Its too soon yet to schedule the parade. Moreso than the 127 minute sample size, the real issue is that much of this comes against a cream puff schedule. But a few more weeks of this and I think we’re onto something directly indicative of what to expect from this team over an 82 game season.
As I said earlier in the week, this right now just has the early feel of the 2017-2018 team, which of course was one of the best teams in the NBA of the last decade. I don’t quite recall at what point that team’s dominance became completely evident.
I’ve been thinking all morning about a point I myself made last night regarding last season after noting just how seamless the transition has been this season for the Rockets’ supporting cast: 2018-2019 was a reset year for the franchise. When you look at how smoothly every supporting player has adapted to his respective role, it beckons the memory of 2017-2018 where seemingly from the start, every last man knew his duties, from James Harden and Chris Paul at the top, down to Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute as the key cogs to the defense.
This year, of course, Harden and Russell Westbrook are the engine that makes the car go, but the likes of Danuel House Jr. and Austin Rivers play their roles to near perfection. That’s a very far cry from last season when half of the year was sacrificed trying to find players who could fit the system. Even after the team began rolling in the second half, after dumping Michael Carter-Williams, Carmelo Anthony, and James Ennis, the big trade deadline pickup Iman Shumpert struggled to crack the rotation. When Shumpert did get playing time, he looked like one of the most awkward fits in recent memory.
Last season was a reset on 2017-2018, where due to age and financial considerations, the franchise needed time to replace key players. They did just that in the second half, and as I had predicted, it carried over immediately into this season. (I’ve written repeatedly that I thought one of the Rockets’ two biggest advantages heading into the year was continuity.) Harden, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon are the core. The Rockets had to let go of Ariza and Mbah a Moute due to money and Paul due to age. And now they’ve replaced the latter three with House, Rivers, and Westbrook and all three are here or can be here for the long haul. (Rivers can be a free agent this summer, but the team could use Early Bird rights to retain him at a lucrative deal.)
What’s helped more is the trickle down effect in that even the end-of-bench guys this year have been positives. Almost every last man that Mike D’Antoni has turned to, from Tyson Chandler, to Ben McLemore and Chris Clemons, all players who won’t be in the rotation (or in Chandler’s case will see very limited playing time) come the postseason, has looked like a seamless fit in this system.
One of the league-wide truths from the past few years was that once Russell Westbrook’s legendary athleticism failed him, it would be a very painful demise. It was said that he didn’t have the shooting touch or smarts to age gracefully into his mid 30’s and still remain effective, having depended so long upon his other-worldly gifts to excel in this league. It was thus said for this reason that after John Wall, Westbrook’s max contract was the worst in the entire league.
Having been an NBA fan during this said period of time, I fully subscribed to the above-mentioned assertions. But my goodness, until I watched Westbrook night in and night out, with an actual rooting interest, I did not realize how bad it is or will become. It almost feels like there isn’t any aspect of his game that isn’t predicated entirely upon his athleticism, from his rebounding, to his transition attacks, to his mad dashes to the rim, to his woefully inaccurate pull-up jumper with defenders back on their heels anticipating his burst of speed.