A little less than a month ago, the Houston Rockets were one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments. A 65-win no. 1 seed laid low by injury and inconsistency, the Rockets expected to serve as the prime foil for the defending champion Golden State Warriors, but stumbled to an 11-14 start that had them sitting in 14th place in the 15-team Western Conference. Now, though, after an absolute rampage led by their superstar scoring sensation, the Rockets are right back in the thick of it, just 3.5 games behind first-place Denver.
Houston’s rapid rise has been par for the course in a historically bunched-up West, where no team has broken out to establish itself as the primary threat to Golden State’s crown, and every team outside Phoenix hopes it can make the playoffs and see what kind of damage it can do. If we take it as a given that the Warriors will remain the West’s best team until somebody beats them four times in seven games, then who’s the second-best team in the West as we reach the halfway point of the season?
Houston Rockets (22-15)
The Case For: James Harden is the flaming sword of vengeance unleashed to judge NBA defenses. He has found them wanting. His wrath is total.
You might know the numbers by now, but they bear repeating. Harden has averaged 40.1 points, 9.0 assists, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game over his last 12 outings to fuel Houston’s 11-1 run back to relevance. He’s hit another level over the past six games, with Chris Paul shelved by a strained left hamstring (and with Eric Gordon out for the last two); needing to create virtually everything for the Rockets, Harden has even further weaponized his stepback 3-point jumper, taking 17.5 3s a night and canning them at a 41.9 percent clip.
After Thursday’s post-halftime annihilation of the Warriors, Harden has now become just the sixth player ever to string together five consecutive 40-point games, joining an iconic group of scorers: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, and Allen Iverson. During this remarkable dozen-game run, Harden has hung:
- 41 points and seven assists on the NBA’s no. 1 defense this season, Oklahoma City
- 45 and six on no. 4 Boston
- 32 and 10, and then 43 and 13, on no. 5 Memphis
- 47 and five on no. 6 Utah
- 35 and 12 on no. 7 Miami
- 50 and 11 on the no. 9 Lakers
- 39 and 10 on the Spurs, who rank sixth in points allowed per possession over the past month
Even with Paul alternately struggling or absent, the Rockets have been lethal offensively, scoring a blistering 117.1 points per 100 possessions during this 11-1 run. Harden has been more than good enough to keep them comfortably afloat when CP3’s been gone, too; Houston is plus-5.2 points per 100 when the Beard runs the show without his backcourt partner this season.
After a disjointed start to the season in which coach Mike D’Antoni struggled to find five players he could trust, the rotation has stabilized. Nene is back to provide interior heft behind an increasingly excellent Clint Capela, Danuel House Jr. and Gerald Green have produced on the wing, and Austin Rivers has looked like a solid fit for a team that doesn’t mind dudes chucking so long as they do it from far away (and make nearly 39 percent of the bombs they heave). Reinforcements are on the way, too: James Ennis returned against Golden State after missing 10 games with a hamstring injury, Gordon (day-to-day) will be back soon enough, and an ebullient Daryl Morey told The Athletic after Thursday’s win that Houston is “definitely a buyer” heading into next month’s trade deadline.
Paul still might be weeks away from returning; the Rockets need him so much in May that they’ll wait as long as they have to before bringing him back. Three weeks ago, that prospect seemed daunting. Now, they can afford to take that longer view, thanks to the breathing room afforded by an all-time offensive monster in hot pursuit of his second straight MVP trophy.
The Case Against: Harden can’t keep doing this for much longer, can he? Even if he can, Houston can’t expect him to shoulder this large a workload playing this many minutes (38.8 per game over the last 12) and still have anything left in the gas tank come the postseason, where he’s famously petered out in the past. They desperately need Paul and Gordon to rediscover last season’s form once they return to avoid another premature burnout.
Denver Nuggets (25-11)
The Case For: Well, they’re the no. 1 team in the West right now, which seems like a good start.
Nikola Jokic has been absolutely sensational, playing point-center to a degree we’ve never seen; he’s assisting on 38.2 percent of his teammates’ baskets, by far the highest assist rate ever for a big man and eighth best in the entire NBA this season, right there alongside CP3. Denver’s improved defense has held up, ranking eighth in points allowed per possession, even with key defensive starters Paul Millsap and Gary Harris missing significant time. (Mason Plumlee has been huge for them on that end.) The second unit, led by sure-handed point guard Monte Morris, has been dynamite, allowing Denver to withstand a rash of injuries.
And when the Nuggets need fireworks, they hand the ball to the bombastic Jamal Murray, who’s always ready to explode at a moment’s notice:
Denver is deep, versatile, balanced (one of just four teams to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive deficiency, along with Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston), and has two guys capable of putting the team on their back against even elite defenses. Sounds like a recipe for a long postseason run.
The Case Against: This will be the first real playoff rodeo for every Nugget of consequence save Millsap (whose Jazz and Hawks teams always ran aground against the best competition) and Plumlee (who saw significant postseason minutes only with the 2015-16 Blazers). Like all young teams making their debut on the grand stage, you can forgive us for wanting to see Denver prove it can still hit those same shots and make those same stops under the brightest lights, against teams with time to game-plan for Jokic’s idiosyncrasies, Murray’s detonations, and that revamped defense.
Oklahoma City Thunder (24-13)
The Case For: They’ve got a marauding mob of long-armed, active, nasty defenders led by menacing Sentinel Steven Adams, built to induce panic and generate turnovers. So far, so good: Nobody allows fewer points per possession, forces cough-ups on a higher share of opponents’ plays, or scores more points off turnovers than Oklahoma City. They’ve got Paul George, who’s playing the best basketball of his career and gives the Thunder one of the sport’s rarest weapons: a player capable of snuffing out an opposing team’s best scorer and taking over a game on offense. They’ve got a more dynamic bench, thanks to the arrivals of quick-twitch point guard Dennis Schröder and disruptive center Nerlens Noel.
Oh, and they’ve got this other guy, who’s averaging a triple-double for the third straight season, who’s leading the NBA in assists and steals, and who’s capable of incinerating just about any defense thrown his way through sheer force of will. Russell Westbrook’s not right, and the Thunder are still this good. That’s pretty goddamn scary.
The Case Against: Westbrook’s shooting touch isn’t necessarily guaranteed to return; nor, perhaps more importantly, is his ability to get to the free throw line. George has been phenomenal, but he can’t carry Oklahoma City’s offense alone through seven-game Western gantlets. The options are different and younger—Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader—but do you really feel great about the Thunder’s swing spots come the postseason? Unless multiple players take significant shooting leaps in the second half, this still feels like a team that might not be able to spread opposing defenses out enough to keep them from choking off primary actions and forcing players other than George and Westbrook to beat them.
Los Angeles Lakers (21-17)
The Case For: They have LeBron James. Other teams [quickly scans rosters] do not. That might not be enough for a no. 2 seed in the regular season, but I’m not sure any other non–Golden State team in the conference has a more compelling reason to believe once we reach mid-April.
The Case Against: As unreal as James remains at age 34, and as impressive as several of his supporting cast members have been at times this season—JaVale McGee as a bona fide starting center away from the Warriors’ halo, Kyle Kuzma in his evolution into a second scoring threat and an improving defender, Brandon Ingram as an advancing playmaker who unfortunately just might not be the best fit next to LeBron, et al.—the Lakers still seem like an incomplete project. LeBron redeems a lot of sins, especially in a spread-out postseason in which he can play nearly every second with built-in recovery days, but I’m still not sure there’s enough firepower here. It feels like, for now, at least, LeBron and the front office are on the outside of the West’s elite looking in.
Also: I’m not saying this groin thing is going to be the injury that finally puts a dent in LeBron’s armor, but it certainly bears watching. If LeBron’s anything less than the best player in the sport, the Lakers are drawing dead.
San Antonio Spurs (22-17)
The Case For: When there’s no cavalry coming, you’ve got to save yourself. That’s exactly what the Spurs have done over the past five weeks, going 12-5 since the start of December with the NBA’s best net rating.
Gregg Popovich has fashioned a lights-out offense that marries the midrange mastery of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge with a more spaced-out, egalitarian, “Beautiful Game”–era-evoking reserve corps, and San Antonio’s been using it to bludgeon opponents. And after a brutal defensive start to the season following the loss of point guard Dejounte Murray, the Spurs have cranked it up on that end, playing more consistently solid, patient, on-a-string defense—they’ve been a top-five unit over the last 15 games—that they have been able to turn into offense at an elite level. It took some time for all the new faces to get acclimated, and for Pop to find his shuffled-up roster’s best lineups, but the Spurs are starting to look like the Spurs again. Dismiss them at your peril.
The Case Against: The return of Derrick White, a 6-foot-4 guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, helps mitigate some of San Antonio’s size issues on the wing, but while Pop trusted him enough to give him the Kawhi Leonard assignment, it remains to be seen whether he—or any other Spur—has the goods to check the array of big perimeter scorers San Antonio would have to face in the playoffs. White aside, the Spurs still rely a lot on small or otherwise susceptible guards (Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli) whom opponents can exploit at the point of attack. DeRozan and Aldridge both have checkered postseason histories that might give Spurs fans pause, too.