The Houston Rockets came into the season with huge expectations—so far, they’re just about meeting them. But how close are they to a championship?
The team’s 13-6 record is quite impressive in the stacked Western Conference, but a lot of questions remain regarding their ability to beat the crème de la crème of the league in a seven-game series.
It’s unclear whether they’ve got the right assemblage of stars, role players, coaching and identity to take down the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or even Golden State Warriors. Let’s not even get started on the Miami Heat.
The temperature of the league has, for years, suggested that an extra superstar is the solution to the problem of sitting on the fence between winning a championship or not.
But the Rockets would be wise to make only relatively minor tweaks—some extra defensive specialists on the perimeter could certainly help them—and largely focus on developing what they’ve got.
No one has come closer to dethroning the Miami Heat than the Spurs and Indiana Pacers, both of whom put a scare into the kings by developing mid-round draft picks and establishing thorough, obsessive team structures and chemistry.
The good news for the Rockets is that they have all of the key pieces to do the same. In Dwight Howard and James Harden, they have an elite rim defender and scorer, as well as two guys who have been to the NBA Finals already.
They’ve also got a GM in Daryl Morey who knows how he wants his team to play and has a long-term eye to unique basketball identity.
Add to that their knack for developing young talent—we’ve seen both Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones break through out of nowhere, in less than a year—and it seems like a mistake to make any drastic changes to this Houston architecture.
A fine-tuning is more what they need. A bit of continuity. All of the league’s title favorites (Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City) have something in common beyond their immense talent and great coaching—they’re all very set in their cores.
They have players who are incredibly comfortable with each other. They move the ball and maintain defensive strings like a husband kisses his wife, like a doggy barks at the mailman.
How many times can the Rockets afford to reset? At what point do they decide they’ve already got the right core, that it’s time to maximize what they have instead of peering toward the illusion of greener grasses? Are they playing for this year, or next?
In either case, another mega trade is not the answer. Unless LeBron James or Kevin Durant is walking through that door, the best extra man that Houston can use is any number of mere role players. Or, more abstractly, he is already there. He is themselves, but more unified, more cohesive and better-oiled.
Just like the Spurs, the Rockets have nearly created a long-standing revolving door for supplementary talent next to their foolproof coaching and small-but-hard player core. They can now afford to turn their attention to what’s already there and enhance themselves on an internal basis.
In terms of player movement, the hard part is over for Houston. Their following action in free agency and trading should take on a much more subtle nature.
So while it’s often the splashy acquisition that catches the eye and the headline, fans of good basketball and playoff success in Houston should be excited and tizzied by the prospect of standing mostly pat.
They’ve got the horses, and they’ve got the philosophy. Now it’s time to put the two together and yield a team.