With the Houston Rockets having won 13 straight games and holding a half-game lead in the standings over the defending champion Golden State Warriors, would a potential Western Conference finals matchup between the two teams be as close as their battle for the top seed in the West?
Because of the contrast between their championship pedigree and the Rockets' up-and-down playoff track record in the James Harden era, the Warriors are still heavily favored to win the title. But Houston's odds have crept up from 16-1 before beating Golden State on opening night (at the Westgate SuperBook Las Vegas) to 2-1 as of Monday.
So just how realistic are the Rockets' chances of toppling the Warriors? Let's take a look at why they might be a tougher opponent than any Golden State has faced with Steve Kerr on the sideline.
Multiple panelists mentioned during last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, co-organized by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, that Houston's offensive rating was the best in NBA history. That's true, with a couple of key caveats.
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The first, depending on how you calculate possessions, is that Houston's offense might not even be the league's most efficient this season. The version on ESPN.com and the NBA Advanced Stats pages puts (who else?) the Warriors slightly ahead at 114.1 to 113.3, both of which would best Golden State's 113.2 rating from last season as the highest since team turnovers were first tracked in 1973-74.
Using Basketball-Reference.com's different formula for calculating possessions, the Rockets (115.8) leap ahead of the Warriors (115.6) and anyone else in NBA history. The 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers, who beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, are second best there at 115.6 points per 100 possessions. CleaningTheGlass.com, which excludes garbage time and uses actual possession counts instead of estimates, has both teams at 115.6 points per 100 possessions.
The more important quibble is that the league's average offensive rating is much higher now than it was in the early 2000s. Adjusting for that puts both teams in less impressive company, relative to league average. The Rockets are scoring 6.8 percent more points per 100 possessions than the typical NBA team under the ESPN definition, which would tie them for 18th since the NBA-ABA merger.
Nonetheless, there is a case that at full strength Houston's offense is as good as any we've ever seen. The Rockets have posted a 115.9 offensive rating in games in which both Harden and Chris Paul have played this season, 9.3 percent better than league average. That would top the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks for the best relative offense on record. Take out four additional games that Clint Capela has missed with Harden and Paul in action and Houston is a full 10.7 percent more efficient than the average NBA team with all three players available.
A historically elite offense alone hasn't been enough to guarantee a championship. None of the top eight teams in offensive rating relative to league average since the merger brought home a title, and only the 2015-16 Warriors even reached the NBA Finals. The problem? Just two of those eight teams, Golden State and the 2002-03 Mavericks (who lost in the Western Conference finals with star Dirk Nowitzki missing the last three games due to injury) ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating.
That's where Houston hopes to finish, with this team showing more balance than its Mike D'Antoni predecessors. While D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams were better defensively than they were given credit for because of their fast pace, the highest a team helmed by D'Antoni for a full season has finished on defense is 13th with the 2006-07 Suns, who rated ever so slightly better than league average. This year's Rockets, currently 10th, should beat that.
Houston has used a defensive technique popularized by the Warriors: switching picks not out of weakness but proactively to take advantage of the team's versatility and take opponents out of their usual pick-and-roll offense. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the two teams are switching picks far more frequently than any other NBA team.
Though the Rockets were already second in the NBA in switch rate last season at 21.3 percent during the regular season, adding Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker to the frontcourt has made them even more comfortable in switching.
At one point, it was clear that switching was the best way to counter the Golden State offense. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Warriors averaged fewer points per chance when opponents switched. That has changed since they added Kevin Durant. So far this season, Golden State is averaging 1.14 points per chance against switches as compared to 1.07 points per chance on all plays, including on-ball screens.
Nonetheless, switching was a big factor in Houston taking two of three head-to-head matchups with Golden State this season. The Warriors averaged just 0.88 points per chance on plays in which the Rockets switched, as compared to 0.99 points per chance on all other plays with an on-ball screen. Whether Golden State can change that will go a long way toward determining the outcome of a possible playoff series.
In the four years since Golden State became a championship contender, just one team besides the Warriors has posted a point differential better than plus-8 points per game: the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs, who won 67 games but were upset by the Oklahoma City Thunder a round shy of potentially facing Golden State in the Western Conference finals. As a result, either the Rockets (plus-8.8 points per game) or Toronto Raptors (plus-8.6) would be the best team the Warriors will have faced during their run by this measure.
Of course, evaluating based on the regular season probably sells short the 2015-16 Thunder, who took Golden State to seven games before losing, and that campaign's Cleveland Cavaliers team that finished the job in the NBA Finals. Although he's the favorite for MVP, Harden might not be capable of taking over a playoff series the way LeBron James did in the Finals. Few players have ever done so.
Nonetheless, Houston has done more than enough to get the attention of the Warriors and the rest of the league. With Harden, Paul and Capela all healthy, the Rockets are 30-1 with a plus-13.8 point differential -- and 2-0 against Golden State.
While the Warriors should probably still be favored in a playoff matchup because of their potential to tighten up their rotation and play harder when necessary, the gap between them and the Rockets no longer looks nearly as large as we expected before the season. By virtue of their success at full strength, the Rockets have played their way into serious championship contention.