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Houston Rockets Poised for Lift Off

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The Houston Rockets have blasted off into a new stratosphere this season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a leading contender for the league’s Executive of the Year award. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are battling for the MVP award. Mike D’Antoni is a leading candidate for the Coach of the Year award and looks revitalized after his two previous stints with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. D’Antoni previously won the award in 2005 with the Phoenix Suns.

One major reason for these developments is the free agent signings of former New Orleans Pelicans teammates Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.

Anderson and Gordon wanted to remain teammates if the right fit came along in free agency after spending the previous four seasons together in New Orleans.

“We talked quite a bit,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “Right before we both made our decision we actually shared a phone conversation and talked about the option of coming here and how great it would be. We knew that our dynamic around James and the players they had here would be great and it’s really showing, translating. The floor spacing is amazing, it gives James and Eric room to work.”

Anderson signed a four-year, $80 million deal and Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Rockets.

“We always talked about being on the same team in free agency, and it worked out well here in Houston,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “We just wanted to bring a different attitude and mentality to try and be a championship team.”

Gordon has become a strong contender for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging a league-best 17.9 points per game off the bench. Gordon ranks second in 3-pointers made per game (3.8) behind only Stephen Curry and is shooting 41 percent from downtown. With that in mind, Gordon told Basketball Insiders he believes he’s a worthy candidate to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend.

Anderson leads all power forwards in 3-pointers made per game (2.8) and ranks fourth in 3-point percentage (.403) among power forwards with 95 or more attempts thus far.

This is the type of production coach D’Antoni hoped for – and that he sold Anderson and Gordon on when recruiting both players in free agency.

“I told them that James was going to be the point guard, and we’re going to get a lot of threes up, and they’re going to be free to shoot them whenever, however, and from wherever and that was the pitch,” D’Antoni said. “But I knew I already had a relationship with Eric from USA Basketball, so that was easy. I knew how good he was. I didn’t know Ryan that well, but if you just watch the way he plays it’s perfect for us.”

Over the years, many other free agent signings appeared to make sense on paper but didn’t translate. Did anyone think the Rockets would be this good through the season’s halfway mark?

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“Well I knew we were good, but I didn’t think we’d be this good,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “We’re on our way to having a 60-game winning season. We didn’t know we’d be this good, but I’m glad it worked out and played well this way.”

The blazing start at the halfway mark has far exceeded D’Antoni’s original expectations heading into the season.

“I don’t think we imagined we would be like this now,” D’Antoni said before facing the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. “We wanted to be good. We thought we could be good. We did say the first twenty games were tough and if we could be 11-9 we’d be happy. Well, we’re 31-9, so I’m pretty happy about it. The NBA turns at any moment, we’re good right now but that doesn’t mean tomorrow we’re good, and we’ve just got to stay on pace and keep our guard up and understand it’s a tough league and we got to get up as high as we can go.”

While Harden gets the most publicity, and rightfully so as a leading MVP candidate, coach D’Antoni believes Anderson and Gordon have made the game easier for Harden and are equally keys to Houston’s overall success.

“Well they’re vital in about ten areas in the sense of, first and foremost they put the ball in the basket,” D’Antoni said. “They not only space the three-point line, they space about four more feet out so now James has a lot of area to work with. They’re a perfect complement to James. They both are great guys, so team chemistry is even better. They’re coachable. I could just keep going on and on and on and they work out every night. What they do, even if they don’t score, just standing on the floor causes a problem for people, and they have to match up and then we can get James in the open floor. And people need to choose whether to take James out and clog up the middle or stay with the threes, and whatever they want to choose we’ll try and do the opposite.”

As the primary playmaker, Harden can easily find Anderson, Gordon and Trevor Ariza along the arc as defenses double-team or collapse onto him. The floor spacing Anderson, Gordon, and Ariza have added directly correlates with Harden leading the league with 11.7 assists per game.

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“It’s been like that way all year,” Harden said. “Guys are ready to shoot, they know I’m unselfish and going to get them the basketball when they’re open, and we just play for each other. It’s pretty simple. We don’t overthink the game too much: if you’ve got an open shot shoot it, no matter if it’s one, two, or five times in a row. It’s pretty simple.”

Coming off his best statistical season, Harden has become even better as the floor general in D’Antoni’s offense.

“My numbers last year were a career high, so he’s definitely helped me in the sense of allowing me to be the point guard and control the game, which makes my job a lot easier. But I think with the addition of coaches and new personnel, new teammates, adding Eric, adding Ryan, developing some of the younger guys like Montrezl [Harrell] and Clint [Capela] has helped me as well,” Harden said.

Harden is averaging a career-high 8.3 rebounds per game and has 12 triple-doubles thus far. Westbrook has 20 triple-doubles and is on pace to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a 30-10-10 triple-double.

With that in mind, should Harden be the league’s MVP?

“No question,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “Yeah, he is. He’s doing so much for this team; he carries a weight on his back every night, and the team really revolves around James. The pieces fit around James to help him do what he does on a nightly basis but just the way that he’s playing, he’s so unselfish. He’s scoring the ball like crazy but he’s so unselfish at the same time, it’s a special thing.”

Gordon agrees with Anderson, but for a different reason.

“I think James will be the MVP because he does a lot for this team,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “Both of them have great stats, but winning, that’s what it boils down to, and I’m pretty sure James learned that a couple of years ago when [Stephen] Curry won it and he just didn’t get as many wins, but now he has it this year.”

Houston currently ranks third in the West while Oklahoma City ranks seventh.

With all this in mind, has Houston reached its ceiling? Can they get better going forward?

“No question we can get so much better,” Anderson told Basketball Insiders. “We’re still building as a group; we’re still learning new things, figuring out how to play around each other even better. Defensively, we can get better. We need to hold leads. Our record, in our opinion, could be a lot better. I think we could have eliminated some of those losses, but we’re happy where we are. We just need to keep building, keep working on what we’re doing.”

It’s scary to think Houston, a team that just scored 137 points against Brooklyn, can get better while Morey, D’Antoni, Harden and Gordon are the early favorites for their respective award categories.

For more on the Rockets, read Ben Dowsett’s recent piece on Houston’s defense.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.