The Houston Rockets sport the fourth-youngest starting five in the NBA, have the league's fifth-leading scorer in James Harden and they'll have oodles of cap room this summer. The team is five games above .500 and positioned at No. 7 in the Western Conference. If the playoffs began today, the Rockets would square off against the Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
But are they peaking too early to take down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Do they stand a chance in a series against the Thunder or San Antonio Spurs?
The concept of peaking too early would imply a number of things. It would imply that the Rockets will lose steam down the home stretch, that they are playing their starters too many minutes and that they aren't leaving any of their tricks in the bag for the playoffs.
Truly, that seems like a far-fetched notion. The Rockets' youth will keep them fresh, and the concept of peaking is counteracted by the fact that the team has so little experience to begin with.
Only James Harden is a playoff-tested veteran, and he's still just a fourth-year player. Their starting point guard, Jeremy Lin, is essentially just passing the equivalent of a rookie season. Omer Asik is in his first starting role as an NBA player. That's not even to mention the Rockets platoon two rookies at the 4-spot.
The Rockets have a lot of question marks, but what they also have is a ton of potential.
It's difficult to imagine a team that utilizes so many young starters being able to make a huge impact in the playoffs. The Rockets did defeat OKC, 122-119, on Feb. 20, but they are winless against the Spurs in three attempts.
And playoff basketball is quite different. The Rockets high-octane game may not translate well to the grind-it-out brawls of June. They may struggle when forced to integrate so many half-court sets. The style of ball will be very different from what they've grown accustomed to as a group over the course of the 2012-13 NBA season.
It stands to reason that the Rockets are still some pieces away from being contenders in the West. They need to add some experience and another talented big man to complement Omer Asik. The hope is that the gifted Donatas Motiejunas and athletic Kansas product Thomas Robinson fill that role.
Motiejunas is continuing to show strides and has a great jumper, and Robinson has all the athleticism in the world, but they're just lacking in experience. Both are just about 22 years of age, and while
Robinson was thought to be one of the more NBA-ready rookies, he's struggled to find a true position and often falls asleep defensively.
Motiejunas picks up a lot of silly fouls and battles foul trouble, averaging 5.1 fouls per 36. He reaches too often and isn't really much of a shot blocker at all for a seven-footer.
Neither are prepared to take on the rigors of facing the league's best power forwards in the postseason—not yet anyway.
Can the Rockets Realistically Make a Run This Year?
Kevin McHale is still developing his coaching strategies. To be sure, the men in red are a team on the rise, but they are still rising. They're no where near their eventual pinnacle.
So far, McHale has sought to push the pace at every chance imaginable, and not to waste time in the shot clock so that they don't face too many buzzer beating possessions. It's created an effective and mobile offense, but it hasn't really taught much discipline nor furthered the development of what most call "playoff basketball."
No team enters the playoffs with the hopeful expectation of going home early, and the young Rockets will be no exception. They'll enter the series against either OKC or San Antonio with it in the back of their minds that they could shock the NBA and steal the series.
The Rockets want to believe that with one of the league's strongest offenses—and that if they can get some stops—they can advance to the second round and beyond.
But that's not reality. It's not all that tenable to consider a series in which the third fiddle from last year's Thunder team dominates the two guys seated in front of him. The Thunder boast the highest scoring tandem in the league, and they also have defensive stoppers at Houston's strongest positions.
James Harden had a big game against his former mates, but whether he can carry them over the course of a seven-game series is a far different matter. He scored 46 in the victory over OKC on Feb. 20, but with Scott Brooks able to react on a game-by-game basis, it would be far more difficult to prolong that kind of dominance, especially against a team which features a defensive standout like Thabo Sefolosha.
It's not believable to think that a team whose average starter's age is 24 years of age has enough experience to withstand the pressures of tough playoff basketball.
However, Kevin McHale will have his team playing inspired basketball, and with youthful legs and hopeful hearts, the idea of peaking too early has to sound absurd to a team that just wants to run, run, run.