As we approach the 2012-13 NBA postseason, the battle for position in the conference standings is as fierce as ever. Powers are reaching new heights, early-season favorites are on the decline and teams we had previously written off are making their late-season push.
When it comes down to which Western Conference teams are set to make the most noise, however, the Houston Rockets may just be the NBA's biggest wild card.
The Rockets are not your conventional postseason contender, as their youth should be hindering them more than it is. Instead, this young squad has managed to pass over the rebuilding stage and push right into the postseason.
As of Mar. 19, the Rockets are 36-31 and in sole possession of the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They're also a full game ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.
As it's currently shaping up, the Rockets would play the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first round.
Whether or not the Rockets can win a postseason series is unclear. What is certain, however, is that the Rockets are built to make noise.
It all starts on offense.
The Houston Rockets are one of the most dominant offensive teams in the NBA. They move the ball extraordinarily well, push the pace in transition and score the rock as well as any in the league.
Despite ranking 29th in scoring defense, their elite offense cannot be ignored.
Houston presently ranks second in the NBA in scoring at 106.5 points per game. They're achieving that feat by ranking fifth in assists, seventh in field-goal percentage and sixth in three-point field goal percentage.
Perhaps most important of all, they're fourth in free-throw attempts per game.
Not only will the Rockets run the floor and score, but they'll get the opposition in foul trouble. This helps to run the opposing rotation thin and place a tax upon interior defenders' legs as they run in transition.
The key to all of this is a rising star with significant postseason experience—shooting guard James Harden.
The Harden Factor
For those who are just now catching on with his career, James Harden is viewed as a young star on the rise. For those who have tracked his career, however, Harden has long been one of the better shooting guards in the NBA.
He's established that reputation during the postseason.
Harden has 43 games of postseason experience, including two trips to the Western Conference finals. Most recently, Harden played a key role in the Oklahoma City Thunder's ability to reach the 2012 NBA Finals.
In 2012-13, however, Harden has elevated his game to a new level.
Harden is posting career-best averages of 26.3 points, 5.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals. Furthermore, Harden is shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Harden happens to lead the NBA in free-throw attempts per game.
When a team has a superstar with offensive proficiency, their chances to make noise in the NBA postseason increase significantly. When that superstar has three years of playoff experience and an NBA Finals appearance under their belt, said team's chances improve significantly.
With James Harden leading an elite offensive unit, the Rockets may just be the NBA's biggest postseason wild card.
Upside & Obstacles
As it presently stands, the Houston Rockets would play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs. Their ceiling for the regular season could be the six-seed, while their postseason basement could be an eighth seed.
On paper, the Rockets could have trouble against a team of that caliber. The fact of the matter is, every one of those teams can be exploited by Houston's up-tempo offense.
So how far could the Rockets go?
This team is not built to reach the NBA Finals, but they could certainly steal an opening round series. They've already defeated the Spurs and Thunder in individual games and possess the open court style that could give them trouble.
Keep in mind, James Harden's average of 10.1 free throw attempts per game means he's drawing at least five fouls per contest.
Houston's ability to get the Spurs and Thunder in foul trouble could limit their respective defenses. While the Rockets would clearly be the underdog, their ability to turn games into jump shooting battles falls into their favor.
If an underdog can rise, it's Houston and their high-octane offense.