It's easy to submit to feeling awestruck, to sense a twinge of lightheadedness from the continued ascendance of James Harden into the firmament of superstardom; to be impressed by the versatility of Dwight Howard and his intermittent ability serve as a focal point and a supporting cog; to repeatedly declare that Chandler Parsons is a critical component to the team dynamic while simultaneously acknowledging that he remains criminally overlooked; to marvel at Jeremy Lin and his unique penchant for suddenly reminding everyone not only of his viability but of his welcome volatility as a sharpshooter and a slasher.
The uncomplicated approach is offer cursory analysis of the Rockets' 23-6 record since Jan. 1 and enjoy the ride through the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs. By winning 15 of 17 games, including three home victories in six days over teams (Miami, Indiana, Portland) that were a combined 82 games over .500, the Rockets have cemented their status as contenders. Naysayers belittled an earlier run of exceptionality by erroneously underselling the caliber of Houston's vanquished opponents, but the Rockets have defeated teams good and bad while climbing the league standings.
The Rockets are not only unbeaten against sub-.500 teams since the calendar flipped to 2014, they defeated five teams currently in the postseason picture before completing their six-day gauntlet unscathed. If the Rockets appear boastful in presenting their claim as the best team in the league, their hubris is justifiable. Aside from their continuing shortcomings against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets have proven themselves to be as formidable as anyone.
By every statistical measure the Rockets are a force to be reckoned with, and even the narrative-susceptible "eyeball tests" support the Rockets' legitimacy.
Deciphering how the Rockets got here requires some probing. At first blush, their run of dominance starts with the tandem of Harden and Howard, a duo that ranks fifth in the league in net rating among all two-man lineups with at least 1,700 minutes played. When Rockets general manager Daryl Morey lured Howard to Houston with a four-year, $88-million contract last offseason, the expectation was that Harden and Howard would discover the means to blend their considerable talents.
It required some incubation, but Harden and Howard have achieved that balance, and the results are favorable.
It required trail and error for the Rockets to determine how to fully integrate Howard into their offensive mix, but their progress has been remarkable. Howard enjoyed an increase in per-game field goal attempts four consecutive months through February, and since Jan. 1 is averaging 20.0 points (on 59.6 percent shooting), 11.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. In the 17 games since the Rockets last suffered consecutive defeats (against the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 24 and 25), Howard is averaging 21.3 points, 12.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He is shooting 61.5 percent from the field and 62.0 percent from the line.
Beneficially, Harden continues to improve in lockstep with Howard despite unfounded concerns over their ability to cohabitate. In 10 games since the All-Star break Harden is averaging 29.3 points (with a stellar .503/.432/.812 shooting line), 4.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.4 steals. He earned his second consecutive Western Conference Player of the Week honor on Monday following his tour-de-force performance against the Trail Blazers, statistically (by the Game Score metric) his sixth-best regular-season effort in a Rockets uniform. By Player Efficiency Rating, Harden (PER: 22.5) ranks as the top shooting guard in the NBA and third overall among backcourt players, trailing the Warriors' Stephen Curry (23.2) and the Clippers' Chris Paul (26.1).
Yet despite all that Harden and Howard provide, the Rockets have excelled because they are greater collectively than the sum of their parts. Their five-man starting lineup, which includes tenacious point guard Patrick Beverley, power forward Terrence Jones, Harden, Howard and Parsons, ranks fourth in net rating among lineups with at least 500 minutes. Over their last 29 games, the Rockets have become behemoths in the Four Factors deemed critical to team success: Effective field goal percentage, free throw attempt rate, turnover ratio and offensive rebound rate.
The Rockets managed to string together several landmark wins without Lin providing much of an impact, but their standing as a top five offense rests in part on his continued ability to supply production.
If their numbers were extrapolated over this entire season, the Rockets would rank third in eFG% (53.5), second in free throw rate (38.7%) and third in offensive rebound rate (28.6%). Their turnover ratio (16.6 turnovers per 100 possessions) would rank 28th, but the Rockets have shown an uncanny ability to overcome their steady avalanche of miscues.
Maintaining top three status in three of the Four Factors would bode well for the Rockets as they continue their stretch run toward home-court advantage in the playoffs. So too would their offensive, defensive and net ratings established since Jan. 1. By every statistical measure the Rockets are a force to be reckoned with, and even the narrative-susceptible "eyeball tests" support the Rockets' legitimacy, especially with Lin rediscovering his form Sunday night.
The Jeremy Lin Factor
Following 10 consecutive games with a sub-10 Game Score and a nine-game stretch where he shot just 33.3 percent, Lin scored 26 points off the bench and logged the final 23:20 against Portland as the Rockets rode their small lineup to victory. Lin, hampered of late by back stiffness, reclaimed his fearless rim forays, which in turn paved the way for him to bury several momentum-swinging jumpers down the stretch. Lin not only put the Rockets ahead for the first time with his 3-pointer at the 1:26 mark of the fourth quarter, his fadeaway jump shot with 1:22 left in overtime nudged the Rockets in front to stay.
The Rockets managed to string together several landmark wins without Lin providing much of an impact, but their standing as a top five offense rests in part on his continued ability to supply production off the bench. For all that Jordan Hamilton, Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas provide in reserve, the Rockets' bench unit cleaves its identity to Lin. When he performs with brazen audacity, the Rockets' effectiveness offensively is practically irrepressible.
With 19 games remaining in their regular season and the top seed in the Western Conference tantalizingly up for grabs, the Rockets must maintain the momentum they have established with their sensational play these past two-plus months. A road swing through Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami that starts Tuesday night will feature opponents with a combined 124-62 record and the possibility of negating the strides made at Toyota Center these last six days.
For all the excitement and exuberance, the Rockets could just as quickly cede ground in the race for home court. Their victories haven't mitigated the peril ahead.
But at this stage, with their name tossed confidently in the hat alongside the San Antonio Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Warriors, no one can deny that the Rockets have arrived. Work remains to flesh out their resume, but based on all evidence, the Rockets have aced their exams on growth and development.