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Rockets’ new-look offense already living up to the hype

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

It took seven seconds (or less) for Mike D’Antoni to put his stamp on the Houston Rockets’ offense.

The new look Rockets are one of the early highlights of the preseason, thanks in large part to the scoring machine D’Antoni created. Through three games (all wins), the team is averaging 128 points per contest. That’s second-highest among all exhibition participants and tops among NBA teams. The next-best offense is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are putting up 14 fewer points per game than the Rockets.

“It’s way early, but we can see we’ve got a lot of firepower,” D’Antoni said after the team’s Oct. 4 win over the New York Knicks, per ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins. “A lot of guys that can score. We just have to keep the mentality that yeah we can score, and we’re going to score, and we may do it in bunches, but we can’t take it for granted that we just got to score.”

Houston’s onslaught goes beyond the scoreboard. The club is in the top 10 in nearly every major statistical category. The team’s ranking would be even higher if not for the presence of European all-star squad Real Madrid, who dropped 142 points in its lone contest against NBA competition.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, as of Oct. 9, 2016

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, as of Oct. 9, 2016

As expected, D’Antoni’s determination to push the tempo is paying dividends. The Rockets are currently second in PACE (107.56) and second in offensive rating with 120.3 points per 100 possessions. Houston, one of the sloppiest teams in the league over the last few years, is also only turning the ball over 15.7 times per game (11th).

James Harden: Points Gawd

There was never a question whether James Harden would thrive under D’Antoni. His ability to score at will combined with his unique court vision made him a natural choice as the engine behind MDA’s offensive machine. However, even the most committed Beard Bro must be surprised at just how seamless Harden’s transition to point guard has been.

The 27-year-old is second in scoring (23.3 points per game) while leading all preseason players in assists (12 per game). The New Orleans Pelicans’ Tim Frazier is a distant second with 8.3 dimes per night. Harden is also shooting 45 percent from the field and 39.1 from behind the arc.

The most impressive aspect of the “new” James Harden is how he easily he fluctuates between scorer and passer. He still plays with the same aggression that made one of the league’s best bucket-fillers. He’s maintained his innate ability to attack the basket and draw fouls. He’s averaging a league-best 9.3 free-throw attempts per game.

 

Harden’s ability to score at will forces opposing defenses to devote more attention when he attacks the basket, and he’s making those teams pay by dishing out to teammates for open looks.

 

When Harden isn’t showing off his drive-and-kick skills, he’s pulling off alley-oops with the flick of his wrist.

Harden was already an opposing defense’s nightmare just based off his impressive scoring acumen. Now, his passing makes him an even bigger problem. It not only opens up better opportunities for other Rockets but by shouldering less of the offensive load, he should have more energy to focus on improving as a defender.

If Harden’s all-around numbers can continue into the regular season, he has an outside chance at becoming the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since Tiny Archibald did it in 1972-73. If you throw in a possible improvement at the end, you get a potential dark horse MVP contender.

Here Come The New Guys

The Rockets failed to replace Dwight Howard with another elite marquee free agent, but the team still managed to surround Harden with plenty of firepower. Former Pelicans Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have had little trouble meshing with their new teammates.

Anderson is averaging 19.7 points per game, ninth-best in the league. He’s also shooting a ridiculous 48 percent from downtown on 8.3 three-point attempts. He’s even chipping in 5.7 rebounds on a nightly basis. The 28-year-old made a name for himself as a sweet-shooting role player, but the combination of increased minutes and the open looks Harden creates puts him on track for a breakout year.

Meanwhile, Gordon is giving Rockets fans a glimpse of what can happen if he can avoid the injury bug that’s plagued his career. He’s contributing 14 points on 21.3 minutes per game, shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from distance (on 5.3 attempts from deep).

Much like Harden, Gordon can be dangerous attacking the basket…

 

…or shooting the three-ball.

Gordon will get playing time both alongside Harden and as his primary backup. Thus far, he’s embraced his role with his new team, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

“I think it’s all going to work out,” Gordon said in September. “With this spread, fast-paced offense, it’s all about knocking down shots and playmaking for one another. As long as we do that through the whole season, we’ll be just fine.”

The issue with Gordon over the last eight years has never been talent. His biggest obstacle is staying healthy. He’s played more than 64 games just once in his career, and that occurred as a 20-year-old rookie in 2008-09. If he can stay on the court, his all-around offensive game makes him a solid compliment to Harden.

Young Guys Making A Name For Themselves

Houston’s veterans aren’t the only ones thriving in D’Antoni’s fast-paced scheme. A couple of the team’s young role players are making strong cases for increased roles this season.

Athletic wing K.J. McDaniels was buried on the depth chart under J.B. Bickerstaff last season, but he’s making that decision look like an obvious mistake with his play at both ends.

The 23-year-old is feasting on high-percentage looks, draining 63.2 percent from the field and scoring 10.7 points per game. He’s also improving his outside shooting touch, knocking down 40 percent from deep (albeit on only 1.7 attempts).

The key to McDaniels’ development this year? The frequent flier miles he’s racking up by showing off his impressive hops.

McDaniels has an offensive rating of 117.2 while allowing just 92 points per 100 possessions, culminating in an impressive net rating of plus-25.2. That’s actually slightly higher than Harden (plus-24.2) despite the fact The Beard is fifth-best in offensive rating (126.3). The young wing is also strengthening his reputation as an underrated shot-blocker (1.7 swats per game).

 

The Rockets will trot out a number of different options as Harden’s backcourt sidekick. Patrick Beverley will get the first crack once he’s healthy. Gordon will get some burn when the team needs a scoring boost. However, the combination of McDaniels’ size (6-foot-6, 205 pounds), physical tools (6-foot-11 wingspan, 37-inch vertical) and defensive chops make him a sneaky choice as Harden’s partner.

“He just has to understand he needs to be our best defender,” D’Antoni said, per Feigen. “If he really wants to carve out a great career, be the best defender on the floor and then use your athleticism to rebound, block shots and all that, which he can. He easily can. He has all the tools. Now, he has to put it together.”

Defense will be Clint Capela’s calling card, as well. When Howard went back home to Atlanta, the 22-year-old Swiss shot-blocker seemed to have the starting center job all to himself. Then, the team brought Nene in from Washington to add depth and potentially push the youngster for a spot in the first five.

The added competition seems to have motivated Capela. While he’s still raw offensively, he’s making the most of his opportunities in pick-and-roll situations and transition.

 

Capela is averaging eight points and 7.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game as he’s looking to separate from the 34-year-old Brazilian bruiser. Capela’s biggest advantage will come as a rim-protector, as he’s turning away three shots per game in exhibition.

Harden’s chemistry with Capela is already an improvement from the disconnect with Howard that plagued Houston’s 2015-16 campaign. He won’t see a ton of touches, but the quality looks coming off screens should keep him happy. Rebounding and defense is where Capela will make his mark, provided he can continue to keep Nene on the second unit.

***

Preseason prowess needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, but there’s no denying how impressive Houston has been thus far. The team still needs to prove it can be stout on defense, although they are currently 11th in defensive rating.

Regardless, this should be one of the league’s most exciting teams going forward. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe placed the Rockets 10th in his annual League Pass rankings, while Jeremias Engelmann called Houston one of the most underrated teams in the NBA.

Time will tell whether the Rockets can be championship contenders again. For now, the team’s vaunted offense is living up to the hype.

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