Texans' 2020 season came in form of a COVID test result.

2. If we all commit to getting through it together, I think we can get by without a Texans' game this weekend. Remember, it's their open week, not a bye!

3. One hit wonder goodbye songs: Bronze-Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun" Silver-Norman Greenbaum "Spirit In The Sky" Gold-Steam "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"

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