1. The Rockets will go as far as James Harden and Dwight Howard can take them
Perhaps lost in all the preseason excitement and hype surrounding the Rockets' new-found depth is that the NBA is still, and always will be, a superstars' league. Of course, having the right mix of talent alongside the stars is also important, which is, of course, where Ty Lawson, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverley and Marcus Thornton come in. But make no mistake: Harden and Howard drive this team's ultimate success or ultimate failure.
In the Rockets' three losses so far this season, Harden is averaging 18.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 4.0 turnovers per game on an abysmal 22.2 percent shooting from the field and 9.3 percent (yes, you read correctly) from downtown. He's also gotten to the free throw line an average of 10.3 times per game in those losses.
In the Rockets' two wins, Harden has averaged 32.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.5 turnovers on 37.5 percent shooting and 26.0 percent from the line. He's gotten to the line an average of 14 times per game in the victories.
His percentages in the victories still aren't great, but what this shows is that the supporting cast is good enough to win a lot of nights when Harden is just merely mediocre instead of downright awful. Once he finds his full rhythm and range, the Rockets can be deadly.
It also shows that Harden and the Rockets are better when he is concentrating on scoring, and leaves the assist making to Ty Lawson, the man brought in specifically for that purpose. Harden's assists may be down in the two Houston victories, but they have been inversely proportionate to Lawson's assist production. Lawson's averaged 5 assists in the three losses, but 9.5 in the two wins.
Harden's free throw attempts are also up significantly in the wins, further illustrating that it's better across the board when The Beard makes scoring his number one priority and leaves the distributing to Lawson.
As Harden slowly regains his shooting touch and develops more chemistry with Lawson, the Rockets should find even more success. Harden said in the offseason that he was looking forward to playing off the ball more, and the early returns have shown that the more he puts his money where his mouth is, the better off the entire squad will be. As team leader and the Rockets' premiere player, these developments all start with The Beard.
As for Howard, he was inactive for two of the three Rockets losses, and in the one game he did play, he looked exactly like a man playing his first basketball in weeks. He scored just 9 points on 4-11 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds and 2 assists in the blow out loss to Golden State.
But in the two wins, Howard has averaged 19.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist and 2.0 blocks on 69.5 percent shooting, including a perfect 10-10 night against the Orlando Magic.
You can see Howard slowly developing a chemistry with Lawson as well, as Howard's perfect night against his old team consisted primarily of a litany of alley-oops fed to him by the Rockets new stud point guard. As Dwight gets healthier, in better game shape, and continues to gel alongside Lawson, they have the potential to become the most devastating pick and roll combination in the league.
We've said all along that the Rockets just needed on-court time to come together, and we're slowly but surely beginning to see those results. But it all starts, and ends, with the Rockets' two superstars.
2. Marcus Thornton is a perfect fit for this system
The nuances of the Houston offensive system make it an ideal opportunity for a sharp-shooting wing man. Harden's drives and Howard's post game open up plenty of open perimeter shots, and the Rockets have been devoid of anything other than average shooters from deep in the entire Harden/Howard era. Thornton changes that.
Granted, Thornton, like most downtown snipers, can be streaky at times, and we have yet to see (and curse at) one of his sure-to-come 1-8 or 2-13 nights, but through the first week and a half of the season, Thornton's play has been a nice surprise, and his ability to make teams pay for giving most of their attention to Harden and Howard is one of the catalysts to kick starting an offense that was stuck in neutral to start the year.
Since being moved into the starting lineup three games ago, Thornton has averaged 17.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 47.7 percent shooting from the field, including 45.0 percent from downtown in averaging 3.0 threes per game.
He's never been a great defensive player, and despite having a few nice moments on that side of the ball, he's been a negative defensive player so far for the Rockets. But for now, his contributions on the offensive side and his great shooting from deep have more than offset his defensive deficiencies. The Rockets are 2-1 with Thornton as a starter.
3. The power forward position is still a problem
As the Rockets wait patiently for the return of Donatas Motiejunas, the power forward spot has devolved into in a position Rockets fans know all too well: the weak link on the team.
Terrence Jones is currently out indefinitely with a bad cut on his eyelid (seriously, how is one player continuously hit with such strange injuries over and over again?) leaving the Rockets to start normal swingman Trevor Ariza at the four.
Rookie Montrezl Harrell has shown promise (along with typical rookie issues in poor defensive rotations and being foul-prone), but his inability to shoot outside the paint and provide the spacing this offense needs to thrive has left him virtually unplayable alongside either Howard or Clint Capela.
When Jones and Motiejunas return with their shooting range, expect the Rockets to find some minutes for Harrell somewhere in the front court, but in the meantime, it's up to Ariza to continue to play spackle at the power forward slot until the reinforcements arrive.
The multiple injuries (Jones, Motiejunas, Howard and Beverley have all missed complete or partial games so far this season) have forced Kevin McHale into tinkering with lineups perhaps more than he would like, as the team is still looking to fully establish an on-court identity that only comes with time.
But the turnaround to the slow start has already begun, and with more time together on the court and the return of several key rotation players also yet to come, the Rockets look like they can still blossom into the title contender we all figured them for in preseason.