The Houston Rockets have been the darlings of the NBA this season. After a “down” 2015-2016, James Harden has returned with a vengeance, unleashing the full powers of Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He’s leading the NBA in assists while scoring nearly 30 points per game, a remarkable accomplishment. The rest of the roster complements him perfectly, and the Rockets’ offense is unstoppable when operating at full capacity. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have been terrific off the bench, and are now joined by the always-dangerous Lou Williams. The three of them have more firepower alone than most NBA benches, and make the Rockets a threat to any team in the playoffs. Everyone thought that the Rockets would be explosive on offense before the season began, however.
The real surprise, therefore, is that their defense is mediocre rather than awful. Pat Beverley and Trevor Ariza are two terrific perimeter defenders, but they have received substantial help from their big men. Nene has had a renaissance in Houston, while Clint Capela is one of the NBA’s most promising young centers. Neither is a consistent threat on offense outside the pick and roll, and that’s fine— their contributions on defense more than make up for their weaknesses on the other end. One of the big worries about the Rockets this season was health, as many of their players have been historically injury-prone. That hasn’t been a significant factor. Gordon, Nene, and Anderson have remained mostly healthy, and the Rockets have surged as a result. Predicted as a fringe-playoff team by most at the start of the season, Houston is ensconced as the 3rd seed in the West, and need just four wins to hit the 55 mark. It’s been a strong run, and the Rockets are not a team anyone wants to play in the postseason.
At the start of the 2017 calendar, Miami was 10-24. They were 14th in the East, and officially left for dead in the playoff race. The Heat have gone 27-14 since, surging all the way into 7th in the Eastern Conference. Some unlikely heroes have emerged along the way. Career journeyman James Johnson has transformed into a key cog, capable of shooting threes, running offense from the top of the key, and playing tough defense. He’s indispensable to a team for the first time—in his age 30 season. Dion Waiters, previously regarded as a bust and joke punchline, is now a nearly 40% three-point shooter, and has worked hard to curb some of his worst tendencies. Wayne Ellington, a player who was nearly out of the NBA, has hit 132 threes at a 37.5% clip. Goran Dragic’s campaign is nearly as good as that of his All-NBA 3rd team back in 2013-2014. Hassan Whiteside still might not be quite as effective as his stats suggest, but he’s a dominant rebounder, and has improved on the defensive end.
The Heat roster is having a collective career season, and most of the credit has to go to Coach Spo, who has been able to drag maximum performances from his players across the board. Miami has been one of the best teams in the NBA over the second half of the season, and that seems absurd considering the talent level on their roster. No matter. The Heat are scary, and while they probably won’t be able to beat a team like the Cavs in the 1st round, it’s hard to imagine them getting swept. They play hard, they play smart, and they are simply a good team.
What a difference a year makes. The Wizards were one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA last year, which resulted in the firing of Randy Wittman as coach and his replacement by Scott Brooks—yet another coach of the year candidate (notice a trend here?). John Wall has been an underrated floor general for several years now, yet he is underrated no more. He’s putting forth a more controlled Russell Westbrook season: unstoppable attacking the basket, racking up assists, and terrorizing opponents in transition. His defense comes and goes, but he’s so good at blocking shots that he’s actually a superior rim protector than his starting center. Joining Wall in the backcourt is one of the most deadly sharpshooters in the league— Bradley Beal. Finally healthy, Beal has evolved into the player everyone thought he could be coming out of Florida: a virtual clone of a young Ray Allen. He’s silky smooth at scoring, and has one of the prettiest jumpshots in the NBA. Beal should have made the All Star team this year, and is a tough cover for any defender. They are in the conversation for best backcourt in the NBA, and are by far the youngest of any of those esteemed duos.
The rest of the roster fits around the “House of Guards” well. Otto Porter hits 3s and rebounds, Markieff Morris (when he wants to) does the dirty work and can cover a multitude of players, and Gortat sets screens for the guards. The bench is shaky, but the arrival of Brandon Jennings and the presence of a healthy Ian Mahinmi has helped a bit. They are one of the most inconsistent teams in the NBA, capable of beating the Warriors and Cavs one night and losing to the 76ers the next. It is within the realm of possibility that they lose in the 1st round… but one could also see a path for them to the NBA Finals. Either way, they are going to finish with homecourt advantage and near 50 wins, way higher than most pundits had them before the season.