30 in 30: HOUSTON ROCKETS

This blog was born in an L.A. apartment complex around the same time as the James Harden deal, and I spent my first substantive post (substantive being loosely defined) heaping praise, albeit cautiously, on Rockets GM Daryl Morey for finding his team’s first franchise guy in the post-Yao Ming era. A few days later, Harden inked a 5-year, $80 million extension with Houston, and boy he has not disappointed.

In his first game as a member of the Rockets, Harden tallied 37 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds. On the year, he’s averaging 26.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first full year as an NBA starter. He’s 5th in the NBA in scoring, trailing only Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, all future Hall of Famers, and 9th in PER, with the only 2-guard rated higher being Dwayne Wade, another future Hall of Famer. Harden is the primary option on the league’s 2nd-ranked scoring offense, totaling 106.1 points a night, and, according to some Stats LLC data compiled by Grantland’s Zach Lowe (the best NBA writer out there, BTW), Harden’s 5th in total drives per game, with Houston scoring an unprecedented 1.51 points per those possessions.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

OK, Harden, an All Star reserve, has been unconscious, but what about his supporting cast? Well, the 2nd-ranked Rockets’ player in PER, among those to play in at least 45 games, is second-year PF Greg Smith, who’s averaging 5.5 points, 4 rebounds and 13.9 minutes in 49 appearances; his PER is 17.7. The rest of Houston’s starters’ efficiency ratings hover around the league’s 15.0 average — 15.7 for Patrick Patterson, 15.0 for Omer Asik, 14.8 for Jeremy Lin and 14.7 for Chandler Parsons.

Before the Oklahoma City trade, Houston made noise this summer with two decent-name free agent signings in Lin and Asik. Both were restricted free agents whom Morey offered back-loaded contracts, making it even more difficult for New York and Chicago, respectively, to match; both are due $5 million this year, $5.25 in 2013-14 and then $14.9 in 2014-15. Houston is thus one of the rare teams that has more contractual dollars on the books in two years than presently.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DETROIT PISTONS

Asik, formerly Chicago’s No. 4 big, has not disappointed in his first full year as a starter; the Turkish 7-footer is averaging a double-double — 10.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 30 minutes — every night he steps on the floor. Asik is hardly a post threat offensively, though only in his 3rd NBA season, but he leads an otherwise 29th-ranked scoring defense in blocks, 1.2 per game, and anchors the league’s 11th-rated rebounding unit in spite of a frontcourt mate, Patterson, who averages less than 5 rebounds a game.

Lin has shown flashes this year, like in his 28-point, 9-assist performance against Golden State a week ago Tuesday, but is widely considered as having a poor season. Despite more minutes, his assist numbers are below last year’s averages for the Knicks, though he leads the team, barely over Harden, at 6.1 dimes per game. I still wonder if Lin and Harden can gel together, given both are poor defenders and, on the other end, need the ball to operate. Either way, Lin’s turnovers — 2.9 per game — are also a concern, as Houston’s 16.3 turnovers per game lead the league, or are worst in the league, depending on your perspective. But Houston’s fast-paced style, one reason why Lin’s low assist totals are troubling, also produces the league’s 6th-best field goal percentage and 9th-best 3-point mark.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DENVER NUGGETS

Headed into Tuesday’s games, Houston held a 2-game advantage on 9th-seeded Portland and a 3.5-game advantage on the lurking 10th-seeded L.A. Lakers, even as the Rockets are only 11-19 against Western Conference opponents. Houston is a threat to put up a lot of points, with capable 3-point shooters in Harden (35%), Parsons (36%), Carlos Delfino (39%), Marcus Morris (39%) and Toney Douglas (38%). The only team to make (and attempt) more 3’s per game than Houston is New York; Houston’s 23 3-pointers a week ago against Golden State tied an NBA record.

Kevin McHale’s club boasts 6 double-figure scorers, and I’m not sure there’s any scorer, outside of Durant and Bryant, that strikes more fear into defenses eyes than Harden, at least in the Western Conference. Should Houston, which still has 13 games against likely playoff opponents after Tuesday’s trip to Golden State, hold off the Lakers, who I think are the Rockets’ most threatening challengers for that No. 8 seed, they’re likely to draw San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round — Houston is a combined 0-5 against those teams this season, with loss margins of 30, 22, 22, 8 and 6.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DALLAS MAVERICKS

If Houston earns a postseason bid, it has to be considered an accomplishment, especially since the Rockets only have $39 million on the books for next year and are rumored to be in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, should he decide to leave Los Angeles. The only player on Houston’s roster over the age of 26 is Delfino, who has a $3 million team option for next season, and Morey has 2 top-18 picks from this year, Royce White (still yet to play in the NBA) and Terrence Jones, to develop.

The last time Houston made the playoffs was 2009 and the last time they advanced to the Western Conference Finals was 1997. The latter is far from likely this year, but with another piece or two, mainly a solid No. 2 to pair with Harden, and a few years to grow, expect Houston to be right there in the mix with Oklahoma City.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES

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