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Things we’ve learned about the Rockets from this past week

The Rockets have been winning. Here’s what we’re quickly learning about this year’s team.

Sacramento Kings v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Houston Rockets have really turned around a season that many thought was about to go south following the trade of James Harden, the second greatest player in the franchise’s history. Winning seven out of their last eight games, the Rockets have moved to over .500 on the season and are surprise contenders for a playoff spot despite many writing them off after January 14. Here’s what we’ve learned about our hometown heroes in red over this past week.

The Rocket are deep and balanced

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Houston currently has four players in its starting lineup averaging over 17 points per game. Christian Wood leads the way with 22 points per night, with newcomer Victor Oladipo second averaging 20.8 points per game, John Wall averaging 18.2 points, and Eric Gordon putting up 17.9.

That’s the first time the Rockets have had that type of balance since the 2009-2010 season, when Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and Carl Landry all averaged 16-plus per night. The Rockets were primarily a top-heavy team in the James Harden era, with one or two stars doing the bulk of the scoring and the ancillary players filling in as needed. It’s been a pleasant switch to see everyone involved.

In Houston’s huge 136-106 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 1, the Rockets finished with seven players in double figures, five of whom finished with at least 15 points. In last night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, four of Houston’s five starters had at least 17 points.

During the Mike D’Antoni era, the Rockets were infamous for their short rotations. D’Antoni rarely went above an eight-man group and sometimes ran an even tighter ship. The seven-man rotation was not unheard of. This new Rockets group, however, can easily go 10-deep, and even more if needed.

There’s the starting five of Wood, Oladipo, Wall, P.J. Tucker, and rookie Jae’Sean Tate, with a bench group that consists of Gordon, David Nwaba, DeMarcus Cousins, Danuel House, and Sterling Brown. When guys miss time, as Nwaba did recently, Ben McLemore and Mason Jones can also play legitimate minutes. The Rockets are essentially 12-deep at this point.

Twelve games post-Harden, and the Rockets have seemingly put the seven and eight-man rotations (non COVID-related) squarely in the rearview mirror. Credit head coach Stephen Silas and staff. Which brings us to...

Stephen Silas can coach

NBA: Houston Rockets at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Though there were some out there pulling for Ty Lue or Jeff Van Gundy, I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t realize that Silas had head coaching chops. It was just a question of whether he was right for this team.

Well, 21 games into his tenure, he’s passes just about every test so far.

He managed the James Harden situation well, always speaking positively of The Beard in public while still giving credit to the rest of his guys. A whining, out-of-shape superstar can be a headache for even the most veteran of coaches, and the rook handled it calm and collective the entire time, which set the tone for the rest of the franchise and its players to remain stable despite the turmoil.

Secondly, as we discussed this past week, Silas made some major adjustments to Houston’s long-held defensive philosophies, and at least so far, they’ve had sparkling results. No longer a switch-everything team, the Rockets now run drop as their base defense, with elements of switching and blitzing involved based on situation. And while it took the guys a little bit of time to get in synch, they are now the top-rated defensive squad in the NBA over the last two weeks and stand second overall on the entire season.

Silas did what good coaches do. He didn’t take his personal philosophy and try to hammer any square pegs into the round holes. What he did was analyze the players on his roster and devise a defense scheme to play into their strengths. That’s a true vet move for a first-time head coach.

And while the Rockets have been a middle of the pack team offensively, standing in 18th place overall in offensive rating, they’ve been moving the ball fast, currently at seventh in the league in pace, and they’ve used a lot of creative actions to get guys involved, something we didn’t see much of as early as a year ago.

The Rockets may no longer have a top-five superstar, but they do have a really good coach who is maximizing his players’ talents and putting his guys in position to win basketball games.

The W.O.W. Factor continues to impress

Washington Wizards v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

The W.O.W. Factor consists of John Wall, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Wood, Houston’s three best players, and it’s been an appropriate nickname up to this point. They’re Houston’s three leading scorers, but they also bring a lot more to the table than just scoring.

Wood has improved so much defensively that he’s now in the top 25 in the league for defensive RPM and should challenge for an All-Star spot and the Most Improved Player award. Wall is clearly the team’s general on the court, leading the team in assists, shooting 38 percent from deep, and is also the Rockets’ emotional heart. Oladipo has fit right in as an athletic two-way and is currently playing some of the best basketball of his career. His current average with the Rockets of 21 points per game would be good enough for the second-highest of his career if it holds. His current 5.2 assists per game would be the highest of his career.

With these three guys leading the way, Houston has thus far exceeded expectations on the season and built a group that enjoys playing with one another, which is obvious on the court. What happens after this season with this group is up in the air, as Oladipo has an expiring deal, while Wall could technically be trade bait with that huge contract and a bounce-back year on the docket. Regardless of that uncertainty, the W.O.W. factor has been an exciting group to watch and should keep things interesting and competitive for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately for the Rockets, Wood re-sprained his ankle last night against Memphis, and there is some worry that he could miss some significant time (2-4 weeks, potentially). That changes the W.O.W. Factor to just a W.O. Factor, but Wood stands to be a key piece for Houston for the foreseeable future.

The Rockets are still experiencing some growing pains

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of positive to discuss here, but it’s also important to remember that this is a team and a coaching staff that is still growing together, and there’s going to be some speedbumps along the way. Wednesday night’s loss to the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder was an ugly one for Houston, but the occasional flat night is to be expected from a group that’s only been together for a short while and are still working on consistency and familiarity. That’s to be expected, and don’t be alarmed. This is a good Rockets team that plays hard and is going to win some games. What they do lack is that superstar to step up and carry them on nights when the rest of the team isn’t playing well. Unfortunately, James Harden circa 2018 isn’t walking back through the door, so Houston will have continue to build chemistry and win games with guile, effort, good coaching, and teamwork. Luckily, this team is well-equipped for that.

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