Good Rockets can be better, and they will need to be as the season goes on
Coming into this season, the Rockets were thought of as a possible Western Conference contender. Maybe not one of the teams that could make it to the Finals, but one of the top four to five for sure. Well, 14 games into the season, they're 11-3 and a half game behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. James Harden is off to another MVP level start averaging an unbelievable 39.5 points per game. The experiment of pairing Harden with longtime friend Russell Westbrook is looking like a success so far. Although Westbrook has had to be load managed given his injury history, things appear to be flowing smoothly.
If you know me and follow my writings and whatnot, you know there's a but coming. Well, here it is: as good as things are, they can and need to be better. Some of the issues I have are necessary in order for them to contend for not just for seeding in the West, or a deep playoff run, but possibly an NBA title.
Harden's shooting percentages
While Harden is making history with his 39.5 scoring average, his field goal percentage (41.7) is his lowest since his rookie season (40.3) and his three point percentage (33.2) is his lowest since the 2016-17 season (34.7). While those are career lows or close to it, his free throw percentage (88.1) is a career best. Imagine if Harden was shooting at his career averages of 44.2% from the field and 36.4% from three? I'm pretty sure he'd be averaging well over 40 a game.
Harden has been very durable over the course of his career, so this applies to him as far as his stamina is concerned, especially when going deep into the playoffs. Westbrook has been load managed, and rightfully so. His history of injuries, specifically his knees, at his age (31) and style of play require his minutes to be closely monitored. Eric Gordon is out for another month or so after knee surgery. Hopefully this'll have a twofold effect: getting Gordon healthy, and allowing other guys to play. With other guys playing, they will hopefully gain Mike D'Antoni's trust come playoff time given his penchant for shrinking his rotation in the postseason. Health isn't something you can correct or fix, but it's crucial to this team given the way they're built.
When you can score at the rate the Rockets can, if you can play average defense, you'll win a bleep ton of games. While they currently have .786 win percentage, it could be even better if they weren't giving up 114.2 points a game! That's 22nd in the league for those keep score. Letting Jeff Bzdelik go was a horrible decision. I don't care what was the issue, it should've been settled. Maybe switching everything isn't a good idea. Zone schemes and outside the box ideas should all be on the table right now. We're talking about a team that gave up 158 points in regulation, but won because they scored 159.
The D'Antoni Factor
D'Antoni is essentially a lame duck coach. His coaching staff was picked apart this past offseason and he put the word out there that he ended contract extension talks. As previously mentioned, he notoriously short with his bench, and is known for being an offensive-minded coach. If he can go against the grain and focus more on defense, as well as learn to trust guys outside his top seven to eight in the rotation, this team may go places. Harden is playing 37 minutes a night right now. Guys like Ben McLemore and Chris Clemons deserve a fair shot at more minutes. Isaiah Hartenstein has improved some over the last few years and may be ready to play more despite the team signing Tyson Chandler. D'Antoni has a say in all these matters which are all critical to any successes this tea wishes to have this year.
I'm not going to be overly confident the Rockets will have any and/or all of these fixed. I also won't be a homer and think they'll be in the NBA Finals either. They're off to a hot start. The Golden State Warriors' deal with the devil appears to be up given their current state. The Lakers have formed a "super team" and are sitting on top of the West. Meanwhile, the Celtics and Bucks in the East, as well as the Clippers and Nuggets in the West are all formidable. The Rockets have to be able to clean up some of their messesif they expect to make it through the wide wild West. Even if they manage to make it that far, they still have some heavy hitters from the East to beat in order to win a title. It hasn't gotten easier because the bully (the Warriors) appears to be broken. If anything, it's harder because there's so much parity that one can't pick one or two teams and say they're the overwhleming favorites. There is more hope than previous seasons for the Rockets. But it's ultimately up to them to produce.