The Others: Predictions On NBA Awards Not Named MVP

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 6, 2017

There has been more than enough written on the race for this season’s MVP. Kawhi Leonard is making a valiant run at it. LeBron James has put up yet another monster season even by his lofty standards. The award, however, will go to either Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

Your vote depends on what matters to you. Do historically great numbers by an individual at the cost of his teammates matter? Or does a team’s success as a result of a historically great offensive season matter? Westbrook’s season has been beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. My vote, though, goes to James Harden, the player that makes his team better.

Then there are the other awards.

The executive mastermind that assembles the roster and staff to make the magic happen. The rookie that deals with newly found NBA riches, yet stays focused to put up solid numbers. The player who defies common perception about his ability and improves to deliver a breakout season. The defensive specialist, tasked with disrupting the opponent’s game plan. The team’s sixth man, who is tasked with the responsibility to hold fort while its stars rest. The coach, who deftly connects the dots, brings the wins and, hopefully, the championship.

They are not the stars. But they are vital ingredients to the NBA experience. Some we remember. Some we do not. But all are crucial.

Here are my picks for the awards:

Executive of the Year: Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

There’s nothing easy about losing one of the ten greatest players to retirement and still tallying 60+ wins. That’s the mind of RC Buford.

Nothing easy about assembling the perfect team and coach around your star to unleash an offensive juggernaut. That’s the mind of Daryl Morey.

But.

Convincing one of the four best players in the NBA to join you, after your 73-9 record team has beaten him in an epic comeback from being 3-1 down, is near legendary. It can be, and often is, argued that this was entirely Durant’s decision. That would be too simplistic.

At no point in NBA history has a player of Durant’s calibre joined a rival at his career peak. Myers not only convinced Durant to move, he did so at the risk of gutting his roster of key contributors in the run up to the 2015 Championship and the 73-9 record. It is a General Manager’s duty to seek out the best mix of players and coaching staff in the pursuit of a championship. In that regard, Myers made one of the boldest decisions in NBA history. Either he’s a hero for going all in, or a villain for being too greedy. Either he’ll be vindicated with an NBA Championship, or be mocked for trying to game the system. Either ways, the Durant signing required a ton of courage. Something a great number of GMs sadly lack.

Runners Up: Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets), RC Buford (San Antonio Spurs)

Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Everything we saw this summer virtually guaranteed Ben Simmons would lock up the award. Joel “The Process” Embiid was pummelling his way through NBA defences early in the season. Both their campaigns, derailed by injuries, were not meant to be.

In their absence, their promising European teammate Dario Saric is leading nearly every pundit’s column for the the award. However, the impact Brogdon has had in Milwaukee cannot be overlooked. Overall, Saric has better numbers that will swing the vote in his favour. Brogdon, however, has firmly established himself as a threat on both of the floor. He is the only rookie who is a major contributor on a 40 win team.

Runners Up: Dario Saric (Philadelphia 76ers), Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings)

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

This is precariously close to a Bucks’ fan fest. Antetokounmpo’s improvement, however, cannot be overlooked. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, all career highs. He is stuffing stat sheets like very few before him have. This season, he’s tallied career-highs in points (41 vs. Lakers) and blocks (7 vs. Bulls). He has also dropped at least 30 points on both the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

Most importantly though, Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the third best record (15-7) since the All Star break. Despite losing key players to injuries during the season, the Bucks are taking care of business during the home stretch, quietly moving into fifth place in the East. Given a couple more seasons, the Greek Freak will lift himself out of this awards list into the conversation for MVP.

Runners Up: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Otto Porter Jr (Washington Wizards)

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert is a throwback to the old-school defensive big man. The 7’1” center has a 7’9” wingspan, the longest in the NBA. That wingspan is a big (pun intended) reason behind the Utah Jazz’ league’s best defence for most of the season. It’s only in the home stretch that the Jazz have fallen behind the Spurs and Warriors stifling defence.

Gobert leads the league averaging 2.7 blocks per game. Opponents are also making just 45.5% of their shots against him when within 10 feet of the rim, a league leading number. Both Leonard and Green have mounted considerable competition to Gobert’s campaign. While they are exceptional individual defenders, Gobert’s mere presence on the floor completely alters an opponent team’s game plan.

Runners Up: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

This will most likely be the easiest of awards. Gordon is head and shoulders above the rest of this sixth men this season. Despite his reduced role, he’s averaging 16.4 points, his best since the 2013-14 season. Thanks to Harden’s brilliance, Gordon is pulling up for 3-pointers 8.8 times a game, third in the league behind Harden and Curry. His biggest contribution is efficiently keeping the second unit in the game, allowing Harden to rest for extended periods of time, thus saving his legs for the playoffs. That alone should qualify Gordon for the sixth-man award.

Runners Up: Zach Randolph (Memphis Grizzlies), Enes Kanter (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

You you make a case for at least five, if not more, coaches here. D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into an unstoppable juggernaut, Snyder is working with a motley crew of individuals that quietly snagged the fourth seed in the West. Stevens knocked on the No. 1 seed in the East led by a 5’9” guard. Spolestra lost his championship winning trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh over the course of two seasons and made the playoff despite starting the season 11-30. Give the award to any of these four, and you’d be justified. It is confusing. And when it’s confusing, give the award to Popovich.

In the face of having just one All-Star, losing his team leader to retirement and trotting out an aging roster, Pop has still managed to deliver the first back-to-back 60+ win season in the history of the franchise.

If he does wrap up this award, he will be the first NBA coach to have won it four times (he has won it in ‘03, ‘12, ‘14). Fitting for one of the three greatest NBA coaches ever.

Runners Up: Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets), Quinn Snyder (Utah Jazz), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat)

The Race For The 2017 NBA MVP Is Closer Than We Think

At least, six players have a solid case to win the award this year and none of them are Stephen Curry.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 6, 2017

We are one year removed from the first time the NBA crowning its first ever unanimous regular season Most Valuable Player. We may not be that lucky this year.

Stephen Curry, also MVP in 2015, averaged 30.1 points a game and led the Golden State Warriors to a historic regular season, tallying a record 73 wins in 82 games. The season would have been capped with a Championship, had the Warriors’ quest not been thwarted by an equally historic, record-breaking comeback by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, things are quite different. At the time of writing this, there are at least six players that have a solid case to win regular season MVP. Two-time MVP Curry, isn’t one of them. Nor is 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.

The case for MVP is simple. If Player X were not to suit up for Team X, would Team X, (a) win as many, if not more games, and (b) make the playoffs?. For Curry, his incredibly talented (and now partially injured) Warriors’ roster, works against his case for MVP this season. Without Curry, a core of Durant/Green/Thompson can, most certainly win as many (if not more) games and would most likely be the favourites to win the title, let alone make the playoffs. Replace Durant with Curry, and you have the 2015 and 2016 Warriors, who were NBA Champions and finalists respectively.

Even without Curry and Durant, the Warriors’ have the luxury of trotting out Livingston/Thompson/Green/Igoudala/Pachulia as their death line-up with Ian Clark (who has been great for them) and David West coming off the bench. That’s a 40-win playoff team in the West in this season (Denver Nuggets, seeded eighth is on pace to finish with 37 wins). There is no doubt that both Curry and Durant rank among the ten best basketball players alive, but is their impact on the Warriors’ more than, say…

6. Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs

(25.9 PPG / 3.4 APG / 5.9 RPG / 1.8 SPG / 49%-38%-89% Shooting splits: Field Goal %, 3-point %, Free Throw %)

Leonard’s rise from 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been spectacular. His numbers have soared in the season following the Trophy, and this season is no different. With Tim Duncan gone, much of Spurs’ offence now runs through Leonard, making him the target of double teams every night. Leonard has adjusted well, breaching the 25 ppg mark, a career high, despite a slight dip in his shooting numbers (51-44-87 last season). However, ever since he was blessed with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft, Popovich has only seen winning seasons (Winning season = more wins than losses in the regular season and vice versa). While much of the Spurs’ success can be attributed to Duncan, Pop gets due credit for steadying the boat against the tide of an aging roster for years. As great as he is, and will continue to be, Leonard needs Pop as he leads the Spurs to the second best record in the NBA and their quest for a sixth title. Unlike…

5. John Wall on the Washington Wizards

(22.7 PPG / 10.8 APG / 4.5 RPG / 2.0 SPG / 45%-32%-82%)

Wall’s style is similar to that of another great point guard, Chris Paul. He is a pass-first defensive point guard who can score when he needs to take over the game. After six seasons of wading through mediocre, inconsistent rosters, Wall finally has the healthy and competitive roster he needs to complement his talent. The proof? Wall is averaging a career high 10.8 assists per game, second only to fellow MVP candidate, James Harden. Wall’s also leads the Wizards with 22.7 points per game and 2.0 steals per game, both career highs. Under his leadership, the Wizards overcame a mediocre start to the season (16-16 through 31-Dec), to become one of just four teams with 20 wins in 2017 (other teams being GSW, SAS and BOS). Wall’s importance to the Wizards is also evident in the fact that the Wizards are nearly 13 points worse (per 100 possessions) when Wall isn’t on the floor. Even with a healthy Bradley Beal, a breakout season by Otto Porter Jr. and a fast rising Kelly Oubre Jr., it is hard to imagine the Wizards enjoying much success without Wall. Much like…

4. Isaiah Thomas on the Boston Celtics

(29.4 PPG / 6.2 APG / 2.7 RPG / 46%-38%-91%)

The last time the NBA had a more prolific fourth quarter scorer? Never. The 5’9” Thomas is scoring a league-leading 10.8 ppg in the fourth quarter. What seemed like an anomaly at first, is now become routine for the Celtics and Thomas. Anomalies do not last 62 games into the season. Opponents do not matter, as evidenced by his late three against the reigning NBA Champions. Thomas thrives in the big moment and enjoys the pressure that comes with being “the man” in the fourth quarter. However, while this works in the regular season, Thomas and the Celtics will need a sturdier strategy in the playoffs. With refs letting the lighter fouls slip by, a seasoned defensive team like the Cavaliers will get physical with Thomas much before he touches the ball. Couple that with Thomas’ height as a defensive liability (Celtics defensive rating touches a league leading 101.8 when Thomas is off the floor as opposed to 113.0 when he’s on it.), and you have a team that desperately needs a bigger, more physical player to step up in the clutch. That reminds us of…

3. Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder

(31.7 PPG / 10.1 APG / 10.7 RPG / 42%-34%-84%)

Video game numbers. It’s the only way to describe what Westbrook is putting up this season. It’s been a few decades (55 years to be precise) since an NBA player averaged a triple double for a whole season. With just 20 games to go, a repeat of that glorious feat is very real. Westbrook has given new meaning to the term triple-double threat. One could argue that these numbers are warranted in light of the mediocre team that Westbrook has been given. That’s a fair assumption, considering that the Thunder are a league-leading 14 points worse when Westbrook is not on the floor.

Historically, however, there has never been an MVP whose team has not finished in the top four of their conference. Even Iverson, whose style of play can be compared to Westbrook’s this season, led the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the best record and No. 1 seed in the East. So as great as Westbrook’s season is, he isn’t…

2. LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers

(25.9 PPG / 8.9 APG / 8.0 RPG / 54%-40%-69%)

The famous saying, “He plays chess, while the rest play checkers”, could very well be about LeBron James. Take another look at James’s career numbers and you will realize that, barring his rookie season, they are the epitome of consistency. It is astonishing that at age 32 and season 14, James has found a way to average a career high 8.9 apg while playing 37.6 minutes a game (second behind Kyle Lowry). That spike in assists can either be attributed to the Cavaliers’ lack of depth at point guard, or chalked up to James’ greatness. Except for the slump a few weeks ago (where they lost 7 of 11 games), the Cavaliers continue to play like NBA Champions and look primed to repeat under James’ leadership. Unless their plans are derailed by…

1. James Harden on the Houston Rockets 

(28.8 PPG / 11.3 APG / 8.0 RPG / 44%-35%-85%)

Happy Harden equals Happy NBA Fans. Harden’s ability to score was never in doubt. What is unexpected is this outburst of scoring, not seen in the NBA since the late 70’s / early 80’s when defenses were absent, and nearly every possession was an open layup. Harden’s shot chart, looks like a one-eyed smiling monster. Scoring 50 points in a single game is a herculean task in itself. Harden’s taken it a step further by dropping not one, but two 50-point triple-doubles this season. Harden has proven that the Rockets can make a deep playoff run with him as the best players. On any other team he is just another great scorer. On the 2016-17 season, Rockets assembled precisely for Harden? He is a probable NBA Champion.

My pick for the 2017 NBA MVP: James Harden.

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

Are The Rockets Set To Take Off In The NBA?: Harden And Houston Having Fun

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 19, 2016

This is the most fun Houston Rockets’ James Harden has had in years. Even by his admission.

“I’ve been having fun all year, even in games we lose,” the NBA’s assist leader said in a blowout 126-109 win over the Portland Trailblazers. “This is a special group of guys, coaching staff included, and this locker room is definitely enjoying this ride right now.”

And what a ride it has been.

Harden, the eight-year veteran, picked third by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 Draft, is carving up NBA defences, doing so effectively and, more importantly, efficiently. Averaging a near triple-double, Harden’s 28.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 12.5 assists per game make him an even bigger all-round offensive threat, with NBA teams unable to figure out how to contain him when he’s firing on all cylinders.

Those rebounding and assists numbers are career highs by some margin*, yet have barely eaten into his offensive efficiency as he continues to score the ball at a near career-high* while shooting 47% from the field and 37% from three-point land, both career highs for Harden as a Houston player.

Things were not this rosy as recently as eight months ago.

After barely scraping through into the 2016 Playoffs**, the Rockets were pitted against a historic Golden State Warriors team, that would have swept them, if not for a game winning three pointer in Game 3 at Houston by none other than, well, James Harden.

That Houston made the 2016 Playoffs, was in itself a surprise. Discord plagued the team’s locker rooms right from the start of the season as the Rockets began with a dismal 4-7 record***. Harden, the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up, showed up for the season disinterested, his fitness (or lack thereof) and body language, making that message loud and clear. Dwight Howard, brought in to be the cornerstone of a dynasty that Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey was trying to build, did not help matters as he too played accomplice to the lethargy of the Rockets’ star. The organisation reacted by firing Kevin McHale and replacing him with J.B. Bickerstaff, the former assistant coach.

That move rejuvenated Harden, who went on to post career highs in nearly all categories, and the rest of the team. They still struggled during the season, finding their groove in spurts, but eventually stumbled over the Playoffs finish line.

The Mike D’Antoni masterstroke

It was, however, in the summer of 2016 that Morey did his best work as Rockets GM this far. Recognising the offensive force that Harden is, Morey decided to switch directions and create an offensive powerhouse in Houston. In addition to locking up Harden with a four-year, $118 million contract, he snagged Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two prolific scorers capable of dropping 30 on a given night. But the master stoke was hiring Michael. That is Mike D’Antoni for the uninitiated.

One of the greatest offensive masterminds to walk the sidelines, D’Antoni’s penchant for quick possessions and blistering offense makes the Rockets the perfect team for him.

D’Antoni’s check list:

  • Highly skilled offensive wingmen – 2. Check.
  • Aggressive big men to set screens and crash the board – 2. Check.
  • Reliable and Effective bench guys – 3 to 4. Check.
  • All-Star Point Guard to spearhead the offensive juggernaut – 1. Double check.

And that’s why this is working.

Offensively, the Rockets feature in the top 10 in nearly every category. They are scoring 108.9 points a game (fourth in the NBA), are shooting 46.4% from the field (fourth) and 37.4% from deep (fifth), and, thanks to Harden’s new found confidence in running an offense, 60.8 % of their baskets have come from assists, good for seventh in the league. More importantly, they have achieved all this with a +/- efficiency of 3.8 (10th).

A mild cause for worry would be their pace (possessions per 48 minutes), which at 99.77 puts the Rockets at just above the middle of the pack ranked at 13th.

Then, there is the Rockets’ defence.

Defensively, the Rockets are still below average. It does not help that the team let go of Howard, brought on two wingmen (Gordon and Anderson) who are not exactly known for their defensive abilities, and a coach who heavily favours the “offence is our defence” strategy.

Trevor Ariza’s 2.3 steals per game (fourth in the NBA) and Clint Capela’s 1.8 blocks per game (11th) keep the Rockets somewhat honest on defence. However, the team can barely hold its opponents to 105 points per game (17th), and gets scorched for 45.4 % from the field (20th).

There is some hope.

Defensive specialist, Patrick Beverly is back and suited up against the Portland Trail Blazers. That should take care of any defensive slack on the second unit. And although he is on the wrong side of 30, the Rockets will take any defensive intensity that veteran Nene brings to the team.

It is important to remember that, the Rockets’ still have to gel as a seamless unit to ensure a smoother flow on offence and better communication on defence. That responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of Mike D’Antoni, and one of the most prolific offensive guards the NBA has ever seen, Harden.

At least, this time around he is having fun.

*His previous career highs: 29.0 ppg, 7.5 apg and 6.1 rpg (2015-16)

**Houston and Utah were tied for a playoff spot up until their last regular season game

***Fresh off a 56-win 2014-15 season, and taking care of both Dallas (4-1) and LA (4-3) before falling to the eventual champions, Warriors (4-1).