The Houston Rockets currently hold the sixth-best record in the NBA and will be a dark-horse title contender when the playoffs come around. However, the team has also proved to be every bit as vulnerable as they are talented.
Houston has jumped out to a 46-22 record (already more wins than all of last season) on the strength of the three-headed monster that is Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons. They possess the third-best scoring offense in the league as well as a unit that is sixth in rebounding.
Could it be the lack of help Houston gets from their second unit? Possibly. The Rockets are 24th in the NBA in bench scoring, according to Hoopsstats.com, with an average of 27.2 points per game.
Could it be their leaky defense? Sure. Houston gives up 101.8 points per game, which is 17th in the league. A large part of that is their inability to defend on the perimeter. In a March 16 loss to the Miami Heat, Ray Allen scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, feasting on open threes that allowed Miami to pull away.
"I don't know how I got open." Allen said after the game.
There's never a defined blueprint to beat any team, but if an opponent wants to get an advantage on the Houston Rockets, here are a few things they must do.
Get In Dwight Howard's Head
One of the biggest weaknesses Houston possess can't be found on a stat sheet. With the exception of point guard Patrick Beverley, the Rockets lack toughness. You would think a team led by Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale, a man who made a Hall of Fame career out of mixing it up in the paint, would play more physical and carry themselves with more intensity on the court.
The main culprit is center Dwight Howard. Despite being one of the most physically imposing athletes in the league with a body that looks like it was chiseled from a block of stone, Howard still has emotional moments of frailty on the court.
A good example of this happened in the aforementioned loss to the Heat. After getting called for a delay-of-game technical with a little over four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Howard didn't score again until the final seconds of the game.
Howard has the size and strength to overpower nearly any big man willing to battle him in the paint, but you can get him out of his game with some hard fouls or if a couple calls don't go his way. He'll sulk. He'll dwell and, eventually, he'll fold like a cheap card table.
In his most recent mailbag, Grantland's Bill Simmons addressed this issue with a reader that questioned Howard's heart. Simmons essentially agreed and used two recent losses as a point a reference.
First, he brought up the team's March 11 loss, where Howard finished with nine points and 10 rebounds despite being guarded by the likes of Steven Adams and Nick Collison while Kevin Durant torched Houston's weak perimeter defense for 42 points.
"That's the difference between Dwight and Durant," Simmons points out. "One guy goes into that game thinking, This is a huge game, we gotta send a message, they don't have anyone who can guard me. The other guy just goes into the game."
Then, Simmons mentions Houston's loss to Chicago on March 13 and calls out Howard for not stepping up after his own coach co-signed Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah for Defensive Player of the Year before the game.
"How did Dwight respond? The Rockets lost by 24. Dwight put up 12 and 10 with seven turnovers. Noah tossed up 13 and 10 with nine assists," Simmons writes. "Please, please, please remember this game as you're filling out your All-NBA ballots."
Noah is actually the perfect model for the type of center Howard should be. He's fearless in the paint and his teammates feed off his energy and intensity. D12 is a fine center with the skills to put up gaudy numbers, but he needs to get better at overcoming pressure and handling himself when things go astray.
If teams can get in Howard's head and put him in a funk, it puts Houston at a clear disadvantage.
This seems like an easy enough strategy. You force a team to turn the ball over, score some points in transition and you have a good chance at going home with a W, right?
Houston is second-to-last in the NBA with an average of 15.6 turnovers per game. They have committed a total of 1,062 turnovers this season and their turnover differential is plus-143, which is the worst in the league.
Among qualified players, Rockets guard James Harden's 3.7 turnovers per game is just behind Golden State's Stephen Curry and Philadelphia rookie Michael Carter-Williams' 3.8 mistakes a night for the worst mark in the league.
Dwight Howard isn't too far behind "The Beard" with an average of 3.3 turnovers a game.
As evidenced by the numbers, the Rockets are a team that doesn't come up with a ton of takeaways yet are still prone to getting careless with the basketball. Guys like Harden and point guard Jeremy Lin are at their best when they can penetrate and attack the hoop.
Still, that aggressiveness can lead to coughing the ball up. Teams that pressure the ball and make it tough for Houston to get in the lane are going to force their share of turnovers. Houston's 21 assists per game (20th in the league) shows they aren't the greatest at moving the ball around.
Some of Houston's turnovers are a result of just plain bad decision-making. Here's an example of those kind of brain errors. This clip also speaks to the earlier point about Howard's temperament changes when things get rocky:
After a sweet block, Howard corrals the rebound. After initially fending off the pressure, the big man unleashes a terrible pass that is easily intercepted and leads to an Iman Shumpert jumper. A clearly frustrated Howard gets the ball in the paint on the other end and shoves Andrea Bargnani after a hard foul from the Italian 7-footer.
That's a combination of lazy passing and playing with the wrong kind of emotion. Patrick Beverley is also slightly at fault for putting too much space between he and Howard, which forced the latter to carelessly improvise.
These are the kind of plays that will be Houston's undoing in the playoffs if they become too much of a habit.
Own The Perimeter
No team in the NBA has attempted more threes this season than the Houston Rockets, who have 1,768 tries from behind the arc so far. The team attempts 26 threes per game, which is also the highest mark in the league.
The Rockets have a bevy of shooters on the roster and, while their conversion rate of 35.6 percent puts them 17th in the league, they can swing a game if they get hot from the outside. The obvious strategy here for opponents is to chase Houston off of the perimeter.
If you're going to allow them to shoot it from deep, get a hand in someone's face. The main guy to keep an eye in is small forward Chandler Parsons. The former Florida Gator is converting 37.4 percent of his shots from downtown. As you'll see in this next video, Parsons isn't afraid from to shoot from way beyond the arc:
Parsons set an NBA record this season when he hit 10 three-pointers in a half against the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 24. A majority of those makes were uncontested, while some were from way out there. It wasn't until his ninth three that the Grizzlies managed to put some pressure on him.
By then, Parsons was so far in the zone he probably could have hit them blindfolded. However, Parsons isn't the only weapon on the outside for Houston. James Harden, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Patrick Beverley are all shooting at or near 36 percent from three-point range.
Conversely, the Rockets have struggled at containing opposing perimeter players. As mentioned before Kevin Durant put up 42 points on Houston on March 11. In their game against Chicago two nights later, Mike Dunleavy tied a game high with 21 points (mind you, after getting 10 stitches in his face).
Kirk Hinrich added 19 points as well in the 111-87 victory. With the exception of Patrick Beverley, the majority of Houston's wing players are one-dimensional scorers that struggle defending on the perimeter.
The Rockets did a decent job containing perimeter scorers in recent wins over Utah and Minnesota, but they aren't going to be playing those teams in the playoffs. If you disrupt Houston's outside shot while having success on the perimeter as well, you can beat the Rockets.
In that loss to the Bulls, Houston was held to 19 percent shooting from downtown (5-of-26) while the Bulls converted 58 percent (14-of-24). Don't be surprised if playoff opponents study that game tape closely to get a read on how to thwart the Rockets' high-octane offense.
Even with Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones as options down low, Houston's bread and butter is the three-ball.
Houston's title hopes this season will depend heavily on who they draw in the playoffs. If they can manage to avoid the likes of the Clippers and Thunder until the Conference Finals (if they make it that far), there's a chance they'll work out enough of the kinks to advance.
However, this season has exposed some glaring flaws in the league's latest super-team. If Houston fails to make good on its desire to contend for a title immediately, one of these three reasons will be the cause of their undoing.