By: Forrest Walker
The world has yet to see if the new, improved Houston Rockets can grab a playoff win in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant and his Thunder have twice pulled the rug out from under a Rockets team surging to overcome huge deficits, and the Rockets are learning about playoff basketball in the hardest way possible. The present may be full of pain and heartbreak for Houston, but if we turn back the clock just a few years, we can see another team that was handed the same lessons in their first playoff run.
In 2010, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in just their second year of existence, and already had managed to secure a surprising 50 wins in 82 tries. They leapfrogged their previous 23-win record to land in the 8th seed of a particularly competitive year for the western conference. The three-way tiebreaker between Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio handed the Thunder the unenviable task of unseating the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending NBA champions. The Thunder were still very much a work in progress, and this was to be Kevin Durant’s first test against the most difficult possible opponent.
The Lakers went on to win another NBA title, but the first round series they played against the Thunder is burned into Oklahoma City’s legacy. Three of these games were decided by five points or less, and the teams traded blowouts in games four and five. The home team won every game until the fateful game six, in which the Lakers edged out the Thunder by only a single point. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka took the hard lessons they learned and turned them into a Western Conference Finals appearance the next year, and an NBA Finals berth the year after that.
But now that James Harden has split from one of the most stable rosters in the NBA and found a leadership position on his own team, it’s Houston’s turn to try to internalize a first round loss and turn it into the skills, toughness, savvy and focus that an NBA team needs in the playoffs. Whether or not the Rockets can turn this group of potential stars and young role players into a contender has yet to be seen. But some clues can be found in a comparison to the Thunder of yore, back when they had more questions than answers.
At the start of the year, The Houston Rockets resembled the inaugural Thunder, they of 23 wins and an unpolished core. But as everyone predicted a trip to the lottery, the Rockets shocked the world by transforming from a ragtag group of misfits to an eighth seed (and as high as the sixth seed for one heartbreaking moment). The question is this: just how much do the Rockets have in common with that 2010 Thunder team?
The answer is a surprising. The most notable stat in the pile is that both teams sported a 3.5 point margin on the season, which was good for 50 wins for Oklahoma City, but only 45 for Houston. As a yardstick of overall quality, average margin is remarkably useful, and shows that the two teams separated by time are at least in the same ballpark in terms of overall quality. The thunder shot 46.2% from the field that year, with the Rockets managing 46.1% this year. Their total rebounds differed by only six, OKC edging Houston out with 3567 (Though in fairness, the Thunder had 960 offensive boards to Houston’s 909).
In places where numbers differed, NBA ranks were similar. Both teams were in the top 4 of free throws attempted and top 3 of free throws made (though the Thunder shot free throws about 5% better). Both teams finished in the bottom 6 in turnovers committed, with Houston’s 30th spot partially caused by their breakneck pace. With only 25 steals separating the teams (Rockets led with 679), it’s not hard to see the comparisons.
Of course, the teams differ in significant ways, including a rather stark contrast in three point shots. Houston was second in the league in both number of tries (2396) and makes (867). The 2010 Thunder were near the bottom of the league with a paltry 418 makes and 1229 tries. The 2013 Rockets also out-assisted the 2010 Thunder, with a 6th best 1902 as opposed to a 23rd best 1639. The Thunder, on the other hand, dominated the league in blocks with a massive 481, while the Rockets are 24th with only 359.
What can we take away from this, then? The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. The Rockets lead in execution stats, like threes and assists, but trail in athletic stats like blocks. Houston is playing a more optimized game under Morey’s infamous advanced stats, but may have a lower ceiling than the rougher Thunder. Given that the Thunder managed the same margin of victory and more wins with far fewer threes and assists, this suggests the obvious: the core of Oklahoma City’s team is more talented than Houston’s.
This can be borne out by the somewhat different course of the two playoff series. The Thunder played hard and won their first two home games against a truly great team. The Rockets, on the other hand, suffered a heartbreaking loss at home to a team missing their second best player. It’s possible that the Rockets pull out a game or two, but a 3-0 hole is all but insurmountable in the best of circumstances, and Jeremy Lin’s chest injury isn’t helping.
The hope here is that the Rockets can replicate a similar rise in following years. While the comparative lack of talent might make this sound unlikely, Houston actually has one very good reason to believe they can improve at the same rate. Houston has a giant pile of cap space and a gutsy general manager to go with it. Houston may not have reason to believe that three of their players will become all stars, but they have the option to bring on into the fold in the offseason.
The “Thunder model” has been touted as a path to the Finals, and every young team seems expected to follow that route. When comparing the Rockets model to the Thunder’s, there is a pattern of similarity. That similarity frays around the edges, however, but that’s fine. Houston doesn’t need to follow the Thunder model, or even the Heat model. They’re following the Rockets model.