The Houston Rockets opened the season playing a disjointed style, with two stars battling over limited space at the rim while the rest of the team spectated. Now timely cuts, deadly outlet passes and a simple, yet effective inside-out philosophy define a team that is a league-best 19-6 since Jan. 1 and belongs in the title contender conversation.
If you're looking for a magic switch that was flipped, keep digging, because it simply isn't there. Their shooting portfolio is nearly identical to how they played through the first portion of the season, both in terms of shot locations and the players who are shooting. What's changed is what changes with any team learning to play together: they've simply gotten better at what they were already doing.
Pairing the game's best center and one of the most dynamic guards in the NBA was the Rockets' simple path to becoming a perennial contender. It wasn't immediate, but Dwight Howard and James Harden have started to take off.
The first challenge for Houston head coach Kevin McHale was incorporating Howard. Omer Asik was the Rockets' starting center last season and he attempted just 7.5 field goals per game. Harden could try to score any way he desired without having to keep another primary player engaged.
It took time for Houston to find ways to involve Howard. He averaged just 9.9 field goal attempts per game in November, but that number has risen to 12 in December, 12.4 in January and 13 in February. Now that they've embraced feeding their franchise center, they suddenly look like a dominant inside-out team.
Houston's challenge wasn't just about giving Howard post-up opportunities, either. Despite improvement from previous years, he's still ehhhh in this area as a scorer, averaging just .76 points per post-up attempt according to Synergy Sports Technology. Howard's strength has never been fancy footwork, crisp hook shots or aesthetically-pleasing dream shakes, though he's developed some moves and counter moves. It's always been the fact that all a team has to do is get him the ball near the rim and he can finish it from there.
Out of the league's top-five players in "close" touches -- plays that begin within 12 feet of the basket -- Howard trails only Nikola Pekovic in points per play. Pekovic has 102 fewer post-up attempts than Howard, which minimizes ineffective possessions. Thus, Howard is still extremely effective around the post, even if he isn't a great "traditional" post-up player.
This isn't to say Houston is repeating the golden years of Hakeem Olajuwon now that it has yet another generational center. The Rockets playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league, and raw post-ups still rank dead last in their play-type efficiency. This is still a team built to charge down people's throats.
Spot-up three attempts, transition and open lanes to the basket keep the league's fifth-best offense humming, but now Howard's ability to suck in defenders in the paint is enhancing all those qualities. Defenses are forced to give Howard extra attention, usually in the form of a perimeter defender digging into the paint, and this creates holes for the Rockets to blast through. Great inside-out teams don't sit back as their big man isolates his defender in the post. They take advantage of the space created by the attention drawn.
Howard pulls defenders in like a tractor beam. Harden and Parsons have space to operate and turned heads to zip by. Parsons has been the greatest beneficiary, slicing through defenses and getting to the rim throughout the season. Houston's philosophy is simple: points in the paint, open threes and free-throws, as Kevin McHale has stated numerous times.
"We want free throws, paint points and open 3s. That's what we're trying to do, and the guys all know that. If we can take those shots, can continue to be one of the top teams in the league in paint points, a lot of good stuff will happen."
These basic principles make it easy for the Rockets to plug players in to produce around Howard. Take Terrence Jones. The three-point shooting he showed early in the season has faded away, but he's still a great complement to the Rockets' other starters because he can finish on cuts around the rim when the defense's attention is diverted. There's nothing particularly fancy about how the Rockets are using Jones. They're just putting him in a position to succeed.
That position is there because Howard and Harden pry defenses apart, force mistakes and can pick apart out-of-position opponents.
Of course, it's not just about Howard pulling double teams, as Harden's driving ability from the perimeter is just as critical to the team's offense. He's third in the NBA in free throws made and is one of the best in the league at getting into the restricted area and drawing contact. Nearly 68 percent of his total shot attempts this season have either been at the rim or above-the-break threes, so he's attacking from the perimeter with the whole court available for any passing outlets. It's no surprise that he leads the team in assists with 5.6 dimes per game and accounts for 16.4 percent of Houston's scoring possessions per game before we even include all the free throws.
If Howard is the team's tractor beam, Harden is the cruise missile, flying around obstacles as he attacks his target. Both players need space to operate individually, and together they create a dynamic that few teams can match up against. Harden can probe his way on the perimeter to find the open man, and Howard is now getting just as many chances to pick apart the defense in the low post.
Sure, it's not glamorous to watch Harden march to the line or Howard try to back down an opponent. It's not always an easy fit when Howard is clogging Harden's path to the rim and bringing in extra defenders around the rim. It took time for it to all come together for Houston, and there's still more work to be done.
But things are progressing quickly for a team that's been together for a mere 59 regular-season games. Howard made the decision to play alongside Harden and Parsons, and it looks like the right choice as the end of the season nears. The offense has been altered to give him his low-post touches, but isn't dependent on him sinking a high percentage of his attempts. The threat of his post scoring is enough.
Harden has his new running mate, Daryl Morey has his superstar core and Houston has its trajectory locked on to title contention until further notice. Houston no longer has a problem.