Houston has, perhaps, been one of the most perplexing franchises over the past three seasons because of their seemingly non-existent presence come playoff time. This second installment of breaking down the path to the Larry O’Brien Trophy will discuss the steps the Houston Rockets will need to take in order to finally get over the hump of their recent string of postseason woes, as well as why the Rockets have a strong chance of coming out on top of the 10-team gauntlet that is the Western Conference.
Let’s turn the clock back to the 2016/17 season in which the Rockets went 55-27. Up to this point, James Harden had put up strong performances, however this was the season in which the Rockets finally found their identity: give Harden the ball and allow him to go to work against opposing defenses.With Harden averaging a strong stat line of 29.1/11.2/8.1 (points/assists/rebounds per game), the Rockets were able to secure the third seed in a historic season in which the Golden State Warriors went 67-15. Despite otherworldly offensive talent, Harden was only able to propel the Rockets to the second round of the playoffs, losing a series against the San Antonio Spurs 4-2.
Following the second round exit, GM Darly Morey actively pursued several top talents across the NBA that he could pair up with Harden to help carry the load. Out of this search came the (at the time) huge acquisition of Chris Paul. On paper this seemed like a match made in heaven, as Chris Paul is easily one of the top-five passing point guards to have ever played in the association. Having a player of this caliber to accompany Harden causes defenses to draw up on a different defensive scheme, which would, hypothetically, leave players (Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, etc.) open for easier looks, as teams would now have to hone in the Harden/Paul duo out of the backcourt. This trade reaped instant benefits, as the Rockets easily claimed the first seed in the Western Conference, with the Golden State Warriors claiming the second seed 7 games behind the leading Rockets. The year also saw James Harden, once again, astonish the world with his mesmerizing offensive prowess and earn the honor of being crowned the NBA MVP for the 2017/18 regular season. While the Rockets obtained, what was in their eyes, the best possible outcome in the regular season, they again came up short losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals after being 3-2 up in the series and having the home-court advantage.
This frustration carried over into the 2018/19 season, as the Rockets were unable to consistently stay above the 500 mark into mid-December, largely due to the injury of Chris Paul which sidelined him for roughly half of the season. Despite the slow start, the Rockets saw themselves in the 4th seed, due to the play of James Harden, who seems to have elevated his offensive arsenal to the point that holding him to under 25 points is considered a defensive victory. The Rockets, once again, fell to their foe (the Golden State Warriors) in 6 games in the Western Conference Semifinals, marking yet another early exit. Emotions ran extremely high following the devastating loss, as the Warriors were without Kevin Durant and were expected to lose the series to the Rockets. Soon thereafter, strong disgruntled feelings were reported between James Harden and Chris Paul. Despite the constant dismissal of these reports, this ultimately lead to another blockbuster acquisition by the Rockets this past season, as Harden was reunited with fellow MVP Russell Westbrook.
The reunification of a backcourt duo of Westbrook and Harden is extremely intriguing given their past playing experience with each other, as well as how their individual playing styles line up very similarly. It is difficult, and misleading, to look at the stats from the three seasons that they were teammates in Oklahoma City because Harden was more of a role-player, and neither had fully reached their offensive potentials that make them top-20 talent players in the current NBA. We, as fans, have learned from the Chris Paul experiment that the success of this acquisition will largely depend on the willingness of James Harden to share the ball. The purpose of the Paul trade in the 2017 offseason was to help take the pressure off of Harden, however, due to injury and ego, Harden put up 1909 field goal attempts, which is nearly 300 more shot attempts than the next highest season, which spans back to times when James Harden was the only offensive power helping the Rockets stay afloat. Harden’s game thrives off of his ability to handle the ball from the second it is inbounded, so the acquisition of another player (especially one that plays the point guard position by nature) that thrives off of holding the ball and making something happen slightly resembles the trade for Paul in the 2017 season, which never came to full fruition.
Despite the skepticism, Harden and Westbrook have a different relationship than that of Harden and Paul. Westbrook has the potential to thrive playing off the ball, something that Paul widely struggled with. If Harden and Westbrook are able to create a system in which neither are suffering from not being able to get their shots up, then the Rockets have the potential to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Houston for the first time since the back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Clint Capela will most likely round out the rest of the starting five and place their respective starting rotation among the likes of every other top team in the league (Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers, etc.). With potential contributions off the bench from Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Danuel House and Gerald Green, the Rockets are set-up well to ride the wave when Westbrook and Harden are getting breathers. The talent is definitely present in Houston, as it has been for several seasons. The large looming question is whether the acquisition of Russell Westbrook is more of the same, or if it is the start of a new Warrior-esque dynasty in the West. If good health and cohesion are present in the Rockets locker room, then so will be the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June 2020.
All stats from ESPN.
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