The Houston Rockets are getting it right.
Despite being the youngest team in the NBA, not only are the Rockets poised for a playoff berth, but they're also establishing and subsequently utilizing five-man connections that give them the best possible opportunity to make some noise come the postseason.
Since trading for Thomas Robinson in a deal that was assumed would hurt the team in the short term, Houston has been running with (for the most part) a starting lineup of Omer Asik, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Donata Motiejunas and Chandler Parsons.
Admittedly, this five-man combo has yielded a mediocre 3-3 record in six games, and much of what we know about it comes from a small sample size. But after the Rockets shook up their roster, what we know this side of the trade deadline is enough.
As far as the small sample size goes, though, this particular outfit is Houston's fourth-most used lineup on the season. Knowing how recently the Rockets assembled this version of their starting lineup, that's saying something. Just as the numbers are speaking volumes.
Though Houston is a mere 3-3 when starting this five-man conclave, it's outscoring its counterparts by 17.8 points per 100 possessions, the highest point differential of any Rockets lineup that has spent at least 60 minutes of floor time together.
Per NBA.com, this same five-man faction is outscoring opponents by 17.9 points per 48 minutes, almost identical to its per-100-possessions mark and making it the 25th-most productive lineup of any used in the league this season.
If you're like me, you're impressed but far from convinced of anything. It's easy (easier) to measure up to the rest of the league when the sample size is smaller. Given the situation in Houston, what matters most is how this five-man convocation meets the needs of the team more than anything.
And it's here where I'm sold.
Offensively, this starting lineup is far from the most potent. It's scoring at a rate of one point per possession, a number that pales in comparison to some other internal cliques.
Take the Carlos Delfino, Harden, Lin, Parsons and Greg Smith concoction. Together, they're dropping 1.28 points per possession, accounting for nearly 30 percent more offense. They're also outscoring opponents by 22.7 points per 100 possessions when on the floor.
Normally I'd argue against their use taking precedence over the current lineup because they've played fewer minutes together (which they have), but most of what we know about the Rockets rotation now forces us to embrace smaller samples, so that's a no-go.
Instead, I'll point you to their defense, which is allowing 1.01 points per possession. As far as that presenting a serious quandary, I'll ask you to now shift your attention to the Charlotte Bobcats.
Charlotte ranks dead last in defensive efficiency, and per Synergy Sports (subscription required), they relinquish an average of 0.92 points per possession, nearly a 10th of a point less than the aforementioned clan.
We all know Houston has succeeded in spite of its defense this season (22nd in defensive efficiency), but a starting lineup of that caliber is going to get torched in the playoffs by a San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder squad.
Remember, the Rockets have to be thinking postseason. Rotations are shortened come playoff time, increasing the importance of a team's starting five considerably. A Delfino, Harden, Lin, Parsons and Smith junta would only pave the way for the opposition's path to the rim.
So we're back to Asik, Harden, Lin, Motiejunas and Parsons, and their mundane one point scored per possession. The same "point" that is far more impressive than some realize.
Houston, as a collective, is scoring 0.97 points per possession, rendering the Rockets' most recent starting five more potent than the team average.
Still, overall rank aside, why would the Rockets not just begin the game with their highest-scoring lineup, even if it meant bringing Asik off the bench?
Defense. Something the Rockets haven't had all season but now have in this lineup.
This five-man contingent is giving up just 0.78 points per possession, trumping the defensive results of any other lineup the Rockets have fielded. Houston as a team is giving up 0.91, 24th most in the league, so yeah, this means a whole lot.
I'll entertain that idea so early into their time together, but bear in mind that general manager Daryl Morey is an analytics guru. If this lineup was engineered by chance (doubt it), it won't be for much longer. He and the rest of the Rockets organization will look at much of the information we just have and likely draw the same conclusions.
And so, we believe.
We believed in Houston's future when Morey struck a deal for a superstar in Harden. We even believed in the Rockets when they jeopardized their present standing for future success when acquiring Robinson. We believed in the Rockets of tomorrow.
Now it's time to believe in the Rockets of today, time to believe that they can win now—not just snag a postseason berth, but make some actual noise in the playoffs.
They're starting the most statistically ideal of lineups in Asik, Harden, Lin, Motiejunas and Parsons, and that's going to culminate in more wins then we may currently realize.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.