LOS ANGELES — It's loose at Rockets practice, the kind of vibe that shows itself only when a team is rolling the way this team is rolling. With two days off since their last game—a thorough demolishing of the Lakers—the scene at UCLA last Tuesday was not quite jubilant—that'd be unseemly for an NBA team in the middle of December—but it was certainly without visible tension. In their future was another double-digit win against a Utah Jazz team that excels at home. And as of Tuesday morning, Houston was atop the Western Conference standings, thanks in part to the James Harden-led offensive prowess it established last season but also to a defense that ranks among the best in the league.
When you have a peek at the Rockets' torrid start to 2017-18, the numbers, as usual, are gaudy, but not in the areas you might expect. There's the league-leading 21-4 record, a margin of victory that also leads the NBA at an average of 11 points per game, an offensive rating (113.4) that ranks second only to the Warriors (113.9) and an effective field-goal percentage (56.6 percent) that also trails only one team's—the Warriors. But there's something else—a defense that clocks in as the NBA's sixth-best this season, after rating 18th last year.
Indeed, the Warriors' greatest challenge doesn't seem to be coming from the East, but from their own conference. The Rockets can flat-out go and might be the only squad in the league that can boast as many offensive weapons as Golden State. "It's gonna be tough to slow us down," Eric Gordon says, but he also acknowledges that "it's gonna be tough to slow [the Warriors] down. It comes down to who's gonna play better defense, who's gonna also secure the rebounds so they don't have as many possessions."
On the surface, the Rockets' defensive improvement would seem to have a clear source, the inclusion of Chris Paul, whose former coach, Doc Rivers, is not shy about heaping praise on Houston's conclave of elite players.
"When you've got Chris Paul and James Harden on a team, you're pretty good," Rivers tells B/R. "When you've got Eric Gordon on that team, you're pretty good."
The thing is, Paul missed a good chunk of the early days of the season with a knee injury, so that nascent Big Three hasn't been together all that long. So, what is it that's turned this from a great team to an honest-to-god, quit-giggling championship contender that Rivers calls "an offensive juggernaut"?
The question has a simple, if large answer, one that can give Gordon exactly the boards and stops he says are the kryptonite for the Super Warriors—a newly resurgent frontcourt that may hold one of the potential solutions to a team with few obvious weaknesses.
When I ask center Clint Capela which All-NBA guard he prefers to catch lobs from, he chuckles. In fact, he finds it hard to stop. Clearly, he doesn't want to step on any toes, lest his minutes go down instead of up.
"Do you know who I get the lobs from the most?" he asks me. I don't have Basketball Reference open at the moment, so I shrug my shoulders. His ruse is clear, though. Whomever feeds him the most is the one he's going to shout out. Finally, the answer presents itself. "I've been playing with James longer, so I feel more...whenever I see the screen, I know I can go to get it every time." But what about CP3, who famously turned Los Angeles into "Lob City" for a few seasons? "I feel more comfortable with James so far."
It was only a few years ago that the endgame for Daryl Morey's gambit to put the Rockets in the NBA Finals involved Dwight Howard. Pried away from an atrophying Lakers team in free agency, Howard was expected to pair nicely with Harden in 2013. But Harden and Howard's inability to jell, Howard's declining productivity and his eventual departure to Atlanta in 2016 left the Rockets with a series of question marks at the center position.
As has become the trend in the NBA for most elite franchises, the solution was not an expensive free agent, but a bit of inexpensive, raw talent. In Houston, that took the form of Capela, the Swiss-born 6'10" big man taken with the 25th pick of the 2014 draft. Capela was discovered by Morey while Capela was playing ball in France. One might not have thought to add a young center the year after Howard's arrival in Clutch City, but the decision to bring him to Houston has paid off.
Capela is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, blocks and assists. His 67.7 percent shooting mark is another personal best, but it's the free throws—bane of his predecessor's existence—that's seen the most dramatic improvement.
Capela has gone from shooting an appalling 18 percent from the line in his rookie year to a far-from-elite, but somewhat respectable, 60.8 percent. As one might expect, Capela attributes this newfound charity stripe proficiency to that old chestnut of hard work. "For two months, I was working on my game [in the offseason], my free throws, my touches," he says on a break during the UCLA practice. "It really helped me to have a rhythm. Even during the season, I always come and shoot around or do stuff that keep me in rhythm for the game."
Perhaps even more importantly, Capela has helped make the Rockets one of the stingier defenses in the league this season. Houston leads the league in defensive rebound percentage (last year it ranked 21st), and Capela leads that charge, with 7.8 defensive boards per game. He's the Rockets' best bet defending the rim. Montrezl Harrell, one of a handful of former Rockets on the Clippers, isn't all that worried about banging with Capela. "By day two before we play them, that's when I'll worry about that," he says. "We got a job and we want to take them out of the things they do well."
Even with all those numbers trending up, Capela is finding it hard to get more time on the court. Instead of sharing the workload with Dwight Howard, he's splitting minutes with Nene, with whom the Rockets have their best defensive and net ratings this season. This does not sit well with Capela. "I want to play 32 [minutes]. I think to be an elite player in this league, you have to play at least 32 minutes a game to be on that path."
None of the Warriors centers average that many minutes per game either, though you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would describe Zaza Pachulia, David West or JaVale McGee as an elite player. Highly effective role players that are necessary to making that team function? Absolutely. All-Stars? Not likely. But if Capela can continue developing himself on both ends of the court and exploiting pick-and-roll chemistry with next-level passers like Harden and Paul, he could find himself in that conversation.
Internally, there's quite a bit of excitement over what the Houston bigs can do against Golden State in a hypothetical playoff encounter. "The more [Capela and Nene] play well, the more they run up and down the floor, the easier our shots are gonna get," Gordon tells B/R. "That's gonna be the next layer for our team, for them to have big, huge, tremendous nights. When they have big nights, I don't ever see us losing a game. They change the game of how we play. When they run, the pace is faster, guys get open shots on the weak side."
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.@CapelaClint (28p/8r) was a force in the paint and helped lift the @HoustonRockets to a 130-123 win over the Pelicans! 💪 https://t.co/3O9IGsV8H32017-12-12 12:00:05
Shooters like Gordon and Ryan Anderson have been beneficiaries of some of those open looks. Anderson is once again shooting over 40 percent from three and recently bounced back from a back injury. Gordon exploded for 11 points in the first quarter against the Lakers before finishing with 22 off the bench. "I saw there was nobody in the paint hardly at all," he said of his big game in L.A. "I just tried to break 'em down one-on-one. I can do those things in spurts sometimes." Part of that room in the paint comes from having Capela as a serious offensive threat.
When I ask Doc what the Clippers, home to so many ex-Rockets thanks to the Paul trade, can do when they face Houston at the Toyota Center in 11 days, he says flatly: "No one's slowed them down yet. I don't know if anyone will."
But is a new-look Capela enough to help Harden and Paul topple the Warriors? "We have to keep the advantage on them, by leading the Western Conference," Capela says. "It's going to be key for us to have home-court advantage in the playoffs. To go over there [to Oakland] is obviously hard. That advantage is going to be key for us."
Yeah, but will you beat them? "I expect to beat them," Capela says. If their confidence stays this high, Capela may not be the only voice in Houston who believes that.
Advanced stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference.
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.