By: Shawn Davis
Even in its infancy, the 2017-18 NBA season is already bringing up questions. This week is Thanksgiving and fans are already overreacting, positively and negatively.
What’s wrong in Cleveland? (Nothing yet) Are the Pistons really this good? (No) Can Boston win the title? (Also no) Are the Knicks headed in the right direction finally?(Fingers crosses) Is Giannis the best player in the game now?(Easy...) But sometimes expectations are met, and things are exactly what they were supposed to be. One case like that is Houston.
In the off-season the Rockets added future Hall of Famer Chris Paul to a team that won 55 games, finished third in the Western Conference, had James “The Beard” Harden stirring the pot all the way to a First Team All-NBA season, and flamed out in spectacular fashion in the second round at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
With the addition of Paul, expectations in Houston are as high as they’ve been since the mid 90’s when Hakeem Olajuwon was dream-shaking his way to the franchise’s only titles in 94 and 95.
Expectations have only been elevated by the team’s 13-4 start this season which was kicked off by defeating the 1992 Dream Team...I mean the defending champion Warriors.
As of this writing, Houston has the same record as Golden State and by their head to head victory, TECHNICALLY own the best record in the Western Conference.
James Harden has come back with a vengeance this year, playing with a chip on his shoulder due to a self-perceived snub for MVP last year (they got the right guy in Russ) Another year in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, plus the addition of the best PG of the last 15 years or so, and he, and the rest of the team look even more dangerous.
The real question is, what is their ceiling? Can they win it all?
Darryl Morley must be given credit for building this team the way he wanted. His reliance on next level analytics (while shunned by older basketball minds) has been successful to say the least. The Rockets are winning basketball games. One thing they won’t do is win the Western Conference. Forget an NBA title.
They need to make it to the finals to win, and frankly this team doesn’t look like it can do that. Don’t get me wrong they’re going to score a ton of points, win between 50-60 games and maybe win the Southwest Division. What it can’t do is go through San Antonio AND Golden State in a seven-game series.
I don’t expect a similar ending as last year since Paul will help shoulder some of the load this season and as a result, save Hardens legs from the exhaustion he clearly experienced last season (see game five of the Spurs series).
From an offensive standpoint, Houston is going to score. A lot. They are a volume shooting team right now, taking more than 10 more threes per game than any other team in the league. While that’s good enough to beat most of the league in a best of seven, it’s not good enough to beat the class of the west. Oklahoma City is going through its growing pains right now, trying to feel out the best way to play with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony now running with Mr. Triple-Double, and for that reason I’ll exclude them from this article.
I’m focusing on the fact Houston will, likely HAVE to beat both the Spurs AND the Warriors to win the west. The Spurs will always be two things no matter who they’re playing: well coached and they’ll play with toughness. Pop will not allow his guys to be unprepared.
His presence alone affords them a certain level of respect from opponents, and they currently sit third in the west without getting a single minute out of one of the five best players in the game today in Kawhi Leonard.
In his absence Lamarcus Aldridge has reminded the league of who he was in Portland. Combine that with the fact that Pop has yet again gotten max production out of his role players with Rudy Gay, Danny Green and Pau Gasol averaging double figures and getting a combined 16 and 6 out of the PG spot in the absence of Tony Parker.
It would be tough for a team like Houston to night in and night out compete with them over a two week stretch. If Leonard and Parker return with minimal issues, it would almost be impossible for them to beat San Antonio.
Which brings me to the dubs. They’re the deepest team in the league. They are the most efficient team in the league. They have Kevin Durant who, when at his best, is the least guard-able player in the game today. They have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson who in any given night can shoot themselves into a 40-pt. night (Curry even higher). They have the reigning defensive player of the year in Draymond Green, who can also fill the stat sheet as well. There is zero chance they can out score that team, and frankly that’s how Houston plays.
Sure, Paul is a top-flight defender, and Trevor Ariza can guard as well, but James Harden is (and always will be) an absolute liability at the end of basketball games. Assuming Ariza is on KD (hahahahaha....) and Paul is guarding Steph, who does Harden guard?
You can’t hide him on the worst player on the floor because of size mismatches (i.e. Green or whoever they trot out at center) or on Iggy (too athletic) or on Klay (too good offensively). They also can’t out score Golden State because no one who’s tried has been able to do so. Arguably the second-best player ever, played at his peak and most efficient, and was side kicked by another all-star doing the same exact thing, and came away with a very one sided 4-1 defeat to the Dubs in last year’s finals.
And the last reason for why the Rockets won’t win the west: History. Yes, Harden has played poorly on big stages in the past (last year vs San Antonio, 2012 Finals with OKC, Western finals 2015 vs Warriors with Dwight Howard...) but that’s not all the history I speak of.
Chris Paul’s biggest knock on his legacy is of course that he’s never made the west finals. While with the Clippers, CP3 and Lob City became the first team to ever blow a playoff series lead 5 straight years. Mike D’Antoni’s (aside from the fact he views defense as something that HAS to occur in between his team’s own possessions) is the fact that even though he has had tremendous talent on his rosters over the years, he never made a final.
In 2005 alone, he had a team that won 62 games, had Home court advantage throughout the playoffs, league MVP Steve Nash, two other all stars in Shawn Marion and Amaré Stoudemire, and a future all-star in Joe Johnson, and somehow still got smacked around by the Spurs (see a trend?)5-1 in the conference finals.
And then there is Houston’s history. Since those back to back championship teams the Rockets have only made the conference finals twice. Several years of Tracy McGrady flying around as the most underrated player in the league resulted in first round exit after first round exit. The Rockets are a team compiled of guys who all have regular season history to back up their resumes, but have nothing to show for it after May.
When you add that to a franchise history of falling short in the postseason, it’s a recipe for disaster.
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