In a recent 5-on-5 feature, only one respondent ranked the Rockets among his top 5 teams entering next season. The exercise itself holds little bearing – Houston was expected to finish among the bottom half of playoff teams last season, before ultimately claiming the second seed. But for our purposes, where do the Rockets really stand among contenders? To begin, the most striking thing about the Western Conference is the existence of the Oklahoma City Thunder. When recounting the absolute brutality of the conference, one easily forgets that it did not feature the team that entered the season considered to be the very best in all of basketball. Even with Kevin Durant’s health in question, it’s more likely than not that the Thunder are back near the top, and thus, should not be discounted.
For all of the crying we Rockets fans do about perceived disrespect, Grizzlies fans have a whole different gripe. For a team that would probably run away with the East were it in that conference, you’d think they were like the Bobcats or something given the respect they receive overall. It’s true that Memphis must probably change its archaic ways to rise to the very cream in the modern NBA, but on the flip side, what if Mike Conley’s face hadn’t shattered, and Tony Allen hadn’t gotten hurt? Isn’t it likely Memphis crushes the Warriors’ soul and holds onto that series lead? Are we then still talking about pace and space as necessity?
And then there’s the Clippers who come back improved with the addition of Paul Pierce’s manhood, but featuring the hilariously ironic bench duo of Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. Has any team in league history featured a more combustible pair?
Are the Spurs necessarily better than Houston? They are the Spurs, so it’s a safe bet they’ll be in the mix, but do we know if Tony Parker is still alive? Maybe it takes longer than expected to integrate LaMarcus Aldridge into the offense, whereas Houston will just be looking to plug Ty Lawson into the same sets run for James Harden. And on a related note, has any other supposed top-10 player gotten anywhere near the free pass Kawhi Leonard received for the dud he turned in in the Spurs’ finale? Just thinking out loud.
Then of course, there are the new kids on the block in Utah and New Orleans, waiting for any slippage from the top ranks, to ascend into the next tier. The only real constant we can expect is that Dallas will suck, because, well, they struck out again, unless paying a recovering Wes Matthews more than James Harden is to be deemed any sort of victory. As marvelously as this offseason has gone for Houston, the biggest loss was that DeAndre returned back home to California; had he not backed out on his promise to Dallas, even with Chandler Parsons’ “best center-shooting guard duo” in tow, the Mavs would not have posed a threat in the pecking order, but the Clippers would have been crippled. Instead, well, the Mavs still don’t pose a threat.
Ultimately, the championship will be determined by health. Despite record setting regular season differentials, I’m not entirely convinced in the Warriors’ perceived unequivocal superiority. Things might have played out differently had they faced a single starting point guard in the playoffs, or a starting power forward in the latter rounds. You could essentially throw the top 6 of GSW, HOU, LAC, SAS, OKC, and MEM into a bag, and dump them out in any order, with health as the ascending factor. The Rockets could finish sixth, or, they could just as well finish at the top.