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4 reasons the Rockets look like the Warriors’ biggest competitors again

Houston’s season started off terribly, but they’ve bounced back well. Here’s how they became relevant again.

Houston Rockets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets had the NBA’s most disappointing offseason, which led to a miserable start to the year. By mid-December, the league’s best regular-season team from a year before was 14-14, clearly lacking the shooting and defensive versatility that helped them win 65 games.

The Rockets were melting before our eyes. As many expected, Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis were not viable Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute replacements, so general manager Daryl Morey hunted the trade, buyout and free agent market more vigorously than any other team. Twenty-two different guys have suited up in a Rockets uniform this year.

But just in time, the Rockets have found the right combinations to surge to their old spot near the top of the West standings.

A superhuman MVP push from James Harden, who racked up 32 straight 30-point games, kept Houston in the playoff mix while Chris Paul sat out 17 straight games to a hamstring injury and Clint Capela missed 15 straight to a thumb injury. Now, both of Harden’s complimentary stars are back and thriving.

Since the All-Star break, the team is 6-1 with the league’s third-highest net rating, outscoring teams by 5.9 points per 100 possessions, according to StatMuse. That’s better than Golden State’s 5.8 points per 100 possessions on the season, and in that span they’ve notched wins over the Warriors, Celtics and Raptors.

How’d they get back on track?

They moved on when their initial plan didn’t work

Most teams don’t have the guts to give up on a failed experiment until its bitter end, but Houston’s kept a constant cycle of talent coming and going until it found what fits. Morey knew when to make additions by subtraction.

Here’s a list of the Rocket’s biggest transactions since the beginning of the season:

  • Nov. 15 - Carmelo Anthony parted ways with the team
  • Dec. 6 - Danuel House signed a two-way contract.
  • Dec. 6 - Gary Clark signed as a free agent.
  • Dec. 24 - Austin Rivers signed as a free agent.
  • Jan. 7 - Michael Carter-Williams traded for cash.
  • Jan. 16 - James Nunnally signed to a 10-day contract. He was later let go.
  • Jan. 21 - Kenneth Faried signed as a free agent.
  • Jan. 22 - Carmelo Anthony traded for draft rights to someone who will never play in the NBA.
  • Feb. 7 - Ennis traded for a pick swap.
  • Feb. 7 - Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, and a pick were traded for Iman Shumpert
  • Feb. 22/Mar. 4 - Terrence Jones signed to consecutive 10-day contracts

Those moves might seem minor, but it’s rare for a playoff-caliber team to switch that many rotation players in and out of its lineup. Though the Rockets deserve some blame for putting themselves in a position to tinker that heavily in the first place, it’s commendable they’ve dug themselves out. Leaving on OK terms with a former all-star like Anthony and shipping vets like Carter-Williams, Ennis, and Knight isn’t easy.

It took trial and error, but Houston’s found viable rotation pieces

They still don’t add up to what Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Mbah a Moute gave Houston last season, but Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Danuel House, and Gary Clark have filled different but important roles in their absence.

Faried was trapped in a much younger Nets rotation until they agreed on a buyout. In Houston, he got a chance to win now, and he’s run with it. He filled in admirably at center when Capela was hurt, putting up double-digit scoring numbers in every single game. He’s nowhere near the defender Capela is, but in scoring 15 points per game with nine rebounds (four of which are offensive), Faried serves a valuable role that most contracts that cheap don’t fulfill.

Rivers is playing significantly better than he did with the Wizards earlier in the year, hitting an adequate 34 percent of his threes on a much higher volume of attempts. That isn’t Ariza’s 37 percent, but it’s better than Anthony’s 33 percent, and he at least provides a threat that Carter-Williams didn’t on the perimeter. He isn’t perfect, but for a mid-season fill-in, he’ll do.

Before a contract dispute sent him back to the G League, House averaged nine points and four rebounds on 39 percent shooting from deep, and Clark has pitched in quality minutes in a limited role, too.

Chris Paul became Point God again

Before missing a month with a hamstring injury, 33-year-old Paul looked like a shell of himself. Some wondered if he’d finally begun his decline from stardom. From Oct. through Dec., he was shooting a career-worst 41.5 percent from the field, missing some of his lift and agility.

But ever since he sat for 17 games, he’s come alive, averaging 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds. His shooting ticked upwards to 42.7 percent in that span, too. The secondary playmaker that pushed Houston to new heights last season has officially returned.

It must be said again: James Harden saved the Rockets butts

The pieces around him are finally beginning to supplement his work, but Harden’s had a masterful 2018-19 season. It might even be better than his MVP campaign from a season ago, and without it, Houston would be on the playoff bubble or worse.

Harden’s scoring a ridiculous 37 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the field, 36 percent shooting from three-point range, and 88 percent shooting from the free throw line, where he attempts 12 per night.

His efficiency is otherworldly yet again, and he’s done it while being the focal point of every defense. In 23 games without Paul, Harden averaged 42 points, nine assists and eight rebounds on similar percentages (44/37/87), per StatMuse. That’s bonkers!

Now that Harden has his star teammates in Paul and Capela back on the floor and a better supporting cast to play off, it’s no wonder the Rockets are rolling. It may not be the perfect roster, but it’s a much improved one in Houston. The late playoff run that seemed impossible once upon a time is back on the table.