But where does it fit among those of their rivals?
The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and, of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder are their most obvious peers—spry, talented collections poised to hold relevance in the Western Conference playoff picture for years to come.
The Rockets have as young a starting lineup as any of these teams. The average age of their starters is about 25. Their ceiling as a unit is, thus, arguably unseen; this is where the "scary" comes in. They've got so much more still to learn.
It would seem that the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies are soon to be in Houston’s rearview mirror. Both teams are saddled with aging players. If either team is going to keep up with the rest of the conference for several seasons, it will likely be with younger players we've not yet seen developed.
The clearest difference between the Rockets and the other teams of this generation? The point guard position. In Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, Houston has something of a point-guard-by-committee circumstance on its hands. The simple version goes like this: Lin provides offense, Beverley provides defense, and neither is a particularly impressive two-way player.
Their competitors all boast more dynamic starting point men: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Russell Westbrook and even Reggie Jackson are all players Rockets GM Daryl Morey would likely love to have instead.
At shooting guard and small forward, Harden and Parsons make up one of the more potent duos in the conference, but their firepower is not unmatched by any of their enemies. The Thunder have Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha and the Warriors have Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala—both combos clearly make for better defensive forces.
As for the rest of the conference? The Rockets’ perimeter men have them beat.
But Houston’s real advantage—despite its small-ball-centric style—is in its frontcourt. Howard is hands down the best center in his conference, and the budding Jones may be nowhere near his ceiling. He’s come on stronger and stronger in this, his first season with significant playing time, cementing a starting role and scoring an alarming 36 points against the Milwaukee Bucks in a Jan. 18 victory.
Just how much Jones can improve seems to be the most important factor in deciding how supreme their position will be over the next few seasons. He is, in other words, the X-factor.
Howard has become a steadily dominant presence in Houston now, affecting plays on both ends of the floor to the tune of a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.72—and likely rising. With him, it’s safe to say that the team knows what it’s getting for the duration of his four-year contract.
There is, though, an even greater variable of the Rockets' viability than Jones’ development: their style. As the team gets a full season together under their belts, they’ll mesh and realize where to find each other, what actions do and don’t work and how to best maximize what they have.
Suffice to say, the team’s novel experimentation with an aggressive stance against mid-range shooting and going deep into the shot clock is bound to fade. Howard’s increased comfort in the half court—a fairly recently development—has already acted as a presage for a more diverse approach to the game in Houston.
When it comes to raw balling, the Rockets probably stand somewhat behind their competitors. Despite their considerable slashing and shooting abilities, the wicked West simply boasts teams with even more of it. Coaxing the Thunder, Clippers or Warriors (the teams most likely to consistently cause them problems over time) into a street-style scoreboard-breaker is not in Houston’s favor.
But they’ve got the personnel to do more than that, and as their style warps and adjusts to who’s around, it’s clear that they’re onto something—they have, after all, strung along eight straight victories as they’ve found pace.
The streak has illuminated just how important of a pickup Howard was, and that he will be the key to defeating their strongest opponents down the line. His defensive disruption and sure-thing scoring near the rim act as steady poles for the team to lean against when their shots aren't falling in. He takes off the pressure to shoot three's at an exceptional clip.
The frontcourt situations for their rivals are less favorable. LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and Blake Griffin are perhaps even better scorers in the paint than D12, but none of them can offer an equivalent defensive impact. Plus, none of the Rockets' rivals has a big-man prospect with as much potential as Jones on their hands. He's only 22, and clearly learning fast.
Watch out, West: The Rockets are hot on the trail of a scheme that will keep them near the top for an era.
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