Can the Rockets Dethrone the Warriors?
Last season ended with the Golden State Warriors being crowned world champions, we all saw that coming. Immediately we begin the summer asking the question: Can anyone even come close to beating them? I mean, they went 16-1 on their way to the title. That isn't exactly scraping by. Many saw this season as a foregone conclusion, just another year where Golden State coasts to the finals and everyone else is left looking helpless. That's when this summer happened. We saw teams getting better left and right, it looked like some teams were accepting the challenge while others sat back, likely just biding their time until something happened that might bring the champs back down to earth. Before the start of the season I found myself examining the moves each team made and I couldn't convince myself anyone had done enough to beat them, not even close. Minnesota got better but not good enough. Oklahoma City looked promising but still miles away. Houston could be interesting but I was skeptical of their fit. Now after more than a quarter of the season has passed it seems I was right about all but one.
Houston is sensational. In fact, I wrote a post about the Rockets while Chris Paul was injured and they were winning without him. I wrote that I was concerned about adding him to an already thriving lineup. Well I'll admit my worries were wrong. It turns out adding Chris Paul only made them better. D'Antoni has staggered Paul and Harden's minutes allowing the Rockets to put a remarkable five player lineup on the floor at all times. Houston boasts the number 1 offense in the league and despite Harden's reputation for lazy defense he has improved on that end while the team has put together the leagues 6th best defense. They're absolutely blowing out their opponents, averaging 115 point per game, good for 2nd in the league in that category. Having James Harden and Chris Paul is enough to make any team good but it's the Rockets depth that makes them a real threat to the champs. Houston's supporting cast features an impressive Eric Gordon, ageless Trevor Ariza, under rated Clint Capela as well as sharp shooter Ryan Anderson, P.J. Tucker, Nene Hilario and Luc Mbah A Moute. This roster allows them the outside shooting, and rim protection they need in a wide range of lineups. This iteration of the Houston Rockets is the most competitive we've seen in the Harden era, that's not to say they haven't been great, they have. However the real test will be the playoffs, the big stage seems to challenge this Rockets core, specifically Harden who absolutely disappeared when it mattered most. Will their added depth and the experience of Chris Paul (another player who has struggled to find playoff success) take them to the next level? Will they be able to make the leap to compete with Golden State? The playoffs are a different animal and as we saw with the 73-9 Warriors team, the regular season doesn't mean anything if you can't get it done when it counts.