The San Antonio Spurs might be the best team in the NBA right now, while the Houston Rockets, their hosts for their Christmas showdown, are still looking for something to put them back on the track they’ve been on in recent years.
The Spurs have won seven in a row and 11 of their last 12. Kawhi Leonard might be the secret MVP of the league so far, playing like an All-Star, finally, every game. Not just his 21.1 points a night, but his defense is the best in the league, and not just for perimeter players. LaMarcus Aldridge and David West are fitting better and better into the machine, allowing Tim Duncan to play less and do less without it hurting the team in any way.
The Spurs are giving up just 92.9 points per 100 possessions, by far the best defense in the league. Their +14.2 net rating this season is second only to the Warriors, and no longer too far behind. At 25-5, it feels as if it’s only a matter of time before they’re neck and neck with Golden State for the best team in the league, no longer worried about would-be threats like the Rockets, another “one of the most disappointing” teams of this season.
The issue about the Houston Rockets is that for all of the “genius” moves by Daryl Morey, always based on analytics and brave gambles during the offseason to seize opportunities, it seems this team hit its ceiling last season. You can go only so far with Harden being your point man, doing things that have nothing to do with team basketball, and relying on having a good shooting day and refs giving him fouls. When your win and loss difference depends on him taking 15 free throw shots or more per game, then something is wrong.
The Ty Lawson thing simply didn’t work. Lawson can’t function next to a guard that takes away all the possessions, and playing off the bench hasn’t helped clear up enough minutes and possessions for him. The Rockets are losing by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better when he’s not playing at all than during his minutes. He’s averaging just 8.7 points per 36 minutes, about half of his career average.
Dwight Howard might be the most important player to focus on. Why? Because the Rockets are giving up 104.5 points per 100 possessions, with only 7 other teams worse than them. Howard is no longer consistent. His good days usually mean wins. His bad or sluggish days? He can’t keep up with all the holes on the perimeter left by James Harden, and although playing him and Clint Capela together has helped sort out some of the issues, it feels like there are just too few moments of him being truly dominant in order for the Rockets to thrive.
Prediction: If the Spurs don’t let Harden and Howard get into a rhythm early in the game, they’re not going to lose. They’ve been struggling against Houston in recent years, but this Spurs team is too varied and good to be thwarted by some mismatch problem.