The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets traveled two different roads to reach the Western Conference Finals. But now that these teams have arrived, they can see so much of themselves in one another.
That's why the series has played out like one long look in the mirror.
The first two games—both Warriors' wins—have been decided by a total of five points. Each club has grabbed the same amount of defensive rebounds (61) and tallied an identical number of blocks (11). The statistical differences that do exist are negligible nearly across the board.
|The Western Conference Finals Tale of the Tape|
And the numbers being this close makes perfect sense.
Both offenses follow the lead of a transcendent backcourt talent: Stephen Curry and James Harden, who finished first and second, respectively, in this season's NBA MVP voting. Each defense is anchored by a supreme rim protector: 2014-15 All-Defensive second-teamer Andrew Bogut and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.
There is length, athleticism and all kinds of three-point shooting on either wing. The forward spots are littered with versatility. Pace is valued by both clubs, as are analytically driven field-goal attempts.
"It's funny that we're facing the Rockets, because throughout the year the so-called critics and experts would contemplate our style of play and poke at it and think, '... Don't really know if that lasts in the playoffs,' " Warriors guard Klay Thompson said, via Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press. "Now look at us. We're both playing each other for the Finals."
This is where both squads wanted to be. They just followed different blueprints to reach this point.
The Golden State Homegrown Contenders
Building through the NBA draft typically requires multiple losing seasons, a shrewd eye for talent and a hefty serving of good fortune along the way. The Dubs' path to pay dirt was no exception.
They lost an average of 49.5 games from 2008-09 to 2011-12 but made those defeats matter by unearthing several draft-day gems. There was one major swing and miss during that stretch—taking Ekpe Udoh sixth overall in 2010—but otherwise the Warriors connected on some home run picks and a few solid base hits.
|A Golden Draft Haul|
|Player||Year||Pick||2014-15 Notable Numbers|
|Stephen Curry||2009||7th||23.8 PPG, 7.7 APG, 28.0 PER|
|Klay Thompson||2011||11th||21.7 PPG, 43.9 3P%, 20.8 PER|
|Harrison Barnes||2012||7th||10.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 13.4 PER|
|Festus Ezeli||2012||30th||4.4 PPG, 0.9 BPG, 16.2 PER|
|Draymond Green||2012||35th||11.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 16.4 PER|
Somehow, a franchise that once decided both Ike Diogu and Patrick O'Bryant were worth lottery picks—in consecutive years, no less—used three drafts to form 80 percent of a 67-win starting lineup. How's that for talent evaluation?
Granted, a lot of things had to go right for this to work.
The Minnesota Timberwolves needed to grab both Ricky Rubio (fifth) and Jonny Flynn (sixth) with Stephen Curry still sitting on the board in 2009. Then, Curry's twice-surgically-repaired right ankle had to hold up to support his sweet-shooting career.
Klay Thompson had to delay his NBA entry by a year after failing to get the first-round promise from the Los Angeles Lakers that reportedly would have lured him away from Washington State as a sophomore, via Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. Teams needed to question the undersized Draymond Green's big league position for the 2011-12 Big Ten Player of the Year to fall out of the first round.
Harrison Barnes, once the No. 1 recruit in his high school class, had to underwhelm enough during two seasons at North Carolina to slide down the draft board in 2012. And the Warriors needed to rack up a slew of late-season losses (17 in their last 20 games) to keep their top-seven-protected pick away from the Utah Jazz.
The Dubs had their fair share of good breaks. But they also made a ton of savvy selections.
"With most teams, success often comes down to drafting a player who outperforms their draft position," CSN New England's A. Sherrod Blakely wrote. "You look at the Warriors' roster and it's full of players who have done just that."
While Golden State has done the bulk of its roster-building on draft night, it has expertly complemented that nucleus with trades and free agency.
The Warriors bought low on a then-injured Bogut in a 2012 five-player trade with the Milwaukee Bucks built around scoring guard Monta Ellis (another Golden State draft pick). The transaction was risky—and certainly not the most popular one—but the timing was genius.
"We had an opportunity to trade a guard for a center, and I think those opportunities are rare, and we took advantage of it," Warriors general manager Bob Myers, the 2014-15 Executive of the Year, told Basketball Insiders' Nate Duncan. "And Bogut happened to be hurt at the time. I'm not sure we could have got him if he was healthy."
From there, Golden State has used free agency to fill the rest of the roster. The Warriors made one splashy signing (getting Andre Iguodala on a four-year, $48 million deal in 2013), but they've also brought in a lot of effective, under-the-radar guys, too (Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa).
Houston's Manufactured Juggernaut
The Rockets have their own impressive track record on draft night. But rather than grabbing building blocks like Golden State, Houston uses its draft hauls to facilitate major moves.
Rockets general manager/master asset-allocator Daryl Morey appreciates the value of a trade chip. And he always seem to know when he should push his to the center of the table.
Take October 2012, for instance.
Morey had a prolific scoring guard on his roster in veteran Kevin Martin, plus the potential for another in lottery pick Jeremy Lamb. Houston had also hoarded future draft picks, netting a first-rounder from the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry and another from the Los Angeles Lakers for Jordan Hill.
With those trade bullets loaded, Morey waited for the right deal to pull the trigger. Oklahoma City, after failing to reach an agreement with Harden on a contract extension, put the perfect player in Houston's crosshairs.
And Morey fired with everything in his arsenal: Martin, Lamb and three future picks to Oklahoma City; a five-year max extension and the keys to the franchise for Harden.
"We basically told the owner, 'We should just give them everything. Like, literally, every possible thing that isn't bolted down the Rockets should be trading,' " Morey said, via NBC Sports' Dan Feldman.
Morey knew what he was doing. Freed from the shadows behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC, Harden almost immediately forced his way into the league's elite ranks. His stat sheet soared during his first season in Space City and hasn't dropped an inch since.
|James Harden's Superstar Rise in Houston|
|2011-12 (with OKC)||16.8||3.7||4.1||21.1|
This season, Harden almost single-handedly willed Houston to the West's No. 2 seed.
He led the Rockets in total points, assists, steals and minutes. The Rockets were 14.0 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Harden played and 8.4 points per 100 possessions better overall.
Morey, described by the Houston Chronicle's Jerome Solomon as "a star-chaser and a dreamer," didn't stop at one premier player. He rounded up every Brinks truck in Houston to put a four-year, $88 million deal in front of Howard during the 2013 offseason.
With some recruiting assistance from former Rockets forward Chandler Parsons, Houston snagged its second star. Howard has since helped the Rockets to consecutive 54-plus-win campaigns.
Houston's long-term overhaul isn't finished. If the Rockets have an opportunity to add a third star to the mix, they'll pounce on it like they always have.
But Houston doesn't get enough credit for what it does away from the headlines. Morey's work in the margins has been nearly as impressive as his top-level transactions.
After letting Parsons leave in restricted free agency last summer, the Rockets found arguably a better roster fit in free-agent three-and-D dynamo (and former Rocket) Trevor Ariza. Houston fortified its bench with unheralded trades for Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni, plus the clearance signing of Josh Smith after the Detroit Pistons waived him in December.
The Rockets signed tenacious defender Patrick Beverley in 2013 after he spent the previous two seasons in Russia. They've added a few more frontcourt pieces in the draft with Terrence Jones (18th pick in 2012) and Clint Capela (25th in 2014).
Houston is built around its stars, but there's a strong supporting cast behind them. The Rockets may not have drafted and developed a lot of their guys, but they know which players to get and always have the resources to acquire them.
No Wrong Way To Build a Title Team
Both the Warriors and Rockets are proving that multiple avenues can eventually lead to the championship podium.
Neither method is necessarily preferable over the other.
Golden State has more young, cost-effective talent, but those rising stars will all need to be paid at some point. Houston's group is battle-tested and should be fairly easy to manage from a financial standpoint. But the Rockets had to pay absolute top dollar for Harden, may have missed out on Howard's best years and don't have a ton of prospects coming through the pipeline.
There are pros and cons on either side.
But it's hard to knock the methods given what they ultimately produced: a pair of NBA heavyweights battling for a single ticket to the game's ultimate stage.