The NBA season is drawing ever closer, and soon every newly minted contender will have to back up their championship hopes with championship play. The Houston Rockets, as newly-minted challengers to the throne, are under pressure to meet lofty goals. On Monday we looked at how it could all fall apart. Today, we examine what might happen when everything goes according to plan. What’s the best case scenario for Houston?
The short answer is very short: NBA Championship. That’s every team’s end goal, and every team’s potential best-case scenario. The difference between saying that for, say, the Washington Wizards and saying that for the Houston Rockets is the level of realism in the prediction. Washington, while much improved this year, and reasonably able to make the playoffs, are a far cry from the Eastern Conference’s elite teams. There’s a plausibly possible scenario in which they could take home a championship this season, but it would involve major injuries at just the right time to a dozen players, or a complete transformation into superstars for several Wizards.
Houston’s scenario is much more clear cut. If one simply examines realistic contingencies, Houston’s best case is still winning it all. By no means is this the most likely outcome, but it’s a one that the Rockets could achieve largely by factors they can control, such as the skill and performance of their players, and not by strokes of ill fortune by other teams, such as injury. What would this season look like, then?
The best way for a team to help themselves to a Larry O’Brien trophy is holding home court advantage as often as possible in the playoffs. Simply having the best record overall is always a goal for contending teams, and a stunning regular season would be optimal for Houston. If everything clicks, if Ömer Aşık becomes a super reserve, if all the new role players perform to potential, this could happen. The Rockets are positioned to have one of the deeper benches in the league, and bench depth is an elite team’s best friend in the regular season.
While players like Luol Deng, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant toil for over 38 minutes a game, teams like the San Antonio Spurs choose to give their starters plenty of rest in season. If head coach Kevin McHale can be convinced to let the backups carry more of the load, the Rockets could follow a similar path. While the difference between 38 and 35 minutes a game has been debated recently, there benefits of a Spurs style bench use are threefold. Long, meaningful rest, and entire days off give players a break from the grind, helping players maintain their longevity. Freshness in season and time added to the end of a player’s career are the goal.
But even if that’s oversold, the other two benefits are very tangible. Playing reserve units allows them to develop more chemistry, and allows the team to identify the skills and fit of those players. There’s no substitute for actual NBA minutes, and playing an entire reserve group outside of garbage time can lead to a more skilled and better-managed bench lineup.
The last benefit is purely mental, and has been discussed less than the others. Resting players, especially for games at a time, shows that their physical and mental well-being is the team’s top priority. This requires the team to be confident enough to effectively give up on certain games, but that’s the level of confidence the Rockets will need to find before they can find a ring. Giving James Harden and Dwight Howard a road game off here and there could be used to build up trust between the team and the stars, as well as letting them save something for the playoffs.
So these hypothetical Rockets are keeping their stars’ minutes down and winning games thanks to an elite bench that includes Ömer Aşık and Patrick Beverley. They’ve also been mastering the pick and roll offense, a weapon which was already deadly. Now, with continued staggering of Jeremy Lin and James Harden parallel to the Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık minutes stagger, there’s always a high-level screen and roll threat on the floor. In the rare case that a team goes big to try to shut down interior offense and rebounding, the Rockets respond with a devastating duo of big men to overpower them. Dwight Howard has also picked up an increasingly effective post game, thanks in equal part to the deadly ballet of Olajuwon’s teachings and the fundamental soundness of McHale’s expertise.
When the season comes to an end, these potential Rockets have found a chemistry that allows them to compete for 48 minutes a game, and have won over 60 of them. They’ll have home court advantage in the first three rounds, and maybe even the finals if the Heat slip even a little bit. What do the playoffs look like, then?
All the resting the starters were doing is suddenly in the past. Harden, Lin, Howard, Chandler Parsons, and whichever power forward made the leap will be playing big minutes, and able to play as hard as they want. When they do need to sit, an experienced and cohesive group can filter in one by one without disrupting the gameplan. Most importantly, the opposing basket will be under lock and key by two elite defensive centers for 48 minutes a night. Howard’s athletic defense and Aşık’s methodical prowess could vault Houston’s defense into the top echelon if players like Parsons have energy available on defense. A more focused offense allows players to work less on that end, and even James Harden might be able to devote some small sliver of effort to defending the ball. Maybe.
If Houston is the top seed in the west, they’ll get the privilege of meeting the 8th seed in the first round. While the west is stacked from spots one to six, place eight looks to be an easy out for the top team. The 7th and 8th seeds will be reserved for teams like the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers. Of all of those, the Lakers would be the most dramatic matchup, and would instantly turn the world’s eyes to Dwight Howard and Houston. Moving on to the winner of the 4 vs 5 matchup after a quick dispatch of the Lakers would be the best possible first round.
The second round is harder to predict. The Oklahoma City Thunder are too good to fall below third seed in anything but a total injury disaster. That leaves the Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers as the most likely candidates for the 4th seed, with the other joining OKC in the 2-3 range. The Spurs have been consistent and victorious in the regular season for years, which means the Clippers would be the safer bet. While the Grizzlies remain strong, and improved Warriors team could easily snap up the 5th seed, leading to a brutal showdown between the two top California teams. The best case for Houston would be another first round exit for Chris Paul and his Clips. If there’s one thing that can get a team excited, it’s a playoff series against a new rival.
After a tough series, the Golden State Warriors would be tired but still deadly. The best case would be two teams with vaguely similar makeup and offenses meeting to discover who does it better. The shootoff between Harden and Steph Curry would be one for the ages, with Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut battling one another down low. A Rockets victory here would not only give us one of the most exciting series of the year, but also prove that Houston can survive offensive onslaughts. On, then, to the conference finals.
In this theoretical world, the biggest question is who the Rockets have to beat to make the finals. The Spurs and the Thunder would also provide an amazing second round series, of which only one could be the victor. For motivational purposes, a conference finals battle with the Thunder would be more meaningful than a victory over the current Western Conference Champions, but only by the smallest of margins. A true showdown with Harden’s old team would bring a level of intensity to the third round that was sorely missing last year. Neither team would sweep the other as the Spurs did the Memphis Grizzlies. In most universes, the Thunder would pull out a win and move on to the Finals. In the universe we’re discussing, a few incredible plays from Harden and Parsons pull out the series, leading Houston to their first Finals appearance in twenty years.
There can be no other opponent than the reigning Miami Heat in the Finals. LeBron James is at the peak of his abilities, and Chris Bosh is far better than he’s given credit for. The biggest question mark that matters is Dwyane Wade and his ongoing durability issues. He remains one of the best guards in the league, but has slowed down noticeably. He’ll still put up two amazing performances in the NBA Finals, but unless something can be done to turn the tides of time, he could realistically turn in a few very poor games.
A sweep or quick win would be beautiful for Houston diehards, but the best case for the team would be a dramatic win in game 7. A last second drive to the lane by Harden that ends with someone sinking a buzzer beating three to seal the game in Miami, if we’re getting specific, would be the greatest possible end to this season for Houston. That’s what the last seconds of the Rockets’ season would look like.
As this increasingly fanciful exercise shows, winning it all is quite conceivable for Houston. It isn’t particularly likely, and would require the Rockets to either be a lot better than expected or for everyone else to be worse than expected. Chemistry would have to flourish, and McHale’s minutes usage would need to take a massive turn. It’s possible, though, and how long it stays possible throughout the season will measure how good Houston’s season turns out.