James Harden is an incredible player.
On Thursday night, Harden racked up another triple double and scored 29 points as the Rockets pulled off a tough upset over the Golden State Warriors. He is averaging nearly 29 points per game for the season, leads the league in assists, and is well on the short list for MVP this season.
But while Harden has bounced back from last year, Houston’s turnaround is not just about him. Harden may be critical for Houston’s offense, but the team does not feel as dependent on James “doing something” as they did last year with Bernie Bickerstaff coaching. There have been a bunch of pleasant surprises on the Rockets this year with players either bouncing back or developing nicely.
Here are some of the key other supporting players who have surpassed expectations and helping guide the Rockets to the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.
Ryan Anderson was Houston’s big free-agent acquisition this summer, and he has played better and scored 29 points against the Warriors after a shaky start. But at times throughout this season it feels like Eric Gordon has been the star acquisition rather than an afterthought.
What makes Gordon so useful is that he has proven himself to be capable of functioning both with and without the ball. Unlike past ball handlers like Jeremy Lin, Gordon is a good enough shooter that opposing defender cannot ignore him when he is standing at the three-point line. But Gordon’s primary skill is being able to move with the ball, where he and Harden can throw pick and roll after pick and roll that discombobulates opposing defenses.
Gordon’s usefulness has been further augmented by the return of Pat Beverley who is lucky enough to win the Melbourne Cup. Now Gordon can play off the bench and keep the Rockets humming in the second quarter while Harden rests. As Gordon averaged 16 points per game, his highest total since 2012, he may be looking at picking up a Sixth Man of the Year award.
The small forward position is probably Houston’s weakest slot. Trevor Ariza has been reliable enough (it is crazy to think that Ariza has spent more time as a Rocket than in any other uniform), but Corey Brewer has trouble doing anything in a halfcourt possession and K.J. McDaniels is inconsistent.
Enter Sam Dekker, who played all of six minutes last year with a back injury. The second-year player observed that he modeled himself off of Ariza earlier in his career, and has fulfilled much of the same role of three-point shooting and perimeter defense. Dekker does make mental mistakes which Ariza does not, but he will learn how to play smarter and could overtake Ariza next season as the starting 3.
Even better, Dekker is not the only young Rocket who has a seemingly bright future. While last year’s prospects were a disappointment as Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones regressed, this year has seen potential from Dekker, Clint Capela, and even Tyler Ennis in spurts. The Rockets have turned around and stocked their cupboard for the future.
The Houston Rockets take a lot of three-pointers because “Moreyball” values it as such an effective shot. But last season, the Rockets took a lot…but also missed a lot as they were a below average team in terms of accuracy.
The addition of Gordon and Anderson has turned things around. Houston is now hitting 37.4 percent from the three-point line this season compared to 34.7 percent last year. This percentage increase is made more impressive by the fact that Houston is now attempting a record 37 threes per game this year compared to about 31 last year.
Because Houston does not have a second star, they have to win games through a combination of Harden’s brilliance and bombing three pointers, sort of like the 1994 Rockets won their first championship. This has worked so far and led Houston to the fourth-best offense in the league. While they may not be as dangerous as the Warriors yet, Houston’s powerful offense and players surpassing expectations has meant that they can beat any team on any night, as Golden State just found out.