Every year, fate smiles on a misbegotten sports team. But the 2012-13 Houston Rockets? No one even thought fate would crack a grin. Heck, no one even thought fate would remember they were in the room.
Their roster was like a sandcastle decimated by an ocean wave. Of their top five per-game scorers last year, not one is with the team this year. In the face of such turnover, teams don't think of making the playoffs, or even sniffing the playoffs.
They hope to be competitive in most of their games. They hope for another piece in the following year's draft. And they hope they don't embarrass themselves along the way.
And yet, despite a three-game losing streak, if the playoffs began today, Houston would be the seventh seed.
Even in Inception, the dreams never went on for half a season.
Could this be real?
The power forward rotation is solid. The backup center has at times been dominant. The backup guards have been big surprises.
The NBA's youngest team is also the second-highest scoring team and in eighth place in point differential.
All of these stats are surprises. But there's another, perhaps bigger, surprise.
This team is a pleasure to watch. And not just because they score like crazy.
It's because they seem to be crazy about each other.
Look at this play and you'll see what I mean. Asik blocks the shot. Harden races to save the ball before it goes out of bounds. Lin takes it upcourt and finds Asik for the flush.
Unselfish—the Rockets are ninth in the league in assists per game—uncomplaining and enthusiastic, the Rockets look for all the world like they're enjoying themselves out there and caring about each other's success.
When's the last time you could say that about an NBA franchise?
Daryl Morey didn't intend to choose character guys. He chose guys who were undervalued, based on advanced statistics.
But maybe Morey stumbled onto something. Doesn't it stand to reason that guys who are statistically underrated would be character guys? I've never heard of an underrated diva, an underrated prima donna, an underrated bad attitude.
It appears the side benefit of underrated players is this: Houston, we have no problems. (Unless you want to count Royce White. Since the Rockets haven't missed him, I don't.)
Other teams have rebuilt quickly before: the Boston Celtics became instant contenders when they added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Likewise with the Miami Heat's enlistment of LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
But Houston didn't do it with superstars. They did it with young, relatively unknown guys who had something to prove.
Asik wanted to prove he was a starter. Harden wanted to show the NBA he was both a starter and a superstar. Parsons wanted everyone to know he deserved to be drafted much higher than 38th overall. Lin wanted to serve notice that Linsanity was not a fluke.
The result: a young, hardworking and enjoyable group of guys who have to earn everything they get...and are doing just that.
These are guys the NBA just didn't fully appreciate. There's a reason the Thunder won 27 more games the year after they drafted Harden than they did the year before. Asik didn't play close to 36 minutes per game last year with the Bulls, but if he had, his 2.5 blocks and 13 rebounds per game would have led the league. Parsons was the SEC Player Of The Year in 2011: that's the SEC, as in the conference Kentucky plays in. Lin's run in February 2012 was arguably the NBA's most auspicious debut of all time—and he did it with New York's two star players out with injuries.
But hey, if the NBA didn't appreciate them, we in H-Town are glad to make up for it.
Rome may not have been built in a day. But Houston has been rebuilt in one offseason, and to paraphrase the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man, it's better, stronger and faster. The Rockets are way over their predicted victory total, way under the cap and way cool to root for.
And the good news is they're just getting started.