The Rockets have played 41 games of the NBA season, exactly 50 percent of their schedule. They are 30-11, tied for the third-best record in the league, and have weathered injuries to almost every single key player to get there.
What do we do at the halfway point of the school year? We get report cards. So pencils down, exams in, time to hand out some grades:
James Harden: The Beard, before his hamstring strain, was widely considered the MVP frontrunner of the league. He’s still averaging a career-high (and just freaking ridiculous) 32.3 points per game, he’s still averaging north of 9 assists a game and the Rockets are still his team, despite Chris Paul’s strong play in his absence.
Want to know something ridiculous? According to Cleaning the Glass, James Harden is in the 100th percentile in the league in usage rate, in the 100th percentile among guards in points per shot attempt and in the 100th percentile in assist percentage. He’s in the 100th percentile of drawing fouls on the floor and in the 95th percentile of drawing shooting fouls. I’d call him an offensive machine, but he’s more like an offensive Watson: a supercomputer that makes all others seem obsolete by comparison.
That being said, the last stretch without Chris Paul coincided with a string of losing and disconcerting play. Bad habits popped up again. The defense faltered. The Celtics collapse was a painful flashback to the Game-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. With CP3 alongside him, the Beard has flourished. But without him — always a possibility considering the injury history — things have gotten dicier than I’m comfortable with. Grade: A
Chris Paul: The Point God has been every bit as good as advertised. He’s averaging 18.6 points, 9.2 assists and a career-high 5.7 rebounds so far this year. He’s got a +21 net rating and he’s been an unquestioned positive force defensively. When he and Harden are healthy together, Paul’s minutes with the bench are, at full strength, maybe the most lethal stretch of time with any five-man unit in the league. The one knock on him, as it has been in his career since New Orleans, is staying healthy. He’s played 24 out of 41 games, just 59 percent of the total. That’s not nearly enough for a perfect score. Grade: A-
Clint Capela: Anyone who has listened to The Dream Shake podcast knows how highly I think of the Swiss Roll’s ability. His per-36 numbers this year are somehow even more comically productive than last year’s: 19.5 points, 15.3(!) rebounds, 2.4 blocks. He’s leading the league in field goal percentage, and is averaging career bests both shooting at the stripe (59.5 percent) and stopping others from getting there (4 fouls per 36). His minutes are still not exactly where we’d want them to be, but they have gone up. He’s now at 26 per game, up from 23.9 last year, and that’s up to 27 in January. He’s missed some games with random injuries, but he’s on schedule, at still just 23, to be the next great Rockets big man. He’s done everything that could be asked of him to this point. Grade: A
Trevor Ariza: What is there to be said about one of the steadiest players in the league? Here are his scoring averages in the four years of his four-year deal: 12.8, 12.7, 11.7, 12.2. Last year, his three-point shooting dipped to 34 percent, but he’s back up to 37.7 so far, and that’s trending up. Also regrettably trending up: his minutes. He’s at 36.3 per game, his most since his first stint in Houston when he was 24. What the hell, D’Antoni (more on you later). He was a key piece of the D when it was ranked top 10 (it’s down to No. 14 right now), and a key piece of the D he remains. The minutes have got to come down, but that’s out of his control. He’s once again been the Rockets’ rock — he’s missed just two games — but once again not blowing anyone away. Grade: B+
Ryan Anderson: I regret to inform you that the Rynossaince that we saw in the early going of this year did not last. He’s been miserable since the calendar flipped to December, even on the road. His rebounding has gotten worse every month, and he’s shooting just 31 percent from deep since December. This is just the second year of a contract for which he’s owed more than $40 million next year and the year after. The Rockets do not have an actual backup power forward, and they have no hope of trading him for a helpful return. If I were to have written quarter-mark grades, this would have been higher then. But I didn’t, so it’s not. Grade: C-
Eric Gordon: Back to the fun stuff! The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has been so good it’s easy to forget that he’s shooting just 33.7 percent from deep. It hasn’t stopped him from dropping 19.7 points per game, shooting 55.7 percent on twos and, most importantly, being a reliable Swiss Army Knife in the backcourt. Need a starting two guard? Gordon’s comfortable stepping in and dropping numbers on par with the Bradley Beals of the league. Need a backup point to run the offense when one of CP3 or Harden are hurt and Briante Weber’s your only option? The Rockets have gone 4-2 without Harden because Gordon is leading that second unit and it’s working. His defense has slipped somewhat from where it could be, but I’m confident that it will pick up in the playoffs. Grade: A
P.J. Tucker: This is the first really tough one. Tucker’s season has tracked Ryno’s in many ways: he was amazing at the start, helping CP3 to anchor the best damn bench mob in the league. But he’s completely disappeared offensively, and the team’s defense has tanked in the absence of Luc Mbah a Moute, leading me to question exactly how valuable he is on that end (I know he is, just not sure how much. Defense is weird that way). Many nights, he looks like Chuckwagon 2.0, except a better rebounder. He plays with an edge the Rockets need. But you can’t be that helpful if you’re averaging 5.5 points in 27 minutes per game in a D’Antoni offense. He’s shooting just 33.8 percent from deep after shooting 35.7 percent Last year. He’s actually worse in the corners (31 percent), but takes most of his threes from other spots. He’s unquestionably a positive defender and influence, though, and he was a major second-half player last year. He gets some benefit of the doubt, but I’m leery. Grade: B-
Nene: The Big Brazilian is averaging career-lows across the board in his age-35 season. He’s only playing 14.9 minutes per game and has played in just 27 contests so far (he’s been out a week with a knee bruise, without a timetable to return). He looks a full step slower than last year, when he was basically every bit as good as Capela and punished the Thunder’s front line. His absence was a huge reason for the Rockets’ failure against the Spurs. I’m not sure he’s fully recovered from that injury. Despite all that, he’s firmly in my Top 5 of NBA Players who no one wants a piece of, right up there with Zach Randolph and James Johnson (who is literally an undefeated MMA fighter and kickboxer). He’s also in my Top 5 of Rockets whom I trust in the biggest moments of a playoff game, above — still — Clint Capela. But the first half does not include the playoffs. Grade: C+
Luc Mbah a Moute: How do you grade someone who was so superlative while he was on the court that the Rockets looked unbeatable, but who hasn’t played for nearly a month with a shoulder injury and still has no timetable for return? The Rockets were 22-4 when he went down. They’re 8-7 since. Ariza is playing too many minutes because he’s out, Tucker hasn’t been nearly the same player, and Ryno hasn’t been able to sit to clear his head because the Rockets don’t have the bodies to weather his absence. But when LMAM was playing, all was right with the world. He was hitting threes at a 37.3 percent clip, but beyond that, he was driving to the rim with incredible skill (incredible in the sense that I did not believe my eyes), playing ferocious, long-limbed defense and even running the offense at times. Harden was brilliant without CP3 the first go-round, but when Paul missed games alongside LMAM, the team truly fell apart. Get well soon LMAM. Grade: B+
Tarik Black: It’s hard to make an impact in 10 minutes a game, but Black has done it. There hasn’t been a huge team dropoff in play when he’s on the floor in place of Capela. Even more to his credit, he seems to have forgiven Daryl Morey for cutting him instead of Joey Dorsey when he was a rookie. I have tremendously enjoyed his return, and he’s been a more consistent backup, who makes fewer simple defensive mistakes, than Montrezl Harrell was last year. Grade: B
Gerald Green: In the nine games Gerald Green has played since signing with the Rockets Dec. 28, he has taken 74 three-pointers. The 32-year-old Houston native, who looks the same as when he came into the league straight out of high school, fits like a glove within Mike D’Antoni’s system. He’s averaging more than 16 points per game, and he’s been the perfect one-man offense for bench units to take pressure off Eric Gordon. He won’t shoot 45 percent on threes all season as he is right now, but we can’t grade for the future. He’s been stellar offensively, which is what the Rockets need from him. Grade: A-
Briante Weber/Demetrius Jackson/Bobby Brown: I’m lumping these guys together because they were each the third-string ballhandler at some point and, as of an hour or so ago, none of them were still on the team. They all soaked up minutes that were either in garbage time or, more troublingly, ineffective when the game was still undecided. The Rockets were smart to take advantage of the new two-way contract rule, but they used their slots on players who just didn’t pan out. Markel Brown is up next, but the bar is low. Grade: D
Zhou Qi: Oh, Zhou. You are filled with potential. I see so much in your future. But this year is not your year. He’s played 75 total minutes and has shot 4/24 from the field, 2/15 from deep. He challenges a lot of shots, and blocks his fair share — 3 blocks per 36 minutes — but fouls a ton, too. The ability he showed to stick with smaller guys has disappeared in his most recent stints on the court. He stays too upright, preventing him from taking full advantage of his superior footspeed. I still have faith, but he’s every bit the project. Grade: C
Mike D’Antoni: The reigning Coach of the Year is who we thought he was: an offensive genius with flawed philosophies about resting players and rotations. The Rockets’ key guys are all playing too many minutes, but the team is on pace for 60 wins. New pieces have integrated beautifully under his watch, and his willingness to experiment with combinations within his nine or 10 favorite guys has paid off dividends already. But if Harden, Paul, Gordon, Ariza and Capela are a step slow in the playoffs, it will be hard not to point the finger at the coach. The Rockets have been so great under D’Antoni that we are forced to focus on a few flaws. But I’d take this option over Kevin McHale’s general drudgery, or whatever it was people thought Jeff Van Gundy would bring to the table. Just rest the players, Mike. Grade: B