The Houston Rockets are the most intriguing NBA title contender in the Western Conference. Still, there are a number of concerns heading into the second half of the season that make them a bit of a wild card.
Through 43 games, Houston has proven to be a talented-yet-flawed team. The emergence of Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin to go along with their big three (Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons) gives the Rockets one of the best starting rotations in basketball.
However, the team's dominance has mainly come on one side of the ball. Their high-powered offense is currently fourth in the NBA with an average of 105.6 points per game, but the defense is giving up 102 points a night as well (22nd in the league).
The West is the deepest its been in quite some time. There's no concrete front-runner and any of the conference's top six teams could make a run to the Finals. The Rockets are included in that mix and are coming off a huge win on Jan. 20 against Portland.
Houston should finish the month out strong. They host Sacramento on Jan. 22 before playing home-and-away with slumping Memphis. After that, they'll face San Antonio, whom they've owned this season (2-0), and finish with a roadie against Dallas.
Despite the favorable stretch, the Rockets still have some work to do before the playoffs come calling. Here are a few areas of concern Houston has as it enters the latter portion of the regular season.
The case can be made that head coach Kevin McHale is the Rockets' biggest X-factor as the season progresses. After all, you can have the most talented roster in the world but it won't mean anything if your coach can't make it work.
McHale is the lightning rod for a Houston team with very high expectations. If the team flops, he'll be the scapegoat. As the old sports cliche goes, "you can't fire the players." With very few proven leaders on a young team, it is up to McHale to prove he's the guy to lead this team to the promised land.
There are a few things the former Boston Celtics legend must work on going forward. First, allocating minutes will be huge. With a roster this deep and talented, it is important to keep everyone happy. The Rockets are just starting to get all of their injured players back and McHale has to find a way to accommodate them.
The team eased Patrick Beverley (who returned Jan. 20 against Portland) back into the swing of things. Once he's fully healthy, the timeshare between him and Jeremy Lin bears watching. Aaron Brooks has also played his way into some minutes.
The same goes for former starting center Omer Asik, if or when he returns from his knee injury. With the big man already frustrated with his current role, McHale has to work him back into the rotation without disrupting chemistry.
The other big issue is strategy. The Rockets have settled on becoming a team reliant on shooting threes (league-leading 31.6 three-point attempts per game). Beyond that, there isn't much versatility to the offense.
With this many weapons at his disposal, McHale needs to get creative and utilize his talent to the best of his abilities instead of running the same plays into the ground.
The big key for the Rockets, especially during the playoffs, will be how they hinder the offense of the West's elite perimeter players. So far this season, opposing wings have been able to score on Houston at will.
Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews combined for 42 points in a loss to Houston on Jan. 20. Before that, Bucks guard Brandon Knight ripped the Rockets for 26 points in a 114-104 loss. More importantly, Kevin Durant put up 36 points and Reggie Jackson added another 23 in the Thunder's comeback win over Houston on Jan. 16.
Houston has become a team content on trying to win shootouts. That may have worked against teams like Golden State and San Antonio (combined 4-0 against those teams) but that hasn't been the case against Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers (combined 0-4).
The need is evident for someone to make things difficult on the perimeter. The return of Patrick Beverley will help somewhat, but another guy needs to step up. Ronnie Brewer has the chops to be an adequate stopper, but he isn't getting the minutes.
James Harden worked on his conditioning in the offseason to be more of a complete guard, but his defense has been hit-or-miss.
This has the potential to be Houston's biggest Achilles' heel. Whether it means a shift in personnel or strategy, there has to be renewed focus on defending on the outside. There are too many great scorers on the wing for the Rockets to think they can survive by trading buckets.
In truth, chemistry hasn't been as big of an issue as it could have been. With so many budding stars under one roof, there was plenty of potential for chaos. Instead, the core seems to have come together nicely.
Despite being in a public relations nightmare the last two years, Dwight Howard seems to be the only big man not wanting out of Houston. There have been no squabbles over touches between the team's talented trio. Jeremy Lin has shown great class and professionalism in his point guard battle with Patrick Beverley.
Still, cohesiveness is something that bears watching. The Rockets have the daunting task of living up to high preseason expectations. When the playoffs start, it will be interesting to see how they continue to handle the pressure.
Another intriguing storyline will be the return of Omer Asik. After a first half that has been filled with failed trade demands and injuries, Asik is the team's biggest wild card. If he's healthy and happy, he gives the Rockets an added boost defensively and on the boards.
If he continues to sulk, it will be hard for it to not become a distraction. Houston could eliminate this threat by moving the disgruntled 7-footer but that's tough to do when he's still hurt. This situation is worth keeping an eye on going forward.
In the grand scheme of things, chemistry is probably the least worrisome issue of the concerns listed here. Nonetheless, it isn't something that should be swept under the rug either. The best teams are the ones that can come together when it matters most.
The jury is still out as to whether this Rockets team can pull that off.
You can't have a Houston Rockets article without talking about turnovers. By now, the issue has been beaten into your brains. The team is tied for 27th in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers with an average of 15.4 turnovers per game.
James Harden leads the pack at 3.8 turnovers per game. Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin are right behind "The Beard" at 3.1 and 2.8 turnovers per game, respectively.
According to NBA.com, Houston has allowed 787 points this season off of turnovers. That's an average of 18.3 points per game.
The turnover issue has been a problem for nearly two seasons now. When it comes to attacking on offense, the team is unapologetically aggressive. Guys like Lin and Harden make their money by getting to the basket. That style is conducive to turning the ball over.
So, how do you fix it? Do you become less aggressive? Do you start benching players for getting too careless? Those answers fall on Kevin McHale. Regardless, consistently losing the turnover battle is a huge problem.
It's tough to win when you're handing opponents an extra 18 points every night. It starts with Harden. For all of his offensive skill, he has to learn to play with more control. He has a good enough supporting cast that he doesn't need to force plays. The same for Howard, Lin and the rest down the roster.
Turnovers have been a long-standing problem and, in time, it could be this team's undoing.
Another repetitive issue for the Rockets has been poor free-throw shooting. In all honesty, this is an area of weakness that the team may just have to live with (though they did shoot 20-for-24 in their recent win against Portland). The team is shooting 69 percent from the line, which is second-to-last in the NBA.
The most obvious culprit is Dwight Howard, who is currently shooting a horrid 53 percent from the charity stripe. Making matters worse, guys such as Terrence Jones (61 percent), Donatas Motiejunas (56 percent) and Francisco Garcia (59 percent) have struggled hitting their freebies as well.
Howard isn't going to get any better in this area. He's been a terrible free-throw shooter since his arrival to the NBA and that is why opponents keep putting him on the line (396 free-throw attempts). It's the other guys that need to step it up.
Jones, Motiejunas and Garcia are all shooting under their career averages at the line (especially Garcia, who is a career 80 percent free-throw shooter). The best chance of Houston improving in this area lies with these guys. The Rockets are just letting easy points slip away.
Conversely, the three best free-throw shooting teams are all potential playoff teams in the West (Portland, Oklahoma City and Dallas). It's a stretch to ask Houston to keep up with that trio, but they have the talent to at least be in the middle of the pack.