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The Houston Rockets might not be the best team in NBA history, but they may be one of the most unique teams we’ve ever seen. They’re winning like a superteam during an era that seemingly requires three superstars to compete.
Since the inaugural season of the Basketball Association of America—the NBA’s predecessor—in 1946-47, there have been 1,483 team seasons. Whether you use winning percentage or the simple rating system (which combines margin of victory and strength of schedule), the Rockets are the 18th best of all time.
If we define “superteam performance” to be the top 2 percent of all time, the Rockets—who have been better than 98.8 percent of teams in history—are performing like a superteam. For a comparison, the championship-winning 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers (65-17) also had only two elite starters: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Most teams get to that level by accumulating at least three “elite” starters (which we’ll define as being All-NBA, All-Star or All-Defensive at a prior point in their careers). The Rockets have only two such players in James Harden and Chris Paul, and neither of them has been healthy all season.
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But this highlights another aspect of the Rockets that is extraordinary. They’ve won without elite talent, and they’ve also won despite injuries.
Those Lakers fielded just seven starting lineups all season, which included their “preferred” starting lineup 50 times. Bryant, Gasol and Derek Fisher missed only one game combined. They lost roughly 32 starts to injury, and the top eight in their rotation only missed a total of 54 games.
By comparison, the Rockets have started 16 different lineups, have played their preferred starters (Paul, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson or PJ Tucker, and Clint Capela) just 33 times, have lost 52 starts to injury and have missed 99 games from their top eight rotation players.
That they have had such success without a third elite talent—as well as with a plethora of injuries—is what makes them historically unique.
This chart shows every team with 64-plus wins and/or an SRS score higher than the Rockets’ 8.6:
|Percent of minutes played by|
|Team||Percent Minutes, Elite|
Houston, which has had less than a quarter of its minutes played by elite talent, is performing like a superteam anyway. No other squad has come close to having such a low percentage. So how are the Rockets doing it?
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Just because the Rockets have succeeded through myriad injuries doesn’t necessarily mean they’re just as potent when injuries strike.
According to Cleaning the Glass, which accounts for garbage time minutes, the Rockets’ adjusted net rating is plus-9.7 this season. If you only consider the games Paul and Harden have played, it’s plus-11.0, and Houston is 44-5 in those contests. If you remove the games Capela has missed, it’s 43-3 (93.5 percent) with a plus-12.1 adjusted net rating.
Compare that with the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors‘ 69-7 (90.8 percent) record with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green or the Chicago Bulls‘ 48-6 (88.9 percent) when they had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in 1995-96.
In other words, the Rockets with their three best players are every bit as successful and “superteamy” as the Dubs or Jordan’s Bulls were in their best seasons.
Houston’s record is a testament to how well-equipped they are to survive the loss of one of their Big Three, don’t confuse that with Houston’s being just as good without one of the three. If the Rockets didn’t have so many injuries this season, we very well could be talking about one of the best teams in history.
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While the Rockets are affected by injuries, they minimize the impact by the way they play and with the way their roster is built. They have seven players who have scored 400 points with an above-average (55.6) true shooting percentage. Gerald Green comes just short of that benchmark: he’s tallied 450 points with a 55.5 true shooting percentage.
It’s also part of what makes Houston so successful when it is healthy. If one player isn’t hitting his shots, someone else is.
More than anything, the Rockets have shooters—and not just toe-right-behind-the-three-point-line shooters. They have deep shooters. Harden leads the NBA with 201 makes from 25 to 29 feet (at a 36.1 percent clip). Eric Gordon has made 156 of those.
Overall, Houston has sunk 732 shots from that range, which is 104 more than the second-place Warriors. Six Rockets have made 62 or more. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have combined for another 43 of them.
When you have eight players who can score from that deep, it opens up the rim, which is why Capela is fourth in the league with 5.5 makes per game in the restricted area and leads the league in field-goal percentage (65.4). Nene doesn’t put down alley-oops with the same viciousness, but he’s a capable finisher.
And then there are players like Ariza, Green and Mbah a Moute who aren’t elite shot-creators but can put the ball on the floor for a bounce or two to drive to the rim from the perimeter.
The Rockets roll with the injury punches so well because they have so much depth. Even if a player is out, they aren’t without a player who can fill his role.
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There’s a hidden strategy at work in Houston that has changed an overriding principle of basketball.
Before, there was always the thought, “Our best guy can beat your best guy.” Modern defenses are built to stop that strategy, as switches and helpers are designed to take away “your best guy.”
There’s a subtle difference in the way the Rockets operate, though, in that they also think, “Our worst guy will beat your worst guy.”
There’s a domino effect at play. When teams shift their defenses to try to stop Harden or Paul, that leaves someone like Mbah a Moute or Tucker open for a corner three. And the Rockets aren’t afraid to make opponents pay.
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Ariza nets 40.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys, Anderson 39.3 percent, Tucker 38.2 percent, Green 36.5 percent and Mbah a Moute 35.5 percent. Whoever’s left unguarded or underguarded to cheat on defense will make you pay.
Another thing: they’re not gun-shy.
Houston has made 10-plus threes in all but four games. It’s 63-13 when it reaches double digits in deep balls. It’s 41-4 when it makes 15 or more, and it’s 22-0 when it hits 18 or more.
And if you cover all the shooters, Capela, Nene or Tarik Black will be open at the rim.
In essence, what the Rockets have is a bunch of players who are specific weapons on the offensive end and can also defend.
And they have two weapons masters in Harden and Paul who know how to utilize their teammates.
They’re doing so by reinventing isolation. Even though Harden and Paul are historically efficient when it comes to spreading the court, they aren’t shy about sharing the ball, either. They’re each in the top 10 in assists per game and combine for 16.7 dimes per contest—8.1 of them on threes, per NBAMiner.com.
The end result is that while sometimes the Rockets might be down a weapon or two, or even absent a weapons master, they can still run the same system—a bunch of competent shooters who spread the floor while Paul or Harden work their magic.
When both of the future Hall of Famers are healthy, the Rockets can put 48 minutes of pressure on opponents with a barrage of bombs and dunks, and they’re almost unbeatable.