The first quarter of the Houston Rockets' season was neither what their fans were expecting nor hoping for.
But in spite of some horrendous performances to start the season, a fired head coach and one fizzled star acquisition, the team seems to be getting things straightened out.
Clutch City has won six of its last eight games, and because of a pocketful of bright spots—some within its control and some not—it still has a decent shot at getting to the playoffs and even making a bit of noise when it gets there.
The Unexpected Parity
The Western Conference, traditionally dominant against the East, has been even with or arguably even worse than its counterpart this season.
Overall, the conferences are tied at 65-65 in interconference play, but even that is a bit misleading. The Golden State Warriors (who have been crushing everyone) are 8-0, and the San Antonio Spurs are 9-3.
The rest of the West is a meager 50-63, which has led to a turnabout in the playoff situation—particularly in the Nos. 3 through 8 seeds. If the postseason started today, Houston would be in with a losing record, while in the East, the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons (both over .500) would go fishing.
Furthermore, the Rockets are just 2.0 games behind the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in spite of their horrible start.
For comparison’s sake, a similar record last year would have had them 10th in the West behind the New Orleans Pelicans, 2.0 games out of the playoffs and 6.5 games away from home-court advantage.
While 45 wins were needed to make the playoffs in last year's West, it looks like 41 could do the trick now. Last season's total should even be enough to avoid a daunting series against the Spurs or Warriors.
Houston can claim no credit for this parity, of course—except for the irony that its own unexpected lack of success is part of the reason for the West’s decline—but it can take advantage of it.
When the Rockets signed Marcus Thornton to the veteran's minimum, no one expected he would turn out to be the team's biggest offseason acquisition. Certainly, as the season started, he was not the guard garnering all the attention.
That distinction went to Ty Lawson, who has been more of an eclipse than a bright spot.
Thornton has been more productive than any Rockets fan could have hoped for. His player efficiency rating of 16.9 and his 0.9 win shares both rank fourth on the team. With 43 of his 93 field goals being unassisted, he’s become the thing that the Rockets were hoping to find in Lawson—a second scorer alongside James Harden who can create off the bounce.
Interestingly, the Rockets have also been able to generate small-ball success with Lawson and Harden in the backcourt, Thornton as the small forward, Trevor Ariza at the 4 and either Clint Capela or Dwight Howard at the 5.
Those two combinations have outscored their opponents by an average of 16.5 points per 48 minutes.
The Twin Towers
One of the big reasons the Rockets have started to turn things around, and one of the more underreported stories from this season, has been the starting duo of Clint Capela and Dwight Howard.
The team that first introduced the concept of "Twin Towers" with Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon back in 1984—but now has led the NBA's foray into the analytics age—is snubbing its nose at every recent trend and pulling a page from the history books.
Daryl Morey does what?
With everyone else going small, it’s interesting to see Houston going big, but it makes sense and seems to be working. The Rockets’ offensive rating with the two bigs on the court at the same time is a lofty 112.4. The defensive rating is a meager 97.6. The net rating is a hefty 14.8.
With both players possessing great size, length and athleticism, it’s not a surprise that the defense is prospering so much.
Unlike most teams who can get punished with an endeavor like that by sharp-shooting, the Rockets' tandem is able to adapt. Opponents are a mere 27 percent from deep when Capela and Howard share the court.
That's not all just noise, either. Capela is consistently closing out and challenging three-point shooters with his length. He's been the primary defender on 40 deep balls this year, accounting for 17.9 percent of the shots he's defended. That's also about 16.5 percent of the 241 treys attempted by opponents with him on the court.
The Rockets are scoring in bunches too. And a huge part of that is the colossal work on the glass the Titanic Duo does.
With Howard and Capela in, Houston is snaring 35.6 percent of its own misses as well as 85.0 percent of its opponents'. That’s resulting in the Rockets getting 17.0 second-chance points per 100 possessions to their opponents’ 9.6.
While the sample size is still a little on the small size, it’s growing, and the results are staying consistent. Capela moving into the starting lineup alongside Howard is making a difference. And it could be meaningful in the postseason.
Teams who are chasing the Warriors in small ball are going to lose. Take note of the observation by Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal while the Warriors were putting a beatdown on the Indiana Pacers:
You’re just not going to out-small-ball the Warriors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t beat them in a different manner. A giant lineup that can keep up with the Warriors defensively and punish them on the glass could be the way to go.
In the end, the desperate ploy of a team trying to salvage a season may be what puts it over the hump.