Let’s just skip the formalities and cut right to the chase. Can the Houston Rockets, as currently constructed, win the NBA title this season? Can they beat not only the Golden State Warriors, but the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Boston Celtics or whoever comes out of the East? And, although Lil B finally lifted his curse on James Harden, can the Rockets overcome the apparent curses on coach Mike D’Antoni and Chris “Never Made the Western Conference Finals” Paul? To borrow the catchphrase of one of Harden’s former OKC teammates—why not?
It was the summer of 2012, and the Rockets were going nowhere fast. A third-straight, barely over .500 record was good for a third straight lottery trip, their leading scorer was Kevin Martin at 17.2 ppg—and his season ended in early March. Kyle Lowry, their third-leading scorer? He was soon to be gone, dealt to Toronto. Five years in, GM Daryl Morey’s tenure hadn’t produced much of anything except for a bunch of complementary parts with no one to complement. That fall, though, everything changed. The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t come to terms with Harden, and Morey was ready.
The Rockets have been a playoff team every year since, including a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2015. They regressed the following season, finishing at 41-41 under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff and losing in the first round. But the hiring of D’Antoni and the installation of an uptempo, three-happy offense—and the transformation of Harden into the world’s most unlikely point guard—got them back on track. Last season they played at their highest pace since 1990, then added Paul over the summer. This season they’re posting a winning percentage of 71 percent, the first time they’ve been over 70 since 1994. They finished that season as champions. Their offensive rating is a 115.2, their highest since, well, ever.
Of course none of this means anything. Not really. Last year’s team also posted the highest Rockets offensive rating ever, then flared out in spectacular fashion in a Game 6 blowout loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference semis. Harden, who’d turned in his best season ever, finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting, looking completely wrung out and tuned out as the Rockets managed just 75 points. That was May 11th. On June 28th they traded for Chris Paul.
If losing is a prerequisite to winning a title, the Rockets have done plenty of that.
Many people (OK, I) thought it might take a little while for them to gel. After all, adding a ball-dominant point guard like Paul to a team where Harden had actually led the league in assists last season (with 11.2 to Paul’s 9.2) was bound to cause problems.
It took all of one game, the season opener, a one-point win over the defending champion Warriors where Harden finished with 27 and Paul racked up 10 assists, to see what they could do. Paul missed the next 14 games with an injury, and upon his return on November 16th, the Rockets reeled off 14 straight wins. Since then, they’ve lost seven of nine, with Harden suffering a hamstring strain just as Paul starts to play himself into shape. In the meantime, Clint Capela, the third-year Swiss center, is leading the league in field goal percentage, at 61 percent, and backup guard Eric Gordon is second on the team in scoring at 19.5 per. Journeyman Gerald Green, picked up to fill an open roster spot, scored 27 and 29 in back-to-back nights, and was signed for the rest of the season. Seven Rockets are averaging double-digits including Harden, whose 32.3 leads the league. They’ve maintained their relentless pace (and three-point attempts) while tightening up their defense.
What’s just as important, however, are the lists where Rockets aren’t. Just two are in the top 20 in minutes per game, Harden at nine and Trevor Ariza at 12. Harden’s 36.3 minutes per are right on track to where he was last year, at 36.4. One would assume when he returns that number will drop. In the meantime, he’ll keep putting up threes—his 372 attempted and 145 made both lead the league—and going to the line—his 368 and 319 do the same. In a league that’s been celebrating unicorns, he’s become something of one himself.
But enough numbers. If losing is a prerequisite to winning a title, the Rockets have done plenty of that. Sure, they haven’t made it to the NBA Finals and lost. But Harden’s Thunder did, in 2012, and the collective heartbreak of D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and Paul’s starcrossed Clippers teams are well documented. They even lost a playoff series to the Warriors—a decisive 4-1 first-round ousting in 2016, a loss that marked the end of J.B. Bickerstaff’s temporary tenure and ushered in the start of the D’Antoni era. Dues have been paid.
Meanwhile, a season that started out looking like it would just be a long preview to Warriors/Cavs IV got more interesting almost immediately. The Celtics started off with two losses (and the horrific injury to Gordon Hayward), then ran off 16 straight wins of their own, as Kyrie Irving quickly took to his new squad—and Jayson Tatum quickly took to the NBA. The Warriors are still the favorites, with the Cavaliers remaining their most likely opponent, but the Celtics and the Rockets have more than put themselves into the conversation.
The Celtics, they should have plenty of time. Hayward likely won’t be back until next season, and Irving doesn’t turn 26 until March. The oldest Celtics are centers Al Horford and Aron Baynes, both 31. If anyone has to win now, it’s the Rockets. They have the talent, they have the experience, and they should damn well have the motivation. If it seems like it’s impossible that they can topple the Warriors, maybe that’s just because they haven’t done it yet. Maybe this is finally their year. Why not?