ON A TEAR

3 under-the-radar reasons why the Rockets are terrorizing the NBA right now

P.J. Tucker has helped boost excellent bench play. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You might not have noticed, because despite the Texans struggles, football season is still upon us. And maybe you are still hung over from the Astros World Series run. And maybe, just maybe, you are not into the Rockets because...well, playoff James Harden looms. Charlie Pallilo pondered these factors in his weekly column.

What you have missed is a team that is off to a league-best 22-4 start, winning 11 in a row. They are unbeaten with Chris Paul in the lineup. Their average point total of 114.8 is second only to Golden State’s 117.0. Their point differential of plus-11 is tied with the Warriors for best in the league. (The closest team to either of them is Toronto -- at plus 7.3). They have one road loss all season. During the 11-game win streak, they are dominating opponents, beating nine of them by double digits with an average margin of victory of 17 points in that span.

The Warriors remain the team to beat, but this Rockets group is dominating in Golden State fashion, and still has room to improve. It remains to be seen if they can continue to play at this level and beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but it is no longer ridiculous to think that could happen.  Last week Paul Muth broke down 3 key reasons for the great start. He focused on Harden, Paul and Clint Capela. But there are some other, less obvious reasons for the Rockets’ running roughshod at the moment.

Obviously, Harden, Paul, Capela and Eric Gordon are huge factors. Paul scored a season high 31 on Wednesday and is averaging 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game. He is also averaging just over 2 steals per game. Meanwhile, Harden continues to play at an MVP level, leading the league with 31.6 points per game, 5.1 rebounds and 9.4 assists and shooting a stellar 45.9 percent from the floor, including 40.2 from 3-point land. All Gordon has done is chip 18.9 PPG and provide a huge offensive boost off the bench. But there are  less obvious reasons the Rockets are playing so well.

Muth mentioned the play of  Capela in his piece as a key factor and the Rockets center has taken his game to another level, averaging 13.5 points and 11 rebounds per game, leads the league in shooting percentage at 68 percent and has improved his free-throw shooting from abysmal to almost passable. He had four blocks in the win over Charlotte, and is fifth in the league with 1.88 per game. It was his 10th game with three or more blocks; he only managed six last season in 65 games. His unselfish play fits in very well with the 3-point bombers on the roster, and his emergence is a huge reason for the Rockets’ success. But here are three more reasons that might not be so obvious:

1) The play of the bench

The biggest concern about the Paul trade was that it depleted what was a very strong bench last season. Patrick Beverly was a starter, but Lou Williams was a key bench component, and hopes were high for Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. But Daryl Morey went out and added Luc Mbah A Moute and P.J. Tucker, who are averaging 24 and 26 minutes per game respectively. Throw in veteran Nene, and the second unit with Gordon leading the way matches up with any bench in the league. This group has been much better than expected and is another reason the Rockets are on a roll. Plus/minus is not a great stat in basketball, but against the Hornets Wednesday night, Mbah A Moute was plus 13, Tucker plus 12, Nene plus 32 and Gordon plus 21. That wins you a lot of games.

2) Ryan Anderson

On the surface, he does not look better than last season, when he averaged 13.6 points per game and shot a respectable .403 from 3-point land. This year, he is averaging fewer points at 11.7 per game, but he is more efficient. He is taking fewer shots (8.9 per game compared to 10.7 per game last season) but has improved his shooting percentage from .418 to .455 and his 3-point percentage is up slightly at .407. The Rockets tried tirelessly to shed his contract in a desperate attempt to land Carmelo Anthony, but Anderson has been a nice fit, especially since Paul returned to the lineup. He has better shooting and 3-point percentages than Anthony, who is a much higher volume shooter. He understands his role, and is quietly thriving as a secondary option to the big scorers. In John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, he ranks only slightly lower than Anthony. That’s not to say Anthony is not a better player. But Anderson has been a perfect fit with this group and continued chemistry with Paul will only make him better.

3) Significant improvement on defense

This might be the single most important reason the Rockets are playing so well. The Rockets were 18th in defensive rating last year. This year they are fifth, according to basketballreference.com. A lot of that comes from Capela’s improvement and the addition of Paul, but the bench guys of Mbah A Moute and Tucker have brought a strong presence on the defensive end of the court as well. This is one area where the Rockets have been better than the Warriors (Golden State ranks 7th) and might be the biggest key come playoff time, and the biggest factor as to why they are playing so well.

Of course, success in December does not always translate into playoff success. The Rockets could easily improve as teammates become more familiar with Paul. They could also regress. Time will tell, and questions will remain until April, May and perhaps June. But if you have not been paying attention, now might be a good time to start.

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It's Draft SZN! Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

On Thursday June 22, the NBA will hold their annual draft. With the Rockets owning the number four overall pick, you'd think things would be looking up for them. However, in a draft where the top three players are all expected to be immediate impact guys, the drop begins where the Rockets are selecting. Armed with some young talent, cap space, and a new head coach, the Rockets are looked at as a team on the rise. But what will help contribute to that rise?

When you have assets, you have options. There are three main options I see here for the Rockets with number four: keep the pick and select the guy you think will work best moving forward; trade up to select the guy they feel they missed out on that isn't a punk Frenchie who dislikes Houston; or trade the pick for an established star. The other option is trading the pick for a good player and a future pick/s. Let's take a look at the options:

Option 1: Keeping the pick means you're drafting the leftovers. Those leftovers start with Amen Thompson. He's the guy I believe can come in and help sooner rather than later. At 6'7 and 215 pounds, he has an NBA body. His skill set can come in handy because he's played point guard. This team could use a true point guard, but Thompson isn't exactly a traditional point. He has the size of a wing player, which allows him to see over the top of the defense. His outside shooting is abysmal and needs a vast improvement. To me, adjusting to life as a pro without his twin brother Ausar, another good draft prospect himself, will be difficult. Overall, I believe he's the guy to take at four if they decide to stay.

Option 2: Trading up to get Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller may prove to be difficult. Both teams picking ahead of the Rockets have their point guards. Charlotte wants to find Lamelo Ball a running mate and have their eyes rumored to be set on Miller. Portland is trying their best to keep Dame Lillard happy. The Rockets would be best served to trade with either team willing to move down for whatever they offer, provided it's worthwhile. Portland was just in the playoffs the last few years and aren't as far out as some would think. They're the ones I'd eye to trade with. Speaking of Portland and Dame…

Option 3: The Rockets need a point guard and Dame may be looking to get out. Help them start their rebuild and bring Dame to Houston. Or, how about the Jaylen Brown rumors? Fred VanVleet has a player option for next season, then becomes an unrestricted free agent. There are a few options of finding veteran help around the league, especially at the point. Problem is, are any of these team willing to take the Rockets' offers? It'd start with number four, and include other assets as well. This option makes sense if the organization believes the roster, with whatever vet addition they make via trade, is playoff ready.

Option 4: The last option I thought about is to trade the pick for a first rounder in next year's draft and a decent player. I see this as a last resort of sorts. But only if they do not feel comfortable with whatever player they may take. That, and if they want to save cap space for next free agency period. Not having a first rounder next year isn't as bad as one might think. The team will need to make the necessary moves this offseason to ensure that won't be an issue next draft. FOMO is real, especially when a team is rebuilding and can't use one of the best/cheapest forms of acquiring top talent.

I talked with my good friend “TC.” The guy loves basketball and even hips me to a bunch of stuff. He wants them to move up in the draft for Scoot or Miller. While he is a James Harden fan, he doesn't necessarily want him back. He wouldn't mind it, but it's not his first option. I've spoken with a lot of native Houstonians about this. They all want a winner sooner than later, but have different philosophies on how to get there. Personally, I say options two and three are my faves. Trade the pick for help, rookie or vet, and go from there. I guess we'll have to wait three more weeks before we find out. Or will we…

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