Can the Rockets Make it to the NBA Finals?

It starts and ends with defense.

The Houston Rockets are third in numberFire’s team power rankings with a team efficiency rating of 69.6 - 5th offensively and 12th defensively. They're 49-25 (albeit in the midst of a three-game losing streak), which places them second in their division and fourth in the Western Conference. They have the sixth-best record in the NBA, and are very good at home (21 games over .500). They are, however, mediocre on the road, and championship teams need to find a way to win away from home.

But all in all, the Rockets are a potential championship-caliber team, ranking sixth per numberFire with respect to their chances of winning an NBA championship this year (8.6% chance).

Come playoff time, they'll be a difficult opponent for anyone to deal with based on their offensive weapons alone. The options include James Harden, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin - two superstars, one budding All-Star and two solid offensive contributors. The offense is fantastic.

The more difficult question is whether the Rockets are built to defend and beat the other elite teams in the NBA: Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Oklahoma City. And those just happen to be the five teams that are ranked ahead of them in terms of likelihood to win an NBA championship this year.

The Rockets have split their season series with the Heat and the Pacers (1-1 against both), and they're 3-0 against the Spurs. The Clippers and Thunder, however, have been problematic, as the Rockets are 0-7 against the two squads. Since it’s highly unlikely that you can escape the West without facing the Clippers or the Thunder, one would have to ask: what’s the problem?

The Beard is Part of the Problem

James Harden is having a difficult time against both the Clippers and the Thunder this season. He’s shooting 36.2% and averaging 19.3 points per contest against the Clippers, and shooting 37% and averaging 17.3 points against the Thunder. His season average against all teams is 25 points per game, and he’s shooting over 46% from the field. Harden, for example, has been dominating the Spurs this year to the tune of 29.5 points per game through three games.

A clearer example of how much he's struggled is shown when you look at Harden’s true shooting percentage. Against the Spurs he's shooting 68%, while on the season against all opponents Harden is shooting 62%. However, he is a pretty pedestrian 47.3% and 49.4% against the Clippers and Thunder.

For the Rockets to really compete at the highest level, this problem will have to be solved. Harden will probably have to play at a level similar to what we saw with Dirk Nowitzki during the Mavericks championship run in 2010-2011. As many will recall, Nowitzki was on fire during that run and through 21 games, averaging 27.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, while shooting 48.5% from the field (with a true shooting percentage of 61%).

That's the type of dominance Harden will have to display against all teams if the Rockets are going to make a run this year to the NBA championship. Last year, Harden didn't struggle against either team, and as a bona fide superstar he is capable of finding his stride against one or both teams.

Point Guard Issues

The Rockets are 36-16 with Patrick Beverley in the starting lineup this season. In those games, Beverly has averaged 9.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists. In contrast, with Jeremy Lin as the starting point guard, the Rockets are 18-10, as Lin averages 14.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists on the season. The statistics support what I think many people observe - Lin is an upgrade on the offensive end, but Beverley creates more difficulties for opponents on the defensive end.

Numbers help support this further by showing that the Rockets are +5.1 in points scored with Beverley on the court as a starter, while with Lin they are only +2.3. Beverley also only averages 1.1 turnovers per game as a starter versus 2.9 by Lin, and Beverley posts 1.4 steals as a starter (slightly above Lin).

This is not Rocket science (ah, I crack myself up), but I do think the numbers show that Beverley makes the Rockets a tougher team to compete against, which means he should help their playoff chances. This obviously makes it very important for Beverley to return healthy from a recent meniscus tear that he suffered.

Where Do They Finish?

The Rockets, as of today, would face the challenge of beating the Portland Trailblazers in the first round. Then, if they prevailed, they would likely face the San Antonio Spurs. Finally, if they were to reach the Western Conference Finals, they would probably face either the Thunder or the Clippers. It looks like a daunting task even just reading it.

Looking at my crystal ball, do I really see them reaching the NBA finals this year? Not really. They need another year of seasoning under their belt and to shore up the defense. Out of the last 10 NBA champions, all but one has been in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Setting aside the one outlier, it doesn’t seem like being 12th in defensive efficiency (as we touched on earlier) is going to get the job done for this team.

It means that they can be exploited offensively by a team like the Clippers or Thunder. On top of that, the Rockets best player just hasn't been very good against either of those teams this year. And finally, the Rockets really don’t have a chance without a healthy Beverley and that’s up in the air right now. It will sound simple but defense wins championships, and the Rockets don’t have the right blend as of today.