At the time of writing, the Houston Rockets are on pace to win 61 games, a sum which would surpass the franchise record set in 1993 when the team finished 58-24 en route to their first NBA championship. The team’s offense, ranked third overall in the NBA, is every bit as good as was expected, and the defense, now 19th, but sixth since in December, has been better than anyone could have ever imagined. James Harden is the MVP and others (Mike D’Antoni, Patrick Beverley, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon) could be in consideration for the other awards. To date, the 2016-2017 campaign has been a remarkable ride, and the most unexpected season perhaps in Houston sports history.
Its important to note how we got here. I wrote back in July of my realist’s optimism, resigned in my belief that while they could not truly be elite, that the Rockets would espouse a brand of novelty would be intriguing enough:
Especially in light of the Harden extension, I think the Rockets are doing the right thing. Realistically, yeah, they probably have a ceiling. But what’s the alternative? If you trade Harden, you’re just hoping to get back a player who will some day be as good as he is, and that in itself is a long shot. At the least, now, you have that main guy, locked in through his prime. You’ve added premiere shooters, something you’ve never had, and a coach who might be able to maximize Harden’s abilities. Now, as I outlined in Episode 101, you look to internal growth from young players: can Clint Capela take the next step? If Donatas Motiejunas returns, can he return to his 2015 form? Can either of Sam Dekker or K.J. McDaniels become major contributors? If Harden is focused, and the above items occur, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t repeat their success from two seasons ago. Maybe they can lead the league in scoring – that is interesting to me. Sure, there would still be a sizable gap between Houston and the Warriors/Spurs, but is that really the end of the world?
Like almost everyone else, I did not believe in the Rockets. I wrote back in October that while it was clear the team would be improved, I didn’t see a clear path to contention. I argued that the goal in 2017 was simply to change the narrative surrounding the team. At that moment, the Rockets looked like a team that was simply pushing in all its chips on Harden and hoping for the best.
The narrative has emphatically been changed. Houston is the feel-good story of the year. And while he may not take home the Most Valuable Player Award for indefensible reasons beyond the scope of this piece, James Harden undeniably has repaired his reputation around the league. At the time of writing, the Rockets sit comfortably in the West’s third seed, three games in the loss column ahead of the Clippers, a margin greater than the two losses that separate Houston from the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs. They have the third-best record in the entire NBA, boasting three more wins than the defending champion Cavaliers. While the Warriors remain in a class of their own, Houston, right now, is indisputably one of the best teams in the NBA. The goal now is not narrative; the goal is a return trip to the West’s Finals.
I’m reinvigorated now in my apathy towards the big move. I want to ride this out and depend upon internal improvement. Houston finally has the chemistry that it could only imagine in the abstract in years past. Gordon and Ryan Anderson are Harden’s basketball extensions. They amplify his otherworldly gifts. And Beverley allows Gordon and Harden to co-exist, while Gordon’s playmaking masks for Beverley. Capela, before his injury, was cementing his case as the team’s future at center, and Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker, in their contributions, appear to be Daryl Morey’s most impressive draft haul yet.
So what comes next? My belief now, more than ever, is that the Rockets must play this string out and look to organic growth above all. They should eschew flexibility when it compromises core continuity. To that end, I strongly advocated the re-signing of Donatas Motiejunas, even to the extent that it would take the team out of the running next summer for B-Level free agency. I wanted to load this team up and then look to operate above the cap.
Houston can expect steady, continued development out of Capela, Dekker, and Harrell, the latter’s contributions possibly coming as the greatest surprise. I wrote at length on Capela earlier in the year as to why he’s almost the ideal counterpart to James Harden. As Capela continues to mature, he’ll improve his ability to defend bigger players inside, probably his greatest weakness at this point. Sam Dekker’s long-range shooting is down to 33%, after hovering above 40 for a significant portion of the year. His energy in the second unit has been game-changing, and the accidental discovery that he could sort of defend Kevin Durant was a revelation in light of hopes that he can eventually serve as Trevor Ariza insurance. Once Dekker gains consistency on his shooting–which he should, as his form is textbook, unlike his predecessor, Chandler Parsons–Dekker will be a natural fit next to Harden in this team’s starting lineup, a continuity in the philosophy of surrounding the MVP candidate with high-energy players.
And then there is Harrell, Morey’s latest diamond in the rough, taken 32nd overall in 2015, who, at the time of writing, is shooting 66% from the field, a figure which, had Harrell had the sufficient number of qualifying attempts, would have been good for third in the league. The temptation in years past might have been to sell high on the second year forward, with the conclusion being that his production is simply a factor of the opportunities afforded from his role. But if the Rockets have found a player who perfectly fills the role in front of him, rather than assuming the impact can be replaced, would it not be prudent to simply retain the player and allow him to thrive?
Because of their astonishing success this season, its easy to forget that not only is this system entirely new, on both sides of the ball, but it is James Harden’s first year as a full-fledged point guard. One can imagine incremental growth just simply through increased familiarity through time, on both accounts. And while Gordon has had the green light, I envision the 6th-man-of-the-year frontrunner getting even more comfortable with his place on this team, and reimagining himself as an actual frontline star as he was originally regarded, rather than just another piece of the puzzle.
There is continuity now amongst the quartet of Beverley, Harden, Ariza, and Brewer, and to a lesser degree Capela, a group that still holds in its memory its appearance in the West Finals just two seasons ago. I had hoped Motiejunas could remain amidst those names, but it was not to be. Now they must build upon that chemistry with the other major rotation pieces, all of whom are under 30 years of age, and supplement only through shrewd moves like the ones that brought Harrell in the first place. They could look to package Brewer and McDaniels at the deadline to shore up the bench and improve their chances in May. Unexpectedly, the focus is now, and not the future.