We’ve seen all this before. And it was not so long ago.
On Tuesday night, with his Houston Rockets up 2 against the streaking Portland Trail Blazers, a little more than three minutes on the clock, James Harden made a three. A few possessions later, he made another. The Rockets won 115-111 to go to 57-14 on the season, best in the NBA and four games up on the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. On both shots, Harden took what would have been called hero ball shots in another context. No other Rocket touched the ball; everyone in the arena knew what Harden would do, and how. Harden has made these shots his signature and his team’s by finding success where others have found only stacks of Rudy Gay box scores. And while the league has come to view the shot as not just unguardable but reliable, it has at times waffled on whether Harden’s team can be trusted. Funny, given the recent history of ascendant teams led by star guards with an unguardable shot.
Just a few seasons ago, a team was led by two star guards who hadn’t found much success in the postseason thanks to a history of injuries and bad fortune. It featured a young big man who anchored the defense and epitomized a key facet of modern offenses. It boasted a sixth man who would have been a featured starter on practically any other team, a roster loaded down with dead-eye marksmen and a fleet of versatile wings who could switch assignments and not fall down. This team won the NBA title.
(Key: Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre, just about everyone else, and the top-ranked 2014-15 defense.)
The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors were an unexpected development. The team had won 51 games the previous season under then-coach Mark Jackson, and the roster was largely unchanged coming into that season. Once the season began, however, it was clear that something was very different. Golden State won 21 of its first 23 games and finished the season with 67 wins, ranked first in defensive rating and, importantly, second in offensive rating, up from 12th the season before. Yet a broad set of NBA observers doubted that a team playing the way the Warriors did could win a title, even after they’d already won it.
This season, the Rockets ran out to a 25-4 record before losing seven of nine games. In each of the losses, they were missing Harden, Chris Paul or Clint Capela. Since then, Houston has lost just three times in 33 games. FiveThirtyEight’s projections expect the Rockets to win 67 games total, up from their tally of 55 last season. They have the top-rated offense not just this season, but for as long as Basketball-Reference.com has been keeping track. They sneak into the top 10 on defense this season as well, an improvement on 18th the previous season. They’re flat good. But you know that by now. What’s important here is that when a team is this good, regardless of what its doubters say, the question isn’t whether it has arrived but whether it will win the title or merely its conference.
There are a few ways to slice this. Since 1983-84, this year’s Houston team ties for 20th among all teams in net rating (the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) through 71 games. That’s a bigger deal than it may seem, for a few reasons. First, the teams ahead of this season’s Rockets are immensely accomplished. They include four Michael Jordan teams, three Tim Duncan teams, two Laker teams — one Shaq and Kobe, another Magic and Kareem — one Kevin Garnett Celtics team and, of course, the past three versions of the Golden State Warriors. In general, teams at Houston’s level at least win the conference. The teams that didn’t make the finals tended to have extenuating circumstances. The 2012-13 Thunder, for instance, were the top seed in the West but lost Russell Westbrook in the first round and fell to Memphis in the second. The 2011-12 Chicago Bulls lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose in the first game of the first round. And the 2015-16 Spurs faced an exceptionally high level of competition, losing in the second round to a Thunder team that went up 3-1 on the Warriors.1
Net rating isn’t the only factor in which Houston is dominating, and as Benjamin Morris wrote for FiveThirtyEight a few seasons back, margin of victory is actually far less predictive in the playoffs than it is in the regular season. In fact, it’s Houston’s wins that make it a playoff force. In the postseason, the difference between two teams’ win totals is much more predictive than margin of victory. If the Rockets finish with 67 wins and the Warriors finish with their projected 61, Morris’s data from his 2016 article suggests that given home court advantage, Houston would win a series 70 percent of the time — even if the two teams were dead-even on margin of victory.
The Rockets may not be quite as good as the Warriors were in that first season or as Golden State was in the 73-win 2015-16 campaign. But, then, neither are this year’s Warriors. The team’s injury troubles and continuing sloppiness have turned it into a merely dominant team, not an all-time one. Even if we grant the Warriors a few extra victories because their injury problems have been worse than Houston’s, it would make a prospective series between the two a coin flip, not heavily slanted toward Golden State.
And like the Warriors, the Rockets aren’t simply unguardable as a team: They have a player who has mastered an unguardable manner of playing. Harden doesn’t have the same switchblade release as Curry — he can’t dart around a ball screen and have a shot in the air before his man can turn his head. What Harden can do is get just about any switch he wants, thanks to the level at which he and Paul are running the pick and roll, and then, in isolation, he can walk into his now-trademark step-back threes.
The pull-up three is increasingly a staple of modern offenses, as defenses have adjusted to the off-ball maneuvering that good offenses use to free up shooters. Harden leads the league in pull-up threes per game, taking 8.0 and making 39.0 percent of them. Paul is third on the list, taking 5.2 per game and making 38.5 percent of them.2 As a team, the Rockets are taking 16.5 pull-up threes per game and making 35.9 percent. The next-closest team, the Los Angeles Clippers, takes 10.0 per game. Even if its primary pick-and-roll engine sputters, Houston has an entire extra, independent dimension to carry its offense through dry spells, like Curry’s pull-ups or like Kevin Durant’s mastery of contested shots in last summer’s finals.
Nothing the Rockets could do this season would make them meaningful favorites to most NBA fans against a healthy Warriors team in the playoffs. Nothing the Warriors could do would do that, either. That’s probably correct: There are many things most projection systems, like FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-Elo, can’t spot, such as player injury, which undermine the edge Houston holds by the numbers. Golden State is a dominant champion with what is now a considerable track record of excellence. It’s tough to be favored heavily against that. But there is also now sufficient evidence to declare that Houston is squarely in Golden State’s weight class, just as there was for Golden State when it arrived on the scene.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
CORRECTION (March 22, 2018, 5:15 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly said that James Harden played in Houston’s Jan. 4 loss to Golden State. He was out with a strained hamstring.