ROCKETS REPORT

Rockets on record pace at the All-Star break

Chris Paul has been a big addition. Rockets.com

The Rockets notched two more convincing wins against the Timberwolves and Kings, thereby extending their latest winning streak to 10 as they headed into the all-star break. In doing so, they also climbed ahead of Golden State by half a game and now once again own the best record in the league. With the All-Star game acting as a natural pause point for everyone to play catch up now that football season is over, let’s take a moment to examine the season so far.

At 44-13 the Rockets have the best record after 57 games in franchise history. James Harden’s jaw-dropping season has all but sealed his MVP recognition later this summer. Chris Paul’s integration to the team has been nothing short of flawless and integral. Clint Capela’s continued development has proven to be ahead of schedule.

Eric Gordon has been lights out, both on and off the bench as Houston weathered multiple injuries. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have transformed the Rockets bench from a defensive liability full of young players the year before to a defensive-minded, hungry group of veterans ready to scrap it out with literally anyone.

The Rockets have gone on winning streaks of 6, 14, and (currently) 10, with 25 games to go. They currently rank second in points per game, and twelfth in points allowed. That’s right, the Houston Rockets are playing some of their best defense since Jeff Van Gundy was roaming the side of the court. Their newfound defensive prowess has come from a much improved emphasis on defensive switches during half-court sets.

In the midst of all of this, three of the Rockets’ starters have missed significant time to injuries, and the result has had little effect on the court. Chris Paul has missed 18 games, while James Harden has missed seven and Trevor Ariza has missed 13. The age-old “next man up,” mentality has been employed all season to great success.

Much of that success can be attributed to Eric Gordon’s stellar play, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ingenious acquisition of Gerald Green. Signed in late December to fill in due to injuries, local product Green hit the court and seamlessly jelled with Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Consider it a savvy move anytime you sign a guy off the streets that goes on to average 13 points per game and 39% from three-point range off the bench.

The Rockets are undefeated at this point against every other team in Texas. Let that sink in. Not only are the beating them, but they’re also doing it by an average of 10 points per game against both teams. Against all currently playoff eligible western conference teams, the Rockets are 12-2.

The point of all this is that the Houston Rockets are playing some of the best basketball Houston has ever seen. And yet, it all accounts for nothing currently because of the elephant in the room:

The Golden State Warriors.

Houston won the regular season series 2-1 against the champs, and just last week wrested the top seed in the conference from their grasp. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has specifically tailored this team’s personnel to counter everything that the Warriors do, and in so doing created a team that has proven that it can legitimately contend with every other team in the league as a result.

Even with the league’s best record, Morey continued to make moves by signing recently bought out players Brandan Wright and longtime Hawks star Joe Johnson. While Johnson is the better known name, I expect Wright--an athletic center who can swat shots--to be the more impactful signing. The Rockets only real achilles heel rested in the health of Capela, and Morey just brought in a poor man’s version with fresh legs.

But regular season wins and playoff wins are two different things. It would be a foolish to assume that the Warriors won’t switch into a completely different gear when the playoffs begin.

The difference between this season and seasons past is that it’s no longer James Harden shouldering the load by himself and switching into that gear. Not only that, but the addition of Paul has allowed Harden to rest more which should theoretically prevent another recurrence of the flare out that was witnessed during the San Antonio series last season.

I’ve watched all 57 games so far and I can tell you with confidence that yes, a healthy Houston squad has a legitimate shot against the  Warriors. With 25 games left in the season, it will be interesting to see just how strong Houston finishes. The Rockets have never posted a 60-win season. With the firepower Houston’s working with now, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.



 

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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