This was the Houston Rockets best chance. Coming off a season where they went 65-17, and lost in 7, in the West Finals to the eternal Warriors, this was it. Kevin Durant went down mid game 5 of this year’s semis, and they still ended up losing that game. Okay, no problem, still alive and game 6 is on your court. And yet, the absolute worst case for scenario for the Rockets unfolds. No Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry puts up a goose egg in the first half. James Harden is efficient as he can be. Chris Paul is on. Despite all of this, the rockets went into the half tied. They held a rebounding advantage, and shot 44% from deep, They still managed to lose. Yes, Curry and Klay Thompson went retro splash bros, and Draymond was Draymond. But there are no excuses anymore for this team as configured. The addition of Chris Paul in summer 17 was supposed to really set them over the edge. They did have the West’s top record the year prior, but all that amounted in was getting bounced in 7. And now it has amounted to a devastating, humiliating loss at home, to the Warriors. Again.
There are not enough platitudes to describe the greatness of the Warriors. They are all time. They feature two definite Hall of Famers, another guy (Thompson) who is a probably, and yet another guy who also has a chance in Green. They have a former finals MVP in Andre Iguodala. But this is their twilight. This team probably won’t exist as we have seen it the last 5 years after this season. They are at their most vulnerable right now. This series presented itself for this iteration of the Rockets as their chance to prove the league wrong. That they are not just a regular season team, and that they are not chokers. And they could not change their own narrative.
Since making the trade for James Harden, the Rockets have bowed out in the first round 3 times (13, 14, and 16), the Semis twice (17 and 19), and the West Finals twice (15 and 18). The times they lose are ugly. Four of their most recent seven playoff appearances have been ended by the Warriors. And four of the seven series have ended on the court of the Toyota Center. Daryl Morey, known as “Dork Elvis” by Bill Simmons, is one of the NBA’s leaders for the analytics movement. The Rockets are perhaps the poster child for the modern NBA. They started spamming threes and attempting to get to the line more than any other team. James Harden attempted 1028 (!!!) during this regular season, by far the record. The Rockets made 27 in a regular season game versus the Pelicans this year. They shot 70 in a game versus the Nets. They also missed 27 threes in a row in their game 7 versus the Warriors in the last West Finals.
After the game on Friday May 10th, LeBron tweeted “just get me a bucket!” David West had a similar sentiment being “Stop letting nerds tell you how to play basketball.” Both are making the same point. The Rockets have become the prototypical “modern” NBA team, and while this has led to extensive regular season success and victories, it has cost them in the post season. Their reliance on getting calls is especially damning. After game one of this year’s series with the Warriors, NBA Twitter exploded over “landing zones”. Absolute nonsense. The NBA should remain consistent in the fouls it wants its officials to call in the regular and post season. That said, the post season no matter what is a different animal. There is no room for soft calls, and calls that bring higher point totals. And that is how the Rockets have played. This writer thinks James Harden is an excellent player. He just won the MVP last year. But he has shown to be a different player in the post season. His efficiency goes way down, and there is less success overall. The point made is that in the playoffs, you have less opportunities. You just need the bucket. Who cares how you get it. If you make an 18 foot two pointer, who cares that it wasn’t the most perfect shot. No one will complain if you make it. People will remember if you flop for two and don’t get it, or kick your feet for a three.
The landscape of the NBA is about to seismically change yet again. Kevin Durant is probably going to leave the Warriors. In addition, superstars like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving are set to be free agents. Anthony Davis is very clearly available for the right price. Teams are going to look very different come next season. But will the Rockets? Chris Paul is a hall of famer, and has turned the Rockets into…well maybe a better team? In hindsight, was trading Patrick Beverly, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams worth it for a guy at the tail end of his career? The sacrifice of depth for another star. All three of those players would make an extreme difference for the Rockets at this point.
So what now? If the Rockets want to just run it back, they will probably earn a top 4 seed again next season. But changes must be made if this franchise wants to become a true title contender. James Harden needs to do some soul searching. Does he want to be the definition of an excel player, and put up awesome stats, and never actually get anywhere in a quest for a title? Or does he want to be who he is, and become a new super Manu, a left-handed Kobe Bryant. Harden is a top 10 talent in the league. Rockets management will have a hard decision to make with Chris Paul. Yes, he is an all timer, but he does not fit with this team. I think he should be shipped off to Detroit for Blake Griffin (and hopefully Luke Kennard). Less Paul means more harden as the nucleus of the team. Griffin is a player who has evolved over his career, and would fit amazingly with this Rockets team. The Rockets have done good in scouring the reclaim pile, and turning players like Austin Rivers and Gerald Green into decent rotational pieces. But more is needed. Another solid 3 and D wing addition would further do this team wonders. They could just have a chance next season by default. There is a huge power vacuum in the works. The Rockets could throw back the exact same system, and see if it will work again. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Doing something unexpected like moving on from Paul would break that mold. The Rockets have the chance to fill that power vacuum, but will they do it?
Written by Austen Johnson (@TheMackAttack5)
Featured image: Bleacher Report