5 Reasons You Can and Can't Believe in the Houston Rockets as Title Contenders

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2014

5 Reasons You Can and Can't Believe in the Houston Rockets as Title Contenders

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    Are the Houston Rockets really title contenders? 

    That's probably not what James Harden is wondering as he lifts his arms up to the sky. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was just celebrating the Rockets' dominant victory over the Indiana Pacers on March 7, one that pushed their record over the past 10 games to 8-2. 

    All of a sudden, Houston is the hottest team in basketball. 

    Not only are the Rockets within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but they're also imposing their will on both ends of the court while leaving absolutely no doubt that this is a dominant regular-season team. 

    But the question remains—are they really title contenders? 

    The playoffs are a different beast than the regular season, as play slows down, rotations thin out and each possession becomes all the more valuable. Experience and star power matters, although upstarts can always make Cinderella runs through the competition. 

    It's time to figure the Rockets' status out once and for all. 

Turnovers Are Extremely Problematic

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    If you haven't heard of the "four factors," they're a quartet of advanced metrics that can apply to either side of the ball, telling how a team fares in the four most important aspects of offensive or defensive play. They are as follows: 

    • Effective field-goal percentage, which adds three-point shooting into the more typical field-goal percentage.
    • Turnover percentage, which shows the percentage of plays that result in a cough-up. 
    • Rebound percentage, which shows the percentage of misses that are grabbed by the unit in question, whether offensive or defensive. 
    • Free throws per field-goal attempt, which shows how often a team either works its way to the line or sends an opponent there. 

    On offense, Houston shoots the ball well enough that it trails only the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs in the first category. It also ranks in the top 10 for offensive rebounding percentage and gets to the free-throw line more often than any other team in the Association. 

    Thanks, James Harden and Dwight Howard!

    However, turnovers can be the Achilles Heel for this rising contender. 

    The Rockets turn the ball over on 15.1 percent of their possessions, according to Basketball-Reference, and that's the worst mark in the NBA. Yes, it's worse than the Philadelphia 76ers, who are notoriously loose with the ball. 

    Harden, D12 and Chandler Parsons combine to to average 9.6 turnovers per game by themselves, and the two point guards—Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley—add another 3.2. Between those five players, the Rockets cough up the rock more than the entirety of the Charlotte Bobcats roster. 

    "These are great teams we are playing against. They capitalize on your mistakes," Parsons told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen in late February. "We have to take care of the ball and make sure we get a good shot each possession. We just got to stay under control. We got to not make the home run play. We’ve got to address that problem."

    It's scary to imagine the trouble this team could experience when defense becomes even more important during the postseason and every possession is valued to an even greater extent. 

2-Way Dominance

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    It's hard to remember now, but the Rockets were plagued by defensive woes during the early portion of the 2013-14 season. 

    Not anymore. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, Houston is allowing only 105.2 points per 100 possessions, which is the No. 12 mark in the league. Going back to the four factors discussed in the previous slide, this squad stands out when it comes to preventing teams from shooting efficiently and avoiding sending players to the line. If the Rockets could create more turnovers and improve its defensive rebounding, they'd be completely dominant. 

    Of course, "completely dominant" is a nice way to describe the team's offensive prowess. 

    Especially now that Dwight Howard is starting to look like the vintage Orlando Magic version of D12, this is a team that has very few weaknesses on offense. There's a dominant interior presence, two solid and complementary point guards, a shot-creating shooting guard, a versatile Swiss Army knife at small forward and a host of three-point shooters. 

    It's no wonder the Rockets are scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them trailing only the Portland Trail Blazers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks

    Few teams are this dangerous on both ends of the court, which gives the Rockets the ability to play against a number of different styles. It's tough to find a bad matchup for Red Nation.

The Western Conference Is Ridiculously Deep

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    Given the current standings in the Western Conference, the Rockets are staring in the face of a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors

    Let's say they get through that. 

    Next round, they'd be faced with the San Antonio Spurs, assuming things go according to seed. 

    Let's say they get through with that as well. 

    In the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets would then have to square off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Again, that's assuming that the postseason bracket stays as predictable as possible. 

    Talk about a gauntlet. That's one of the toughest three-round stretches imaginable, and it's hard to have confidence in the Rockets' ability to avoid wearing out. This isn't a particularly deep team, nor is it one with experience playing together during the portion of the season that really counts. 

    Sure, Houston has one round of postseason experience with the bearded 2-guard on the roster. But it has none with D12 patrolling the paint, and teams tend to have some trouble winning a championship right after adding a new superstar centerpiece to the roster. 

    The playoffs are a different animal in the NBA, and it's generally tough to make a huge leap from one season to another. 

    Maybe the Rockets will be the exception to the rule, but smart money is still on the teams with experience.

    Namely the Thunder and Spurs.

There's Enough Star Power

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    Stars win championships. 

    Quick. Try to name the last title-winning squad that didn't boast the services of at least two of them. 

    Maybe the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who were led by Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups? If you don't think they qualify, you're going to end up digging deep into the annals of NBA history. And even if you do, that's still only one team in the last decade. 

    Once more, stars win championships. 

    Fortunately, the Rockets have two of them—James Harden and Dwight Howard. Both standouts are playing well enough that you could make convincing arguments they're each the class of their position. 

    With Kobe Bryant sitting out and Dwyane Wade needing maintenance days for his knees, Harden is one of the few candidates for the top spot in the 2-guard rankings. And as for D12, his recent surge on both ends of the court has allowed him to overtake DeMarcus Cousins and regain the title he held for so long. 

    Rarely do teams boast that much elite talent while surrounding them with such an impressive supporting cast. 

    Earlier in the season, power forward was a big concern. It's one Bill Ingram worried about in his piece for Basketball Insiders during early January: 

    At times Terrence Jones has looked like the answer for Houston, but at others he looks like he really needs to be the backup power forward. He’s shown moments of brilliance, and his leadership at summer league was impressive, but for him to be a championship-caliber player, he’s going to need time and development, two things the win-now Rockets are not in a position to wait for. 

    Jones has continued to look like the answer. Since Ingram published that article on Jan. 16, Jones has averaged 13.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 60.7 percent from the field. 

    Yep, he's a capable answer. 

    Not only does Houston have star power at the top, but it's now awfully difficult to find a hole in the starting lineup. 

Battle Tested to an Extreme

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    Before the Houston Rockets blew out the Indiana Pacers on March 7, eight teams had taken on both the Miami Heat and Pacers during the same week of the 2013-14 season. None had emerged with victories against both Eastern Conference contenders. 

    The Rockets changed that in rather definitive fashion. 

    In some ways, it's a microcosm of the entire season for Houston, as it's spent the year playing a tougher slate of competition than any other contender in the NBA. That, more so than anything else, is why you should have confidence in this squad as a bona fide title contender. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Rockets have a 0.51 strength of schedule, which leaves them facing the easiest remaining schedule outside of the Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers

    And the Rockets haven't just played tough opponents; they've beaten them. 

    Against teams currently sitting in a playoff spot, Houston has compiled a 20-12 record. Compare that to the San Antonio Spurs, who are 20-14 against playoff-bound competition.

    This team has been tested and passed with flying colors, most of which are red, silver and black.

    Maybe things will be different when the postseason rolls around, but the Rockets should have earned your trust at this stage of the year.