The Houston Rockets are rolling. James Harden and his merry gang of three-point marksmen have won a whopping 16 games in a row, good enough to keep them just barely ahead of the Warriors for first place in the Western Conference. There are lots of reasons for Houston’s success so far this season. The offensive brilliance of Harden, a bona fide MVP favorite. The added superstar in Chris Paul, who keeps the team chugging along without its best player. The relentless barrage of threes. And my personal favorite, some truly 21st century lineup combinations.
If you’ve ever religiously played any NBA video game, then it’s hard not to love the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni could not care less about convention this season, frequently leaving his opponents in the dust by playing some wacky lineups that are typically reserved for comeback attempts against your sibling in 2K. With much more wing depth this season—the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, and now Joe Johnson have been key—D’Antoni is seemingly simply unafraid to play any combo of shooters at once.
The Rockets’ gonzo lineups are more than just oddities to break up the monotony of your 12th night in a row of watching League Pass. Houston certainly has set groups it will use in the playoffs, but in a potential showdown with the Warriors, the Rockets are clearly the team best equipped to give Golden State a variety of looks. Seven games may not be enough time for D’Antoni to play every combination and find what works, but he’ll have some sense of the different units that flashed potential this season. Will he play five out and try to outshoot Golden State? Will he load up on defensive wings and count on Harden and Paul? The spectrum of possibilities is long, and that’s what makes Houston so intriguing as the playoffs come into focus.
Here now, let’s marvel at some of Houston’s most fun (and some of its most obscure) five-man units.
1. Harden-Paul-Eric Gordon-Mbah a Moute-Tucker
The tallest player in this lineup is Mbah a Moute, and D’Antoni will gladly stick him on your seven-footer while his offense runs roughshod against your hapless switches. This group never plays for long stretches—they’ve appeared in 10 games together for only 22 minutes. In that brief time period this unit has a laughable 140.2 offensive rating. There is simply nowhere to hide. If you switch on Harden’s pick-and-roll, he’ll embarrass someone in isolation. If you give Harden or Paul any space, they’ll barrel into the paint. And the “worst” shooter of the group is Gordon, who is connecting at a 34% clip on high volume from three.
2. Harden-Paul-Gordon-Trevor Ariza-Clint Capela
I think this might be the Rockets’ most slept-on grouping, and one that could actually be important in the playoffs. This group is simply Houston’s best five players playing at once, and despite its size issues, it has the potential to be absolutely lethal. This lineup has played in five games together for a paltry 19 minutes. Its net rating is 69.8. That’s CLEARLY unsustainable. But also: Holy sh--! Capela has perfected his game as a roll man, Ariza is shooting nearly 40% from three, and Gordon stands far behind the three-point line, allowing Harden and Paul all the space in the world to toy with defenders. I would be surprised if D’Antoni didn’t turn to this group a little more often in the postseason.
3. Harden-Gordon-Ariza-Mbah A Moute-Tucker
Give Harden two shooters and two defenders and let him run wild. Tucker and Mbah a Moute (as well as Paul) have really made Houston so much more versatile this season. Their yeoman’s work on defense is a huge reason why the Rockets are in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. This is another group that has played only flashes together. In 15 minutes over five games, these five have a net rating of 40.3, with an All-Star Game-level offense and Bad Boys-level defense.
4. Harden-Paul-Mbah a Moute-Anderson-Capela
What I love about this lineup is that it clearly shows how much Houston has improved its depth. This is last year’s starting lineup, with Paul and Mbah a Moute taking the place of Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza. This is basically last year’s Rockets on steroids, and in 59 minutes over nine games, this group has a net rating of 29.7. It helps that Mbah a Moute picked the best time of his career to become an accurate, high-volume three-point shooter. Mbah a Moute is shooting the second-most threes per game in his career, and he’s hitting on nearly 36% of them, which is much higher than his 33.2% career average. Then again, it helps when all your looks are being created by two of the best passers in the game, both of whom command the attention of a defense for every second of the shot clock.
5. Harden-Paul-Ariza-Mbah a Moute-Joe Johnson
This is the lineup that caught my eye and really made me realize how ridiculous the Rockets can be. This group has played in only one game together, a five-minute stretch against the Jazz, and it was remarkable. Houston blatantly disregarded the fact the Rudy Gobert was on the floor, instead playing five lethal shooters at once, and three players in Harden, Paul and Johnson who will abuse any big on a switch. I have no clue if this lineup will ever play together again. But this is exactly the type of lineup you would use in a video game and never expect to see in real life, let alone the fourth quarter of a tight game. This group is basically the “plastic bag floating through the wind“ of the NBA, and I hope we see it again soon.