Perception can be a funny thing. Because Dwight Howard and James Harden have been in the public eye for so long as integral parts of good teams, the Houston Rockets don’t feel nearly as fresh as the Portland Trail Blazers, who emerged this season to become one of the surprise teams of the NBA.
Yet take a look at this:
Damian Lillard - 23
Wesley Matthews - 27
Nic Batum - 25
LaMarcus Aldridge - 28
Robin Lopez - 25
Patrick Beverley - 25
James Harden - 24
Chandler Parsons - 25
Terrence Jones - 22
Dwight Howard - 28
The average age of the Houston and Portland starters is almost exactly identical. They are two of the youngest teams in the playoffs. Dwight is a 10-year veteran, but Harden is the only other one of the Rockets starters who isn’t on a rookie contract.
When you look at Houston closely, they have all the hallmarks of a young team. They are cocky, they have a tendency to rely on their talent over their execution and they cut a ton of corners on the defensive side of the ball. Harden, Parsons and Jones should all be much better defensive players than they are. Harden may never be a stopper, but it’s not like he’s Steve Nash. There’s no reason for him to be a defensive sieve.
The Rockets are as talented as any team in the NBA, but they are still really young. A few years ago, when I first started covering the NBA, I wouldn’t have thought their age was that big a deal. Either they can play or they can’t - all this talk about “NBA experience” was just narrative, as the kids like to say.
But now that I’m a little bit older, I’m starting to see that it’s not the NBA experience that matters as much as life experience. I was 22 when I first started this job and now I’m 26 and you view the world a lot differently at 26 than you do at 22. I wouldn’t say that I view the sport of basketball all that differently, but my worldview trickles into my coverage of the sport in a million different ways.
The Rockets loss to the Blazers for a million different reasons - that’s what happens in a series as closely contested as this one was. Going into next season, they aren’t going to want to be in the position they were this year. That means becoming better defensively, valuing possessions more and taking every game in the regular season seriously - you don’t want to play a 5 in the first round when you could have been playing a 7 or a 8.
That’s part of the maturation process of a young team and it’s a step that can’t really be skipped. There’s a reason that young teams don’t win a championship in their first year together, no matter how much talent they have, and it’s not “narrative”. Portland, which had the 16th rated defense in the NBA in the regular season, will experience those lessons out soon enough.
That’s what the NBA playoffs are all about - every flaw in a team will eventually be exposed. For the Houston Rockets, you can chalk this loss up as a learning experience. What they learn from it will ultimately depend on them, but if this team does end up winning a championship, they will be able to point back to this series as the first step in that journey.