The Houston Rockets are off to a hot start in the new NBA season.
At 11-4 as of Wednesday night, they are just a half game behind the 11-3 Golden State Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference.
Leading the league by attempting a ridiculous 44.5 three-point shots per game, the Rockets are playing a wildly-different brand of offensive basketball than everyone else, and so far it’s working.
Most importantly, they’ve been without star newcomer Chris Paul, who has been out since the season opener after suffering a knee injury in his team debut.
With Paul slated to return in Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, Houston’s groove might be slightly interrupted, but as a whole it seems as though they have the best shot to challenge the Warriors in the tough Western Conference.
Since the West’s top teams have very different roster constructions, the winner of the conference will presumably be able to mix and match properly against any opponent. As seen in recent years, the Warriors have become masters at playing small ball when needed and going big when appropriate.
That is no different than this season, as Golden State is poised to make another run. But, as seen so far this year, Mike D’Antoni has a great deal of rotational versatility to work with as well. Here are some of the different combinations that he will be able to use moving forward.
Featuring a three-guard lineup of James Harden, Eric Gordon and Paul, D’Antoni will have the option of playing either Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson or Luc Mbah a Moute at the four and either Clint Capela or Nene Hilario at center. Although this type of lineup will likely have clear defensive deficiencies, the offensive firepower would likely outweigh that concern.
Since Harden, Gordon and Paul all have proven experience handling the ball and are comfortable doing so, it will be a nightmare for opposing defenses to attempt to match up against them, including Golden State. Due to Gordon's surprising start in which he's averaging 22.1 points per game as of Wednesday night, D'Antoni will likely feature this kind of lineup quite often.
Clint Capela is off to a breakout start to the year, averaging a double-double of 13.1 points and 11.5 rebounds over just 26.1 minutes per contest. Against a team like the New Orleans Pelicans, as an extreme example, with both DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, D’Antoni will have the option of playing Capela and either Hilario, Tarik Black or Anderson on the floor for an extended period of time. While that wouldn’t necessarily limit the production of that duo, they’d at least be able to match up against them size-wise.
Mbah a Moute’s length at the three could certainly come in handy against a team like the San Antonio Spurs (once they get Kawhi Leonard back) or the Warriors, who rely in part on Kevin Durant every game. Regarded as an elite on-ball wing defender, he will likely see extended minutes against teams with wing players who have a tendency to catch fire.
In the end, this lineup wouldn’t pose as much of an offensive threat as the small-ball one, but pairing some combination of Harden, Paul and Gordon with the others above would still present problems to other teams.
While the Rockets have recently been heralded for their elite offense, they have a real shot at becoming a solid defensive group. A lineup of Paul, defensive-minded PJ Tucker, Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Capela would likely be able to make an impact against any opposing offense.
Harden has even shown a willingness to play defense this year, which has resulted in the team holding a 103.3 defensive rating, which ranked 12th in the NBA heading into Wednesday night. The Rockets also ranked fifth in the league with 8.9 steals per contest.
Even with Harden in the lineup, Tucker, Ariza and Mbah a Moute are interchangeable pieces that D’Antoni could deploy based on tendencies, size or any other factor that he decides to look at.
Part of what makes this team so dangerous is that even when they’re trailing by double-digits, they have the ability to get right back in the game based on their reliance on the deep ball. Similarly, they're able to get out to huge leads if their shots from deep consistently drop.
Trotting out CP3 along with Harden, Gordon, Ariza and Anderson will be one of the most deadly three-point shooting lineups in NBA history. Consider this: Harden has averaged 11.0 three-point shots this season followed by Gordon at 10.9, Anderson at 7.2 and Ariza at 7.2. In his one game, Paul hoisted up four threes. Therefore, there’s a real chance that this lineup could average close to 40 deep-ball attempts per contest, which is absurd.
Since opposing teams will have to honor the long-range shooting ability of this lineup, specifically by Ariza and Anderson in the frontcourt, it could open up driving lanes to the hoop for Harden and company in the backcourt as well, thus serving a multi-dimensional purpose.
Although the Warriors are the clear-cut favorites to repeat as NBA champions, the Rockets have made it clear that their brand of basketball works. Given the options that D’Antoni will now have with Paul back, the rest of the NBA should be watching intently on what the Rockets are able to do in the near future.