It's good to be the Houston Rockets.
At a time when many NBA teams are fighting for their playoff lives, shamelessly tanking or fading down the stretch, they're enjoying a five-game winning streak complete with sole possession of third place in the Western Conference.
Their recent climb in the standings has eradicated much of the doubt previously surrounding them, leaving us to debate pleasant, mostly lighthearted topics.
How far can the Rockets go in the playoffs? Has general manager Daryl Morey already fashioned a frame in anticipation of potentially winning the NBA's Executive of the Year award? What size championship ring does Chandler Parsons wear? Does Omer Asik use volume-inject mousse, or is his hair naturally bouncy?
That last one is a real question. I swear.
Eight months ago, when Howard first became a member of the Rockets, this wasn't an inquiry worth making. Harden had arrived as a top-10 superstar in 2012-13, while Howard struggled to remain healthy and productive by Howard standards in Los Angeles.
Now, with the Rockets raising hell in the Western Conference thanks to the play of both superstars, it's a legitimate inquest worth our time.
So, who's better, the man with the tufted beard, or the man-child with an unremitting smile?
Facial Hair, Points, Assists and Offensive Dominance
James Harden is doing it again.
Scoring, passing, scoring, attacking, not playing defense and scoring. He's doing all of it again.
Anyone worried Harden's production would trail off in the wake of Howard's arrival has been given no reason to fret. Harden's per-game numbers are a virtual carbon copy of the statistical damage he inflicted last season.
Once again, Harden finds himself in the top five of points per game, reminding us all that relentless rim attacks and an affinity for drawing contract make for spectacular offense.
Harden's free-throw onslaught continues as well. His 8.7 charity-stripe attempts rank fourth in the NBA and his conversion rate (85.2 percent) checks in at 11th among all players making at least four trips to the foul line per game.
The playmaking continues to be there, too. Harden's 5.7 assists per game lead the Rockets, as he finds himself acting as something of a surrogate point guard for stretches at a time.
Spending more time away from Jeremy Lin—who has been relegated to bench duty—hasn't made him a more accurate three-point shooter, but with the Rockets running small and starting the less dribble-drive inclined Patrick Beverley, paths to the rim have never been more open for the bearded wonder.
Defense remains an issue for oft-disengaged Harden, but it's a flaw the Rockets willingly overlook because of his impact on the offensive end. Harden is one of only nine players posting an offensive rating of at least 117 and averaging 35 minutes per game, and he still manages to notch a plus-rating despite his porous defense.
Houston already has the fifth-highest offensive rating in the NBA (108.1), but when Harden is on the floor, it posts the equivalent of the league's best, scoring at a rate of 110.6 points per 100 possessions.
Basically, Harden has picked up right where he left off last year. What more could the Rockets ask for?
Save for maybe the cash flow that would come with hosting a clean-shaven Harden photo opportunity, nothing.
Pearly White Teeth, Athleticism Reborn and Defensive Reformation
Dwight Howard is doing it again, too.
To be sure, he's not doing what he did for the Los Angeles Lakers. He's doing what he did for the Orlando Magic before injuring his back and incurring an influx of shoulder issues: smiling, defending and dominating.
At first glance, his production isn't worlds better than last season. At second glance, it becomes clear the Howard of this season is, in fact, worlds better than last season.
|MPG||PTS||FG%||REBS||BLKS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||PER|
In Houston, Howard has led the defensive renaissance he couldn't in Los Angeles. The Rockets rank ninth in defensive efficiency. Ahem. Ninth. After ranking 16th a year ago.
The last team to win an NBA title while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Lakers, so Houston's ascension on that end of the floor is huge. And it's largely thanks to Howard.
When he's on the floor, the Rockets defense is even better. The 101.4 points per 100 possessions they relinquish with him on the floor equates to the league's seventh-best mark.
Houston's offense is also 4.6 points per 100 possessions better with Howard on the floor. What he's essentially done, then, is go from Los Angeles, where he was a minus on offense last season, to Houston, where he's been both an offensive and defensive linchpin.
If only all changes of scenery were this refreshing.
We have to pick one. It's cruel, I know. Both players are incredibly talented, and their specialties lie on separate sides of the ball. But one is better and more valuable than the other.
Looking closely, that "one" is Harden. He remains Houston's best and most important player.
The profound impact he has on the Rockets is undeniable, and it narrowly exceeds Howard's:
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.|
Over the course of their five-game winning streak, it's been a slightly different story:
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Howard has actually had a—for lack of a better word—greater impact on the Rockets over the last five games. Sometimes, though, the proof lies not in what you do on the court but what happens when you're off it.
One last time I'll point you toward some valuable on/off splits:
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg||Net. Rtg.|
|Without Harden Overall||102.6||103.6||-1.1|
|Without Harden Last 5||92.3||110.4||-18.0|
|Without Howard Overall||104.9||103.8||1.1|
|Without Howard Last 5||95.9||103.2||-7.3|
There's the eye-opener you should be looking for.
Like last season, Harden is Houston's primary lifeline. He was what separated the Rockets from the lottery and the playoffs in 2012-13. Now he's what separates them from contention and a top-three playoff spot, and scrapping for another seventh- or eighth-place finish.
None of this is a knock on Howard. What he's done on the defensive end has allowed the Rockets to become a better defensive team with Harden on the floor, which is incredible.
It's Wow Part III: Return of the Wow.
During a regular season dominated by offensive artistry, though, it's prolific scorers and playmakers that are greater necessities. And that's why Harden ranks eighth in win shares (9.1) while Howard stands at 16th (7.8).
James Harden joined Michael Jordan as the only players to register 41 points, 10 rebounds, six assists & six steals in a game since 1985-86— Sportando (@sportando) March 10, 2014
If it's defense that wins championships, if it's defense that wins all in the playoffs, it's offense that, by and large, gets you to the postseason. We saw it with the permeable Rockets last year, when a lackluster defense, even with Asik on the floor, didn't prohibit them from sneaking into the playoffs.
With Howard, they've transformed into an average-to-above-average defensive faction. They've become the rare combination of offensively dominant and defensively capable.
That doesn't diminish the importance of what Harden does. He brings with him plenty of offense, creating opportunities for himself and his teammates, and it's those qualities that put the Rockets on the map.
Howard has advanced Houston's cause; Harden is still spearheading it.
It's he who forced overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers, preserving Houston's winning streak. It's he who leads them in scoring and assists.
It's he who guides the Rockets.
Who is Houston's best player?
"There’s no way we win this game early on in the year," Parsons told reporters Sunday after Houston's win over Portland, via CBS Houston. "So I think that shows a lot about our growth and maturity and just how much we’re coming together and how well we’re playing right now.”
Behind Howard and Harden, the Rockets are coming together, maturing and developing into a Western Conference juggernaut.
But for everything Howard has done, for everything he brings to this team, everyone on the Rockets, including Howard himself, still stands and rallies behind Harden.