The 20-4 Rockets have the league’s second-best net rating and have been every bit as effective as the Warriors. (Jaime Valdez/USA Today)

The Golden State Warriors are the overwhelming favorite to win the 2018 NBA championship. They have a 21-6 record, rank first in points scored per 100 possessions (113.8) and third in points allowed (101.0), giving them the best net rating (plus-12.8 net points per 100) in the league this season.

Seeing the Warriors at the top shouldn’t be a surprise — they boast a two-time MVP on the roster at point guard, Steph Curry, and another former MVP at small forward, Kevin Durant. Two-time all-NBA team member Klay Thompson and 2016-17 defensive player of the year Draymond Green are also part of a starting lineup that outscores opponents by 19.1 net points per 100 possessions.

But the Houston Rockets need to be taken just as seriously as title contenders, perfectly built to release the stranglehold the Warriors have had on the Western Conference.

The 20-4 Rockets have the league’s second-best net rating (11.3) and have been every bit as effective as the Warriors. It’s so close you have to go back to the 1971-72 season to find two teams as dominant as the Warriors and Rockets have been compared to the rest of the league. Golden State’s point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule, also known as the Simple Rating System, is 10.8 points per game better than average. Houston is 11 points above average. Only six other teams in NBA history have been as good or better during the regular season and all but one, the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, won a title. And those Bucks had to play one of the other teams on the list, the eventual title-winning Lakers, in the Western Conference finals.

Team Wins Losses Simple Rating System Playoff result
1970-71 Bucks 66 16 11.9 Won NBA Finals (4-0) versus Baltimore Bullets
1995-96 Bulls 72 10 11.8 Won NBA Finals (4-2) versus Seattle SuperSonics
1971-72 Lakers 69 13 11.7 Won NBA Finals (4-1) versus New York Knicks
2016-17 Warriors 67 15 11.4 Won NBA Finals (4-1) versus Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Rockets 20 4 11.0 ???
2017-18 Warriors 21 6 10.8 ???
1971-72 Bucks 63 19 10.7 Lost NBA Western Conference finals (2-4) versus Los Angeles Lakers
1996-97 Bulls 69 13 10.7 Won NBA Finals (4-2) versus Utah Jazz

Offensively, the Rockets can put points on the board as well as any team. Their offensive rating (113.3) is second only to the Warriors and no team attempts more of their shots from the two most efficient areas on the court, behind the three-point line and in the restricted area. In fact, the Rockets are on pace to set an NBA record for three-point attempts per game, breaking their record from last season.

James Harden, the runner-up in last year’s MVP voting, leads the league in scoring (32.3 points per game) and is second in half-court points per possession (1.05) among 10 players with at least 500 possessions in 2017-18. Only LeBron James has been more efficient (1.08). No player has been a more dynamic scorer one-on-one (league-leading 1.3 points per possession in isolation).

Harden’s backcourt mate, Chris Paul, is a wizard in the pick-and-roll, producing 1.1 points per possession for Houston, including his passes. Only Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors create more points by finding the open spot-up shooter in the pick-and-roll.

Chris Paul, 2017-18 Points per possessions
Scoring as the ballhandler during pick-and-roll 0.94
Scoring via passing during pick-and-roll 1.27
 -> Pass to roll man 1.24
->Pass to spot-up shooter 1.29
-> Pass to player cutting to the basket 1.22
NBA average 0.94

The key to Houston’s ascension as Golden State’s biggest rival, however, is their commitment to defense. Once thought of as the Rockets’ Achilles’ heel, that hasn’t been the case this season — they are allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best defensive rating this season. In 2016-17, they allowed 106.4 points per 100 possession, 18th in the NBA. Houston’s most-used five-man lineup — Harden, Paul, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela — is allowing just 98.3 points per 100 possessions in 2017-18, a nine-point improvement from the most-used five-man lineup from last season. This transformation has been critical: Eight of Golden State’s 15 regular-season losses in 2016-17 were to teams that ranked in the top 12 for defensive rating and this year, four of Golden State’s six losses have been against teams whose defensive rating ranked in the top 12.

Teams need to contest Golden State’s three-pointers and disrupt their passing lanes if they want to have a chance to win, either during the regular season or in a seven-game playoff series.

Versatile defender Luc Mbah a Moute, a 6-foot-8 forward who signed a one-year deal with Houston at the veteran’s minimum of $2.1 million this summer, has held opponents to a mere 0.77 points per possession off screens and has forced four turnovers on 13 possessions. In addition, his 2.9 contested three-point shots per game is second on the team to Harden (3.2). Mbah a Moute, along with Harden, Nene, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, form Houston’s best defensive five-man unit, holding opponents to 80.8 points per 100 possessions.

And while most NBA teams rely on the pick-and-roll for a bulk of their half-court offense, the Warriors rely on unorthodox methods for setting screens to put points on the board. The Rockets, meanwhile, rank fifth in points per possession allowed off screens this season (0.9) with an effective field goal rate allowed of 44.1 percent.

Play Types % Time Possession per game NBA Rank
 Off Screen 12% 14 1st
 P & R Ball Handler 10% 11 29th
 P & R Roll Man 4% 4 29th

With two teams so close in ability, the chance to represent the West in the NBA Finals may come down to home-court advantage. And heading into Monday night’s games, Houston has an edge there, too. Using each team’s actual record to date, we can project the rest of the season 10,000 times (based on their points scored and allowed and their record regressed to account for the small sample size of an unfinished season) to determine what we expect their final record to be. By this method, the Rockets finish the season with 64 wins, while the Warriors finish close behind with a 62-20 record.

Assuming they meet in the Western conference finals, Houston, with home-court advantage, is projected to win a seven-game series 53 percent of the time.

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