Why can’t Houston win the West?
Certainly, the Warriors should be expected to be the conference's top team, returning essentially every relevant player from their historically dominant title team. The Spurs nabbed LaMarcus Aldridge, the Thunder have Kevin Durant back, and the Clippers have a bench for the first time in the Doc Rivers era.
Still, for a team that finished second in a loaded West, made the conference finals, added talent at a position of most dire need, and have other key players returning to health, the Rockets have been relegated to “and also” status in many discussions of the conference's elite. Part of the burgeoning “Golden State was lucky to not have to play anybody” narrative is based on the Warriors playing the Rockets rather than the Spurs or Clippers in last year’s semifinal round. The implication being that Houston was unworthy of their Final Four appearance, the classic “happy to be here” mid-major, jumped up to the professional stage.
The lack of respect seems to be carrying into this season, as well. The opening line for Houston’s season wins (from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook) was set at 54.5, with title odds of 20–1. San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Clippers had lines of 58.5, 57.5 and 56.5 respectively, with title odds of 4-, 6-, and 8-to-1.
This seems to reflect the general mood heading into the season. The Rockets are right there. Except not really. Several factors seem to be holding Houston back in public perception.
Better but also worse
The Rockets were tough to get a handle on last year. They won 56 games, but their overall point differential was equivalent to a team expected to capture six fewer victories. They had a top-10 defense that relied inordinately on opponents missing shots. Their trip to the conference finals was as much about the implosions of the Mavericks (injuries and Rajon Rondo) and then the Clippers (fatigue and weight of Clipperness). They were a limited team riding one star having a transcendent season (more on James Harden in a bit) and some kind breaks to an underserved level of achievement.
At the same time, their defensive anchor, Dwight Howard, played only 50 games and was limited by injuries when on the court. The three members of their preferred frontcourt rotation (Howard, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas) all played in the same game only four times last season — the first four games of the year. Motiejunas missed the playoffs, as did Patrick Beverley, the team’s best option for defending elite point guards, of which there are plenty in the West.
Add those factors together and the 2014-15 Rockets are the unusual team that was worse than their record but better than they played.
Unreliable, unlikable or just unliked?
If one word could describe the conventional wisdom on why Houston will come up short, it would be “trust.” The Rockets top players are seen as flaky, flawed characters. Harden might never live down the supercuts of his somnambulant defensive effort for much of 2013-14, though by most measures he improved from dreadful to passable in 2014-15. Given his offensive responsibilities, even that was stunning progress, which represented about one part extra effort to three or four parts figuring out how to conserve energy on defense in less disastrously obvious ways.
But beyond the defense, Harden’s game is seen as based on fakery, all euro-steps and flops, drawing contact that just won’t get called in the postseason when more physicality is allowed. But aside from the aborted 2013-14 series loss to Portland, Harden’s per-minute free throw attempt rate in the playoffs is virtually identical to his regular-season average. It might not be pretty, but the flails and inducements of contact work, as much as aesthetes might wish they didn’t.
Howard, meanwhile, might be the least public relations-adept superstar in the modern game. Since his engineered departure from Orlando and even before (remember that press conference?), Howard has been seen as a flake. A player not taking his craft seriously. An underachieving uber-athlete. Certainly, he’s not helped by the constant sniping from retired players — especially Shaquille O’Neal — about how he must do more.
Lost in O’Neal’s criticisms is the fact that because of rule changes, more advanced schemes, and more competitive defensive play, the days of dumping it into a big man for him to “jump hook ‘em to death” and make “barbecue chicken,” to use two of O’Neal’s favored phrases are gone. Howard should — and can — be the prototype for the offensive dynamism of the modern NBA center. Using both his size and agility to crash to the rim in pick-and-roll attacks, with his athleticism and soft hands allowing him to create vertical spacing around the rim, Howard could be the best version of that DeAndre Jordan/Tyson Chandler vintage of player.
Instead, because it is still in some retrograde circles seen as the thing to do, he demands post touches. To mediocre effect. The only players less efficient from the post averaging at least three such plays per game in 2014-15 were Nene, and another player best used a pick-and-roll battering ram, Andre Drummond.
But despite not being the player his critics wish him to be — one that exists nowhere except in fever dreams of Anthony Davis’s future — Howard remains a cornerstone talent. Only Andrew Bogut had a bigger on/off split in terms of opponents attempting fewer shots at the rim last season, with opponents getting to the bucket almost 3.5 times less often per 36 minutes with Howard patrolling the paint. Even on one leg, he remains a sizable deterrent.
As for the rest of the roster, Ty Lawson and Jones have had their share of off-floor foibles, and Motiejunas and Beverley are flirting with the “injury prone” tag.
Also relevant is the seeming disdain held for general manager Daryl Morey. This is less based on a lack of trust as pure schadenfreude. Who doesn’t like to see the class know-it-all fall on his face? It might not be completely fair, but Morey’s public brand as the Billy Beane of basketball wins him few friends around the league, who can’t love the implicit message of “look at this other guy who is better and smarter at your job than you are.”
All of this enmity makes the Rockets easy to root against and suggests there might be more than a touch of wish fulfillment lurking behind the “not quite there” preseason predictions. Further, it ignores the strengths of the roster.
Waves of talent
In many ways, the Rockets have one of the largest margins for error of any team in the NBA this season. Every spot—except for Harden's—has multiple options. Howard goes down? The agile, freakishly bouncy Clint Capela is waiting in the wings to feast on lobs and opponents’ layup attempts with equal frequency. Jones or Motiejunas not getting it done at the four? Maybe a look at either one of two rookies — stretch-four candidate Sam Dekker or Energizer Bunny-style worker Montrezl Harrell — could fill the void. Need a dose of athleticism and defense in the backcourt? There’s K.J. McDaniels. Not all of these players will develop into championship-level rotation players, but a few likely will.
The addition of Lawson helps on several levels. First, it upgrades the troublesome point guard position, where after Beverley, Houston’s only options were the aging Jason Terry and the aged-but-pesky Pablo Prigioni. Lawson, assuming his off-court issues are behind him, will be a big upgrade.
An understated benefit to Lawson’s presence is it may allow Houston to add a new best catch-and-shoot player to its offensive mix. Harden is probably the team’s most accurate bomber, but since he can’t pass to himself, many of the looks he has gotten over the past few years have tended to be those he hunted out for himself. Lawson will help lessen that rate for at least some number of possessions every night, finding Harden for easier shots.
More important, the sheer burden of creation that sat on Harden’s shoulders will be lifted from both a scoring and playmaking perspective. This can’t help but keep The Beard fresher for the postseason.
Plus, one of the hallmarks of the recent San Antonio and Golden State title teams was their ability to be comfortable in many different styles and setups. The Warriors’ traditional lineup isn’t working against the bigger Cavaliers? Switch things up, go small and win that way. Houston coach Kevin McHale will have a similar array of options. After years of being predictable — and thus defendable by other top teams — the Rockets will at least be equipped to try plans B, C and D if plan A is coming up short in a postseason series.
Questions all around
The Rockets have questions. Will Howard, Motiejuans and Beverley be healthy? Can Harden build on his transcendent playoffs performance? Can any of the rookies and second-year players become dependable night after night? These are real concerns.
But apply that same level of scrutiny to the other contenders, and cracks appear in those squads, as well. What happens to the Spurs machine if Tony Parker is done as a top-level offensive engine or if, perish the thought, Tim Duncan starts to decline? Can Billy Donovan succeed right away as an NBA coach, and how soon before Kevin Durant free agency questions start to interfere with on-court performance? The Clippers still might not be able to play championship-level defense, and still might not have a bench. Only the Warriors are really immune from this sort of inquiry, though it’s perhaps fair to wonder what happens to them if their injury luck reverses.
None of these teams, though, have been subject to the inquisition in the same way as Houston, which gets back to the earlier point: people are looking for reasons why the Rockets will fail, because that’s what they would prefer to see.