Why The Houston Rockets Can Win The 2015-16 NBA Championship

Yes, I’m going to be that guy the year.

Every year, someone makes a title prediction that blows everyone out of the water. Usually it’s a case that while may seem ridiculous on the surface, holds a lot of credence and makes a lot of sense. People just either aren’t willing to listen to or can’t fathom it because they haven’t considered the possibility of that team getting past the 2nd round. For the Rockets, one can argue it’s both.

Last year, Ethan Sherwood Strauss was that guy.

For those of you who don’t already know Ethan, he’s an ESPN writer based in the Bay Area covering the Golden State Warriors. What you may not know about him, is that he picked the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA title last year. Well duh, right? After a 67-win season, anyone with half a brain had Golden State as heavy title favorites heading into the playoffs.

Well, this was different…

Interestingly enough, Ethan had the Warriors pinned to win the title back in October – before they had even played a single regular season game. You could say he was a bit of an outlier.

Well, June came and went and we all know how Ethan’s prediction turned out:

Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; The Golden State Warriors celebrate with the Larry O

I bring up Ethan primarily because I want you to have an open mind while reading this, but also because I see many parallels between both franchises that may not seem so obvious to some.

 

Redefined Offense

Before last season, the Warriors didn’t have nearly the stellar offense they run now under Steve Kerr. Mark Jackson’s offense was quite stale in comparison, consisting of isolation-heavy basketball with little to no complexity, ball movement or fluidity. This resulted in Golden State finishing the 2013-2014 season 12th in offensive efficiency. They desperately lacked imagination on the offensive end.

October 29, 2014; Sacramento, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr (left) and associate head coach Alvin Gentry (right) watch from the sideline during the second quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena. The Warriors defeated the Kings 95-77. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In came Kerr and assistant coach (now head coach of the Pelicans) Alvin Gentry. Kerr and Gentry had previously worked together in Phoenix along with offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni and helped craft what would come to be known as the most influential offense in the modern NBA era. D’Antoni brought with him an innovative style of offense (nicknamed “seven seconds or less”) that consisted of various pick-and-roll sets, plenty of three-point shooting, and most importantly a very fast pace. This style of play worked brilliantly with Golden State and helped them achieve the 2nd best offense in the NBA last season along with the fastest pace.

Last year’s Rockets also struggled a bit to get points on the board, but for different reasons. With the loss of sixth man Jeremy Lin and starting forward Chandler Parsons, the Rockets fell from 4th in the league in offensive efficiency to 12th. This was due to the lack of secondary shot creation around James Harden. Harden was forced to carry a large part of the offensive burden resulting in limited offensive creativity and mediocre offense overall. Houston was in desperate need of a second shot creator.

Here’s how bad the Rockets offense was when Harden was on the bench:

 

Offensive Rating (The higher, the better):

James Harden on the floor: 107.7

James Harden off the floor: 93.7

 

Sep 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Ty Lawson (3) during media day at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This is where Ty Lawson comes into play for the Rockets. I’ve written extensively about why Lawson just makes perfect sense for Houston. Lawson immediately takes a large load off of Harden’s shoulders as he is statistically one of the best creators in the NBA today (ranked 7th in points created last year).

He also fits perfectly into this offense as he likes to run and push the pace, and the Rockets were already 2nd in pace last year behind Golden State. To top it all off, Lawson is amazing at finding guys for open three-pointers (3rd in the league – Harden was 1st) and the Rockets shot and made the most three-pointers in the NBA last season. You couldn’t have asked for much of a better fit. You can foresee this offense making it’s way back to top-five status with Lawson and continuity alone. Familiarity with other players and the playbook helps a lot.

 

Solid Defensive Foundation

Another important element that Golden State had already established coming into last season was a strong defensive foundation. The Warriors were 3rd in defensive efficiency in 2013-2014 and Steve Kerr made it a point to build off of this while adding several different schemes. The notable key adjustment he made was inserting Defensive Player of The Year candidate Draymond Green into the starting lineup in place of former incumbent All-Star forward David Lee. This, along with several other complex schemes and factors (running others off the three-point lines, switching on PnR situations, healthy Bogut etc..) led to the Warriors achieving the best defense in the league by a fairly decent margin (98.2 defensive efficiency).

May 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots the basketball against Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the fourth quarter in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Rockets 104-90 to advance to the NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Coincidentally, Houston also has a strong established defensive identity heading into next season. Going into last season, head coach Kevin McHale and assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff focused on making a large jump on the defensive end which they managed to achieve with the help of several key additions (Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, etc..).

I’m going to give you another stat to chew on.

 

Defense Rating (The lower, the better):

Dwight Howard on the floor: 97

Dwight Howard off the floor: 105.1

 

Take that in for a second. The impact Dwight Howard has on the floor when he’s healthy is massive. His rim-protection ability is almost unmatched. What if I told you the Rockets managed to post a top-six defense even with Dwight Howard missing a staggering 41 games? Can you imagine how good this defense could be if Dwight just managed to play 75-80% of the season? This is of course, not taking into account a healthy Patrick Beverley who also missed 26 games last year. This is the biggest reason I have Houston pegged to become a top-five, possibly even top-three defense next year.

 

Improved Bill of Health

We all know Golden State was fortunate enough to go through the entire regular season and playoffs without running into any significant injuries. Unless you count a brief stint where Andrew Bogut was out with a minor knee injury and David Lee at the beginning of the season who barely managed to get on the floor for the Warriors anyways, Golden State was fairly injury free. This is obviously a big reason they managed to be as successful as they were last season and go on to win a championship. Health matters. This is one of the reasons why many former players stress that it takes a bit of luck to go all the way because you can’t always predict when an injury will derail your season.

While I can’t guarantee that Houston will be as lucky with injuries, I can say that it’s pretty hard to replicate how injury riddled the Rockets were last season. Houston was absolutely ravaged by injuries last year which makes them that much harder to judge. Nobody knows how good this current iteration of the Rockets can be because we haven’t seen them healthy for long stretches. With that being said, they still managed to make it to the Western Conference Finals with two key starters missing.

 

Veteran Leadership

Every championship contender has it’s veterans. The guys that have been around the block and know what it takes to reach the absolute top of the mountain. The guys that are vocal in the film room, instill a hard work ethic into a team, and the guys that aren’t afraid to pull you aside and tell you the truth – whether it’s in practice or in a live game.

For Golden State, it was Leandro Barbosa, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Marreese Speights. For Houston it’s Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Dwight Howard, Marcus Thornton, and of course, Jason Terry. These are often the unspoken heroes in championship runs. They’re the guys that can get a team together after a loss and figure out what they did wrong and also the guys that can temper excitement and keep the team focused during long winning streaks.

 

Continuity

Continuity is one of those things that’s hard to quantify in team development. Sometimes it may show up in the numbers that a team is playing significantly better together than last year and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s usually one of those things that you have to judge with your eyes. Golden State definitely felt the positive effects of continuity last year when they brought back the same roster as last year except Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa.

Houston is also poised to feel the positive effects of continuity this year as they have also chose to bring back all of their significant pieces (except for Josh Smith) and have only added Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton. This not only helps build a strong locker room environment,  but also on the floor with chemistry.

I’m not alone in picking Houston to win it all next year. Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey had this to say to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“This is the first time I feel like, without any changes, we’re good enough to win it.”

I’m well aware of what kind of can of worms I’m opening upon myself when picking Houston to win it all, but I’ve looked over the roster, the numbers, and the history before writing this and it all comes back the same. Barring any significant injury, Houston in a serious position to win the NBA championship.

Stick with us here at House of Houston for all your Rockets off season coverage.