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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