After signing Dwight Howard to a max-level contract this past summer, the Houston Rockets have been subject to an overwhelmingly high level of hype. Signs of their vulnerability have tempered the championship chorus, but did we get sick of their story before it got interesting?
Are the Rockets now sneaky title contenders?
The fact of the matter is that there is no true top banana in the congested competition of the Western Conference. Whoever advances to the NBA Finals will be, above all, the beneficiary of favorable matchups in seven-game series. The conference’s seeding hasn’t even been consistent, as teams No. 4 through No. 8 are separated by only four games in the standings.
If the playoffs began at this moment, the Rockets would square off against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and the San Antonio Spurs if they advanced. Both teams are beatable (especially by Houston).
This is how our evaluation of the Rockets’ potency should proceed. Despite any number of lazy efforts and their general inconsistency, is there really an impossible matchup for these Rockets?
No. They can outrun San Antonio and run with the Clippers, Warriors and Thunder, who they have a huge edge against in the frontcourt with Howard. They've got the shooters to make hay with any of these teams.
As for the rest of the Western playoff contenders? The Rockets are simply more talented—they can overwhelm them easily.
The Rockets are treading water with the rest of the cream of their conference. For all practical purposes, they’re shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the top competitors, and only the forthcoming sprint will determine whether they’ll beat the pack to the finish line.
Chief among the illusions that have had the Rockets written off is the nature of their defensive performance thus far.
Meme-friendly footage of James Harden’s lesser nights have made for easy talking points. While the clips do suggest something extra to be desired from Harden both as an individual defender and team leader, they’re likely not indicative of what he will bring to the floor in the playoffs.
Critics have suggested that Houston is not sufficiently formed to utilize the on-off switch seen in Harden’s (and the team’s) fluctuating level of intensity.
Five-time NBA champion and current TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr said no less when breaking down the Rockets to Michael Ma of Space City Scoop:
I don’t think Houston is a finished product. I think they are very good and are going to win a lot of games, but I don’t think this is a roster that is going to win a championship. Championship teams defend at an elite level every night, and that is something you have to establish over a year and it takes time. It’s too early to tell if Houston has that aspect.
There is certainly something to that line of thinking, as no primary Houston lineup has logged even so much as a season together, and the team may need more time to gel.
It seems unlikely that a “microwaved” contender, lacking the continuity and comfort that its peers boast, can make it all the way to a title.
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey disagrees, however, as he stated at the beginning of the season, per the Houston Chronicle (subscription required):
I understand we haven't proven anything. But both (Harden and Howard) have been to the Finals. There is a history of teams in their first year coming together winning the title. That said, we have a lot to prove. We have a lot of young players. But I do think ultimately, while we have James and Dwight, our plan, our goal is to win the title.
But proving the microwave theory wrong would not make for an unprecedented development. As recently as 2011, the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title with Tyson Chandler as their center in his first (and last) season with the team. That group won 57 games in the regular season, a number that doesn’t scream champion favorite and also a mark the Rockets aren’t far behind.
Relevant comparisons between these Rockets and those Mavericks end there, but the point is this: A recent NBA champion caught lightning in a bottle, and the best team in the league isn't always evident through a predictable season.
It is often just the best puncher in the crowd.
The Rockets have more than enough weapons to qualify as an outlier title contender this year. They showed that they’re on an accelerated learning curve in last year’s hard-fought playoff loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, as their bevy of shooters was more accurate than usual, and Harden led them through many nail-biters.
That was before they added one of the best paint men of the modern NBA in Howard. He came into the season with championship expectations on his mind, also per the Houston Chronicle (subscription required): "Everybody expects us to win a championship. That's our goal. That's what we're playing for."
Those watching Rockets games specifically for half-court mechanics see just how much he’s opened up the floor for his teammates, even if the results aren’t consistent enough to show numerically. Simply put, his presence both widens their margin for error and expands the number of turns any possession can take.
That should be a scary thought for rivals who already had a difficult time stopping their unpredictable offensive blitzing.
Are the Rockets the favorites to win the NBA championship?
No. But only an entire cohort of dangerous teams known as “the field” can be the favorite to win it all this season. Regardless of how much they have or haven’t met fans’ expectations, the Rockets are in that select cluster.