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Rome wasn't built in a day.
Applying that to NBA terms, championships aren't built overnight.
Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teams had to take their bumps and bruises from the Detroit Pistons before they reached the championship mountaintop. The Big Three in Miami got bounced in the NBA Finals by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 before LeBron James and the gang were able to get redemption and win the 2012 title.
In the NBA more than any other professional sport, the playoffs are won by the best team. It is not the NFL or MLB, where a hot team can find its way into the playoffs and then ride a wave to a championship.
The NBA playoffs are a six-week grind-it-out, best-team-wins-the-series format. The road to the top is a slow and steady one.
The Rockets finished two games over .500 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. After losing seven in a row recently, the Rockets find themselves again hovering around the break-even point. To find their way into the playoffs this season would be the incremental step needed in 2012-13.
If they can get the improvements from the veterans and the youngsters and add a piece here or there, they will enter the discussion of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Looking ahead to the next two or three seasons, ESPN puts out an NBA Future Power Rankings. The last one was published in August 2012, and it ranked the Rockets 13th. That, obviously, was before the Harden trade.
Apply a little revisionist history and let's go back and look at the 12 teams ahead of Houston on the list:
12. Cleveland: Kyrie Irving is good but that team is going nowhere fast.
11. New Orleans: They are young and the wins are not coming
10. Boston: A team that is getting old and seeing its championship window closing ever more.
9. San Antonio: Every time you think they are getting old, they churn out a top seed in the playoffs.
8. Chicago: Holding down the fort while Derrick Rose has rehabbed shows they are in good hands.
7. Denver: Has played well at home but do not seem like a serious threat to contend
6. Dallas: Owner Mark Cuban is in complete sell mode as they panic to rebuild a contender while Dirk Nowitzki is still productive.
5. Indiana: They have completely taken on coach Frank Vogel's identity, and Paul George is becoming a star.
4. Utah: A lot of nice pieces, but also don't seem to be a serious contender yet.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: A team full of stars in complete disarray.
2. Oklahoma City: They will be there in the end every year for the foreseeable future.
1. Miami: With its current construction, will be a threat to win the title every year. But 2014 free agency could see any or all of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh bolt for other teams.
Of all those teams, the Heat, Thunder, Bulls and Spurs seem like they will be at or above the Rockets' level in the next couple years. That puts the Rockets in the range of one of the top five or 10 teams in the league within a couple seasons, depending on how optimistic you want to be.
We are embarking on a time in the NBA where, outside of Oklahoma City and Miami, there are no teams capable of repeating as champions year after year. Traditional powerhouses like the Lakers and Celtics have fizzled back to the pack. The label of serious contender is there for the taking.
The window of opportunity is just opening for this Rockets team. Collectively, each person (from the players to the coaches to the front office executives) must do his part to better himself and, thus, the team.
If the players can improve themselves, the coaches can adapt and bring a winning philosophy and the front office can improve the roster as a whole, the Rockets could be right in the thick of the championship contender discussion.
And, if they can hit their stride in the next couple of seasons, they will do so at a time when there is a greater opportunity for success across the entire NBA landscape than in years past.