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Rethinking the Rockets’ Title Chances

James Harden could be leading a dark-horse title contender…

First of all, I must be up-front about a number of personal facts regarding my relationship with the Houston Rockets. First, I hate the Rockets. I absolutely despise them. Part of the reason has to do with me being a Thunder fan: James Harden trade, Patrick Beverley injuring Russell Westbrook, et al. Part of it has to do with me growing up in Dallas: although I never got on board with the Mavericks, my fellow Dallasites at least helped cultivate in me a hatred for the Spurs and Rockets. And part of it has to do with Dwight Howard and Harden as players: they’ve always struck me as guys—especially Howard—less interested in playing basketball and more interested in being the image of a basketball player. None of this even mentions Daryl Morey, who’s like a second-rate Mark Cuban, and Kevin McHale, who’s like a 12th-rate Rick Carlisle.

So there. Now you know where I stand emotionally. I have written in the past that I don’t consider Houston, this year, a serious title contender. I cited Howard’s seriousness as well as McHale’s X’s and O’s prowess. But you know what? I’m going to change my tune on Houston. I’m not going to suddenly like them—in fact, I despise them as much as ever—but this roster, spearheaded by Harden, is beginning to make me believe it’s a legitimate title contender.

Houston is one of four teams in the league with 40-plus wins. Houston, in fact, is only a game-and-a-half behind Memphis. Houston, when healthy, has one of the best duos in the league. Just as importantly, Morey has put together a sneaky-deep roster. Seemingly silly additions like Jason Terry and Corey Brewer suddenly look brilliant. And Josh Smith, are you joking? He hasn’t been horrible! (Besides that initial period of turbulence.) Actually, he has been pretty good. He of course still needs to stop shooting three-pointers, but he’s contributing rebounds, assists and blocks. In other words, he has almost become a glue-guy. Who would’ve thought…

Sunday afternoon, the Rockets beat the hot-but-injured Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, I don’t think reading deep metaphors into single games is a commendable practice, and I don’t think we should do so with this game because a) Kyrie Irving was out, and b) LeBron missed a bunch of free throws that he normally makes. In the end, though, a win’s a win. It had to feel good for Houston, who’s still waiting on the return of Howard.

The win last night was important not standing alone, but insofar as it continued Houston’s winning streak to five games—five wins without Howard, five wins in which three of the opponents were playoff teams and five wins that came after a 1-3 stretch earlier this month. One does have to acknowledge that this streak has all come on Houston’s home floor, and that the next stretch will be more difficult; three of the next five will be on the road, and three of those opponents will be the Hawks, Grizzlies and Blazers.

The Rockets are worth rethinking not because they have a five-game winning streak, not because James Harden is better than I’d like to admit and not because Dwight Howard should be returning in the next month—they’re worth rethinking because their supporting cast is experienced, offensively dynamic and incredibly energetic. By supporting cast, I don’t mean the bench but, rather, anyone not named Dwight Howard or James Harden. I mean the “other guys.”

Experienced. Terry, especially. He’s a guy who has won a title with Dallas and who, in his limited old-man minutes, provides a nice balance to the occasionally erratic Beverley and Harden. He fulfills that old sports axiom: “He knows what it takes to win.” You won’t find that in a statistic, but it’s important.

Offensively dynamic. Terrence Jones provides a double-double threat nightly, even with Howard in the lineup. Terry and Brewer give Houston some sharpshooting chops. Smith—Josh Smith!—when he’s disciplined, gives the Rockets a big man who can pass the ball and score both on and off the block. Houston has weapons.

Incredibly energetic. I really do doubt Howard and, to a lesser extent, Harden in terms of intent to kill—i.e., will they do whatever it takes to win? But guys like Beverley and Trevor Ariza have that drive, that determination. And I think when your role players attack with a ferocity like that, it spills over to everyone.

Look, the Rockets are good. Maybe not the best, but they’re good. Even if they pass Memphis in the standings, I don’t see them at the level of the Warriors/Grizzlies/Hawks, but I’d put them in the second tier of dark-horse contenders with teams like Cleveland and Portland.

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