Dwight Howard and James Harden are both superstars. Superstar level talent is the most coveted asset in the NBA, and the Houston Rockets somehow went in for a second serving in two summers. After wildly exceeding expectations and making the playoffs last season, the Rockets now looks like a real playoff threat in a stacked Western Conference. The natural reaction to this news is celebration, excitement and speculation. As a wave of good feelings washes over Houston and Rockets fans around the world, it’s easy to surf that wave. The Lakers surfed the same wave last season, and it came crashing down on top of them. It’s worth climbing off the tower a little bit today to avoid backing away from the ledge next year.
It’s important to remember that there are loads of reasons to believe that the Rockets are on track to win 55+ games and cement home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Dwight Howard, when healthy, is a top ten player in the league at worst, and James Harden is already on his way to that tier. This Rockets team is young, flexible and well-run. There’s no reason that they can’t knock on the door of the Finals this year or any year. That being said, there are a million reasons why they might not make that huge jump everyone’s slating them for. In fact, it’s reasonable to think they might not even move up in the standings in their own division.
It would be easy to forget the lessons of last season due to the success of that same season. Going into that pre-season, Jeremy Lin was the biggest name on the roster and Ömer Aşık’s contract was under attack for being too pricey. The Houston Tank Job finally seemed to be around the corner, and a losing season was overwhelmingly predicted for the young, inexperienced Rockets. Even after the eleventh hour acquisition of James Harden, the Rockets were only supposed to win five or six more games, barely scraping a .500 record. Apart from general manager Daryl Morey and his front office, nobody expected the Rockets to make the playoffs and be, well… good.
After getting ready to just enjoy a fun, fast-paced ride and root for breakout games and skill from prospects, Rockets fans were treated to a meal they’d been ready to pass up. Competitive games and an exciting first round playoff series made anything look possible. For a couple days in May, unspoken hopes too dangerous to believe rushed to the surface. Could the Rockets possibly beat the Thunder? Could they be the first NBA team to come back from 0-3? The answer, of course, was no. But the tone had changed. Houston was about to stop being a team of the future and start being a team of today.
Now Morey’s gone and snagged the biggest fish in the pond, Dwight Howard, and expectations have ballooned to titanic proportions. With the painful nadir of a rebuild quietly skipped over, and a growing Houston team pairing up with a top talent, why wouldn’t they make the playoffs? The second round? The conference finals? The NBA finals, even? Heck, when do we start clearing a spot for the third Larry O’Brien trophy? Everything seems to be going Houston’s way the past year. Why not a little longer?
Health, chemistry and luck are why not. Even if you think the Rockets are the most talented team in the league (they’re not) or the most skilled (they’re not), they aren’t immune to the same factors which derail 29 teams every year. Luck and health worked to sideline Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s star point guard and a truly important player. There seemed to be no chance for the Thunder to miss the Finals before Westbrook’s Houston-related injury in the playoffs. A pair of knees colliding in next year’s playoffs could see James Harden sitting instead, and there’s no way to predict it or even safeguard against it.
The Los Angeles Lakers of last year are perhaps the most chilling cautionary tale of all. A team that by all rights should have competed for the top record in the league instead floundered and struggled, barely cementing a playoff spot at all. All three factors worked against them, with Kobe Bryant’s freak achilles tear at the end of the season as the penultimate blow. After losing dozens of player games to injury and struggling to find a system to accommodate four star players in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, the Lakers were dealt a final indignity when Howard fled to Houston, hoping to escape those problems. If that team in that city with those players couldn’t make it work, then nothing is certain.
It’s therefore entirely possible that the NBA Finals light at the end of a mediocrity tunnel is only a mirage. But looking toward the destination distracts from the scenery that’s rushing by, and that’s an equal concern. The wonder and excitement of seeing James Harden and his team exceed all limits was its own reward last season. Aşık’s quiet dominance and workmanlike demeanor were reasons to watch Rockets games. Chandler Parsons moved forward in a year everyone expected regression, culminating with an amazing explosion in the playoffs on a national stage. The Rockets didn’t get out of the first round, but it didn’t matter. They’d done so much, so fast, and it was so amazing. But anyone who just looked at the standings, just waited until April to catch games was missing out.
With so many questions that can’t be answered until the season begins, raised expectations are an invitation for disappointment. The Rockets spoiled Houston fans with an amazing, exciting season beyond anyone’s expectations. Morey then followed it up by snagging a free agent that would have been merely a pipe dream only months earlier. It’s tempting to claim greatness before it’s been earned. But the road to that greatness is just as fascinating and far easier to miss. the Rockets may not blast apart ceilings this year, but they’re sure to make moves and show abilities nobody expected. The only way to find out is to watch them for what they are, not cursing them for what they aren’t… yet. Getting swept up in the tide of good feelings is easy, but letting a team surprise you is sublime.