Before the blockbuster James Harden deal, the Houston Rockets were a very interesting and confusing looking team. Now, however, they seem to be well on their way to finding their identity and could become one of the biggest surprises in the tough Western Conference.
Harden has made a huge impact on the Rockets, taking the reins of the No. 1 offensive option after years of deferring to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. His ability to create and facilitate an offense, as well as his motivation to prove his worth as the go-to guy have given Houston one of the most potent offenses in the league.
The Rockets currently lead the league in scoring (105.4 per game), but you wouldn't be able to tell from their average 14-12 record.
Probably the largest blame for their lackluster position in the standings stems from their inability to play solid team defense as they are second-to-last in the league in points allowed at 103.4 per game. On top of that, Houston is also still developing all of their chemistry with all of the new pieces that they acquired.
There's work to do for the Rockets, but they have already shown flashes of being a team to be reckoned with. Houston has notched notable victories over teams like the Knicks and Grizzlies, winning by a very comfortable margin each time.
Can the Rockets realistically make a deep playoff run?
A victory against the Grizzlies was a great statement game, especially considering they had an 18-6 record going into the contest. Beating a tough team so soundly will surely draw some attention around the NBA and gives Houston plenty of positive momentum going forward.
As for the rest of the Western Conference, it's looking like a tough road ahead for the Rockets. Both the Los Angles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been on long winning streaks this season, establishing their dominance in the West. Houston and former Thunder James Harden had a shot to prove their worth against OKC, but were ultimately blown out on the road.
The biggest obstacle for the Rockets to conquer is finding their team chemistry, something that all of the West's top teams have mastered. After acquiring quality players like Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik and pairing them with guys like Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons, Houston has plenty of talent to go around, it's just a matter of making them all work together efficiently on both sides of the ball.
Additionally, team defense is an area that must improve drastically if the Rockets want to make a splash in the West. Teams like OKC, Los Angeles and even San Antonio have star-studded offenses that can put a game out of reach in a hurry if the team doesn't have the ability to lock them down.
In terms of individual stoppers, Asik is a defensive specialist in the paint and Harden is doing his fair share on the perimeter, averaging 1.8 steals per game. However, the team is relying a bit too much on their offense and hoping to outgun their opposition rather than playing a balanced game.
Sure, the Rockets can get a good amount of wins this way, but they will surely run into problems when faced against tough defenses that frustrate them on offense. This will force them to lean on their defense for support, which isn't a reliable option at this point in the season.
The benefit of playing under a lot lower pressure is beneficial to this Houston team, since they entered this season with lower expectations than teams like the Thunder or Clippers. Without the fans expecting a championship run from the get go, the Rockets can operate at their own pace and fly under the radar in the West throughout the season heading into the playoffs.
It's not an easy path ahead for Houston and the team is still meshing together as the season progresses, but from what the Rockets have already shown this season and the potential of their talent, there's still plenty of reason to believe that this team could easily shake up the standings in the West and pull of some shocking upsets.