This may be the best the Western Conference has ever been, yet the Houston Rockets are right in the thick of it. The new-look Rockets and their transformed defense are in the top tier of the brutal West.
The Golden State Warriors are the clear front-runners for the Western crown. Under rookie head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors have separated themselves from the pack over the first couple months of the season.
After them, there is a bloodbath between several contenders for the final three spots of home-court advantage. The Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Los Angeles Clippers along with the Rockets all have good chances to play at home in the first round. Going into 2015 all of these teams are within about three games of each other.
You also can't count out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who struggled in the month of December but can pick up some ground quickly. Behind them, the Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans are all fighting for a playoff berth but are probably too far behind to compete for a top spot.
At the start of 2015, the Rockets find themselves just outside the coveted top four spots. Houston got off to a great start, going 6-0 before falling at home to the Warriors without Dwight Howard. It wasn't until mid-December that Space City fell back down to Earth.
The Rockets' roster underwent a minor makeover before bringing in the new year. General manager Daryl Morey decided the bench needed some upgrades to improve the team's depth. After trading for Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved, Houston also signed Josh Smith as a free agent.
Although the overall depth chart is now significantly better, coach Kevin McHale and his staff have had trouble finding the right lineups. The chemistry isn't there yet, and it will take some time for the team to play more cohesively.
The Rockets went through an eight-game stretch in which they only won three times, including a rock-bottom, blowout loss in New Orleans at the hands of the Pelicans. Fortunately, Houston bounced back with a 36-point win at home over the Miami Heat the following night, but still there is cause for concern.
McHale will have to continue to tinker with his rotation but also try to win games in the process. It's been a bumpy schedule closing out December and early on in January. Houston is in a tough spot, trying to incorporate its new pieces while also trying to keep pace with the top Western teams.
Chemistry is tough to develop on the fly in the midst of an NBA schedule, with rare opportunities for full practices. It also takes time and patience. However, it will take more than just chemistry to get these Rockets atop the wild West.
Houston has been phenomenal this season defensively. Trevor Ariza replacing Chandler Parsons and James Harden giving effort on that end of the floor have worked wonders. The coaching staff's primary focus on defense in the offseason has paid off, as the Rockets give up the second-fewest points per game in the league.
This is an impressive feat, considering last year the same team relinquished points at a rate ranking in the bottom third of the NBA. Unfortunately, this defensive improvement has also come with consequences, and last year's high-powered offense is really struggling this season.
The Rockets are 16th in the league in scoring, but they're in the bottom five in field-goal percentage. Even with a focus on efficient shot-taking, the Rockets are still struggling to create offensively. Great team defense and Harden's MVP-esque season have kept Houston afloat, but sooner or later the offense needs to start clicking.
Harden is perhaps the best scorer in the world, but it takes more than one person to run an effective offense. Too many isolations for Harden result in turnovers or low-percentage, desperation heaves at the end of the shot clock. There needs to be more pick-and-roll action towards the basket, not just between Harden and Howard, but involving all of the Rockets' offensive weapons, like Josh Smith and Donatas Motiejunas.
Houston will continue to rely on the three-pointer like it has the past few years. The Rockets make the most threes of any team per game, but they also average seven more attempts than second-place Phoenix. The field-goal percentage and three-point percentage need to increase quite a bit if the Rockets want to climb the Western ladder up the standings. The defense is there, but the offense needs to pick it up considerably to compete with the likes of Golden State and Portland.
If the Rockets really want to make a run, there are two absolutely essential tasks Houston must complete. Firstly, the Rockets have to win all of the games they are supposed to. There isn't any margin for error out West this season, and no team can afford any hiccups to the weaker teams in the league. So far, Houston has done a solid job of beating the inferior teams, with only a couple of blunders to teams like the L.A. Lakers.
Secondly, if the Rockets want to compete for the top spot, they have to beat the teams standing in their way. It's really quite simple. If you want to pass the Mavericks, Blazers and Grizzlies, then you have to beat them head-to-head. When the West is this competitive, every single game counts, and tiebreakers could become game-changers at the end of the season. When you have an opportunity to take down one of the enemies, then you have to take advantage or else they will, and instead of gaining ground you end up losing some.
It's a tall order for the Rockets if they want to climb to the top of the conference. There are a lot of contenders in the West, and with Houston's recent struggles, the top seed is a long shot. It probably won't happen, but if the Rockets can integrate their new players and get back to playing the way they did to open the season, it's not inconceivable.