By luring in the biggest—figuratively and literally—free-agent fish in the form of three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, Houston made the leap from on-paper pretender to contender in a single bound.
But the prize of the pull isn't as glamorous as it seems. Championships have never been decided on paper.
The Spurs (14-2) have a superstar contingency. But, the franchise operates with one shared mindset and a single common goal. With five players acting as one, San Antonio's offense comes in relentless waves, and its defense forms a mobile wall around the basket through crisp rotations and shared assignments.
Houston (12-5) isn't at that stage yet. Players are still familiarizing themselves with one another, learning how to maximize each other's strengths and protect against their weaknesses.
But, that's just one of the many lessons the Rockets need to take. On-paper credentials don't become championship parades on their own.
Houston has a massive pool of knowledge to draw from, whittled down here to just six teams offering their own takeaways to this franchise. Some styles should be emulated; others must be avoided at all costs.
If Rockets coach Kevin McHale can add these six topics to his lesson plan, then Houston's offseason heist can make that transformation to postseason glory.
Rockets' Takeaway: Don't get offensive tunnel vision.
The New York Knicks have perhaps the league's most complete offensive talent in reigning scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.
They know this. Too well, in fact.
Over the past two seasons, no team has leaned more heavily on one of its players than the Knicks. Anthony leads the league in usage rate (35 percent) over that stretch. Only four other players even surpass the 30 percent clip.
Taking advantage of a gift is one thing. Exploiting it to the point of becoming far too predictable is quite another.
Houston has a transcendent offensive talent in James Harden. But, it also has a dominant interior scorer in Howard, a relentless perimeter attacker in Jeremy Lin, a jack-of-all-trades in Chandler Parsons and a heavily armed arsenal of shooters.
The Rockets must take advantage of Harden's offensive gifts, but not to the point that it diminishes the importance of the players around him. The more players involved in the offensive equation, the more layers an opposing defense has to unravel.
This one-dimensional model has effectively wrecked New York's offense. Despite having a savvy scorer like Anthony, the Knicks have the seventh-least efficient offense (98.3 points per 100 possessions) in the league.
Rockets' Takeaway: Do move the ball selflessly.
Yet, despite this three-headed monster of talent, there isn't a hint of selfishness down in South Beach.
The Heat have the second-best assist percentage in the NBA (64.9 percent). Good shots for great players aren't always enough. Not when a capable, albeit less decorated, player is a pass away from a great look.
Houston should be able to mimic this crisp ball movement. Harden, Parsons and Lin all have the ability to pick apart a defense with their passes.
But that hasn't happened nearly often enough. Harden's the only player on the roster averaging better than 4.5 assists a night (5.5). Miami has three players clearing that mark (James, Wade and Mario Chalmers).
What should be a strength for the Rockets is almost a weakness. Houston's 57.2 assist percentage claims just the 19th spot in the category.
Good defenses can take away a team's primary offensive option. The Rockets must counteract that aggressiveness and punish clubs for being too focused on stopping their stars.
Rockets' Takeaway: Don't think the names mean anything.
Remember when people were actually buying the Brooklyn Nets as championship contenders? What was that, about 12 losses ago now?
Truth is, though, this hasn't looked like a title-worthy team even when it's been operating at full strength.
Paul Pierce (36.8 percent shooting) and Kevin Garnett (36.1) don't look like the same players anymore. Joe Johnson looks all-too-familiar as a stat-sheet-padding volume scorer (15.0 points on 12.7 shots a night). Williams has done more harm than good when he's been able to take the floor (40.5 percent shooting, 4.0 turnovers per 36 minutes).
Why does this matter to Houston? Because the names on the backs of jerseys are meaningless in a championship race.
Having Harden and Howard together is a luxury, but only if those players are in sync with each other and the supporting cast around them. Superteams are great for the gaming world, but in reality, their road to the championship podium is just as long as any other team's.
Rockets' Takeaway: Do help the helper.
The San Antonio Spurs feel like an offensive juggernaut. There is no right way to defend against coach Gregg Popovich's mastery.
But, the stat sheet wouldn't credit San Antonio's scorching start to the offensive end alone. If anything, it places the biggest emphasis at the opposite side of the floor.
The Spurs have the NBA's second-most efficient defense (92.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). Only eight other teams are yielding fewer than 100 points per 100 trips, and just one of them (the Indiana Pacers) falls below the 95-point bar.
San Antonio doesn't have a massive collection of talented individual defenders. In one-on-one settings, there are more sieves than stoppers in Pop's rotation.
But the Spurs do one thing extremely well on defense—they communicate. Via SynergySports (subscription required), San Antonio has top-five rankings against pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.68 points per possession, third overall), pick-and-roll men (0.86, fifth) and shooters coming off screens (0.71, fifth).
All three scenarios involve moving offensive parts and forced defensive reactions. Houston's been solid against pick-and-roll penetrations (0.70, seventh) but sliced apart by rollers (1.07, 21st) and shooters navigating around picks (1.01, 23rd).
That second line of support isn't coming for the Rockets. Given Houston's collective athleticism, this should be correctable.
Rockets' Takeaway: Size doesn't matter.
Following trends isn't always a good thing. But doing something completely different from the rest isn't always a safe bet, either.
While other teams have been getting smaller and faster, both Houston and the Detroit Pistons tried to buck that trend to their advantages.
Houston tried to trot out the twin-tower model from decades past by pairing Howard with 7-footer Omer Asik. Detroit opted for an oversized three-man frontcourt with Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Neither experiment produced the desired results.
The Howard-Asik pairing has produced a net rating of minus-15.8 points per 100 possessions in their shared floor time. The Pistons (6-10) are nowhere closer to snapping their five-year playoff drought, thanks in large part to their league-worst 47.9 field-goal percentage allowed.
Houston, to its credit, was the first to admit its mistake. Asik was plucked from the starting lineup after just eight games, with the smaller, more versatile Terrence Jones taking his place.
Detroit's still force-feeding its slow, space-killer frontcourt in the hope that eventually everything will click. In case McHale every feels a pull toward getting nostalgic with his lineup, the Pistons' supersized mess should snap him back to reality.
Rockets' Takeaway: Do control your aggression and pace.
The Rockets know their biggest strength. This team overwhelms with offense (league-best 109.7 points per 100 possessions), turning NBA games into both track meets and cross country events.
Houston attacks quickly, but maintains that frantic pace for a full 48 minutes.
For the Rockets, though, fast often becomes too fast. No team has coughed up possessions more frequently (18.7 percent turnover ratio) than Houston.
This doesn't have to be the case.
The Portland Trail Blazers (13-3) put the same premium on tempo (107.6 points per 100 trips, fourth overall). They really have no other choice; they weren't built to be a defensive power (103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 21st).
But Portland doesn't make the same offensive missteps as Houston. The Blazers (14.7 percent turnover ratio, fifth overall) don't shoot themselves in the foot.
Even with Howard manning the middle, Houston doesn't have enough bodies to win games solely at the defensive end. This team will continue to rely on its offensive and athletic advantages to keep the scoreboard in their favor.
But finding a tempo that's effective without being reckless is paramount to Houston's success. Ball control and discipline aren't optional pieces of championship puzzles.