The Feel-Good Rockets

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In the 2015-16 season, the Rockets were viewed as a serious contender to get back to the Western Conference Finals, and potentially the Finals. The season began with the team starting 4-7 and firing head coach Kevin McHale in lieu of JB Bickerstaff. The team would eventually finish with a disappointing 41-41 record and got the gentleman's sweep in the first round of the playoffs, facing the Golden State Warriors. Beyond that, the team showed no sense of chemistry, particularly between superstar James Harden and big man Dwight Howard.

Ultimately, Dwight Howard would opt out of his player option for the 2016-17 season and sign a free agent contract with his hometown team, the Atlanta Hawks. In doing so, he freed up the cap space the Rockets would need to sign former New Orleans Pelicans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

Fast forward to December 9th, game 23 of the season, and the Rockets have road wins against Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 3rd seed at 16-7 despite only play eight home games. The Rockets are gaining media attention as a legitimate threat, James Harden is once again in the hunt for MVP (leading the NBA in assists), and the team has a prolific offense.

But how did they get there?

Coming into the season, there were questions at nearly every position on the roster, including head coach. The Rockets looked to be more of a feel good story than a real contending team. projected 45 wins, BleacherReport predicted 38 wins, the CBS Sports consensus was 44 wins. The Rockets are currently on a 56-win pace and have played the second toughest schedule to date. So why were the projections so low?

When you look at some of the personnel, it's easy to see why there might be questions:

Eric Gordon: Injury Prone

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When you do a quick Twitter search for "Eric Gordon Injury Prone", you'll find thousands and thousands of tweets about how Eric Gordon is a good player, but no one trusts him because of his injury history.

The first major injury of his career was a bone chip in his wrist, which he then re-aggravated in his second game back from the original injury. He missed a total of 24 games with this injury. Then, the most significant injury of his career occurred in 2011, when Gordon knocked knees with Grant Hill and suffered cartilage damage. Gordon would only play 9 games that season. The injury lingered into the 2012 and 2013 seasons and Gordon missed 58 of the next 164 games. In 2014, Gordon suffered a torn left labrum in his shoulder and missed 21 games. In January of 2016, Gordon fractured a bone in the ring finger of his shooting hand, which required surgery and eventually would end his season.

So, it's a fair criticism to say that Gordon is injury prone, but when looking at the nature of some of his injuries, it's evident that some could be classified as "freak" incidents. But, the thing that has never been a question is Gordon's ability to play basketball. He's a career 38% three-point shooter who has played more than 30 minutes per game in every season. He was the centerpiece of a trade that involved Chris Paul.  He was regarded as a top 5 shooting guard in the league before injuries, and thus far in Houston, it's proving to be so.

Gordon is currently in the running for Sixth Man of the Year and is posting 17 points per game on 41% three-point shooting and is the initiator of the offense when James Harden is sitting. His ability to shoot from several feet behind the three point line stretches the floor and often saves the Rockets when they are having offensive difficulties. Beyond that, his drive-and-dish ability has been a tremendous boost to the Rockets' offense. The Rockets took a chance on signing Eric Gordon to a four year, $53 million contract and so far, it is paying dividends.

Ryan Anderson: Return From Tragedy and Injury

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In August of 2013, Ryan Anderson's girlfriend, Gia Allemand, attempted suicide and Anderson found her in her home and tried to resuscitate her, but she ultimately passed away in the hospital due to a lack of brain activity. Anderson contemplated retirement and went into a dark depression afterwards. He later would open up to SI's Chris Ballard in a haunting story of anguish and sorrow.

Anderson would return to basketball the next season and was off to career-high numbers. In the 2013-14 season, he collided with Gerald Wallace and had to be stretchered off the court. It was determined that Anderson suffered a herniated cervical disk in his neck and would require surgery. The injury would end his season and ultimately put his career in question. Could Anderson recover from such tragedy and a catastrophic injury?

Anderson signed a four year, $80 million contract with the Rockets in the offseason.  Anderson has struggled as of late with the Rockets, although he is still contributing when it counts. He is currently shooting a higher percentage in 3-point shots than 2-point shots. He has struggled to get the offensive rebounds and putbacks that make his game so effective. Still, Anderson has provided quality shooting from beyond the arc, which stretches the floor in a crucial way, allowing James Harden to have even more room in the paint to operate.

Mike D'Antoni: The Fall from Grace

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Head Coach Mike D'Antoni is known for initiating the modern NBA offense. His days in Phoenix led to some of the most efficient offenses of all time, and the rest of the NBA adopted his principles.

But things went awry after D'Antoni left Phoenix.

After joining the New York Knicks, D'Antoni never sported better than a 42-40 record in 3 full seasons. D'Antoni resigned as the Knicks' head coach after starting the season 18-24 in his fourth season. Things got bleak for D'Antoni and the Knicks when Carmelo Anthony seemed to have taken a stand on wanting a new head coach. With Anthony out, the Knicks were playing team ball and running D'Antoni's offense properly, which included the 7-game "Linsanity" stretch.

Later, D'Antoni would move on to be an assistant with the Lakers, but ultimately took over the head coaching job. It looked to be a match made in heaven; D'Antoni and Steve Nash reunited, with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard to form a seemingly formidable big-three.

However, with Nash battling health issues and Dwight Howard reluctant to run the pick-and-roll offense, things sputtered quickly. Bryant and Howard had feuds with one another and the team ultimately could not overcome the "insurmountable impasse" that had befallen the team. D'Antoni would resign from the Lakers organization after the team could not agree to pick up the next season option on his contract. D'Antoni took a large portion of the criticism for the collapse and got a reputation of being a maligned coach.

Thus far in Houston, the team is exceeding expectations and currently are in contention for a top-3 seed. The ceiling of this team has been raised continually as the season has gone on and D'Antoni is a big reason why. He is making the right substitutions, something McHale and Bickerstaff struggled with, and he has the team playing team ball. Seemingly every player on the roster has upgraded their passing ability in this system, knowing when and where players should be and making the extra pass when necessary.

James Harden: Defense? Leadership? All-NBA?

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James Harden is the engine that makes the Rockets run (or fly, I suppose). Last season, the only thing that propelled the Rockets into the playoffs was him single-handedly taking games over. But at what expense? Harden faced criticism at every turn, whether it was bad defense, not being a team leader, or not willing to get his teammates involved. This was reflected by the exclusion of Harden from any All-NBA teams despite putting up stats that only Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson had achieved.

Beyond that, Harden's relationship with Dwight Howard was obviously souring with each game. The Rockets lacked effort, the offense would slow to a halt when Howard would demand post-up opportunities, and the team looked deflated with each Howard turnover. Ultimately, Howard would leave the team, though he wouldn't specifically cite Harden as the reason.

Enter Mike D'Antoni.

The Rockets organization began to include Harden in front office decisions and in doing so, decided on Mike D'Antoni as their head coach. The newly appointed coach would immediately spot a problem with how James Harden had been used and moved him to full-time point guard. 

Harden is currently top-5 in points and rebounds (among guards), and leads the league in assists. More importantly, the Beard has become a team leader. After every play, even successful ones, he is coaching on the court. Pointing at teammates and telling them what to do next time. Even further, Harden is engaged on defense. He is contesting shots, chasing blocks, switching on to bigs in the post. Harden is playing freely in an offense that allows him to orchestrate everything from beginning to end.

The narrative that befell the Rockets and their players last year is long gone. Under a new regime, the Rockets have a chance to recreate themselves, to leave behind injuries, grief, Vine's of a defensive lapse, pictures of a team not celebrating a game-winning shot. The Rockets are coming, and they're coming fast.

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