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On contention

There are about four questions that people ask over the course of the NBA season. “How does he compare to Jordan” is probably number one, asked about seemingly half the league, with “Will this team make the playoffs soon” at a close number two. The last two, in no particular order are “Will this player get traded” and “Is this team a contender.” Well, Houston’s more or less a playoff lock now, nobody on the team is comparable to Jordan, and everyone is always on the trading block, so that leaves the last question to burn in the minds of Rockets fans. But what makes a contender in the first place? What’s the rubric there, and how do we use it to judge Houston?

To jump to the end a bit, the answer is no. The Rockets aren’t a true contender. (They could potentially win it all but it would take a few major things to swing their way. Some people call these teams “sub-contenders.”) They were in the same boat last year, and probably aren’t greatly different in terms of overall team strength. They’ve changed out parts but what they haven’t changed out are the pieces that a team needs to win it all: stars, elite coaching and cohesive, skilled role-players.

Do you want to know my theory of what makes a true contender? Probably you do, or you’d have stopped reading by now. I briefly outlined it in a recent podcast, and it’s worth a longer look. It’s really a simple mathematical equation. You need at least three points. Star level players are worth one point each. An elite coach and an elite supporting cast are each worth one point each. The math is really that simple. The process of getting those three points, of course, is anything but.

The Rockets, as with a number of teams, are stuck at two points. Those two points are James Harden and Dwight Howard. The supporting cast last season was quite good, but not on the same level as the clockwork that was the San Antonio Spurs or the blue collar perfection of the Pacers (when they were good). That cause was also hindered by not having an elite coach. Kevin McHale isn’t elite. In fact, he was so loathe to use his bench depth that he may have pulled the Rockets back from contention a bit.

This explains why the Spurs are always right there: Tony Parker is a legitimate star, even if Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have slid a bit. Gregg Popovich is a top three NBA coach of all time, and their supporting case is like alien technology so advanced that it seems like magic. Heck, with Tim playing like a star, the Spurs may have achieved the elusive four-star team, which is basically unstoppable. Oh, and look what happened. The Heat, with their three stars initially, bulldozed their way in. It’s largely overlooked, but Erik Spoelstra evolved into an elite coach for that team as Dwyane Wade faded.

The most frightening thing about this metric is that it paints the Dallas Mavericks as potential contenders. Dirk is probably still a star, Rick Carlisle is a top three coach right now, and their supporting cast might be great. If any year has looked like a potential repeat of 2011 for Dallas, it’s this season. It’ll be a roll of the dice, but if Dirk and the role players click particularly well, Houston could have a realistic shot at the conference finals and still end up being the worst team in Texas.

Houston has a similar hope to Dallas, which is that the role players just get it. It’s possible, especially given the number of prospects Houston is bringing in. (And that like Dallas, the coaching won’t be improving… but for different reasons) There are more veterans, too, like Trevor Ariza, who will somehow be a boon to the team, despite some hard feelings from last time he wore Rockets red. General manager Daryl Morey is surely planning a trade this season, and the main question is whether he’ll land that elusive third star or upgrade the supporting cast into an elite squad. Either way, Houston wants that third point this season, and they might just get it. If we’re really lucky, this might be the year we get to see the Rockets lose later than the first round.

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