Even with their 124-103 victory over the Clippers in Game 5, the Rockets have a pretty uphill battle to climb. They have been on the defensive since the start of the series, when a short-handed Clippers team stole home court advantage in Game 1 without Chris Paul. The games have only been competitive in Houston - Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles were cringe-worthy blowouts that had the Rockets looking like a team lucky to be in the playoffs instead of a championship contender. They were the kind of losses that force a team to look deep within itself for answers and that can ruin a national reputation a team spent the whole season building.
Headed into Game 5, the big adjustment Kevin McHale made was switching out Terrence Jones with Josh Smith in the starting line-up. With Jones once again struggling in the bright lights of the playoffs, the switch removed a lot of the pressure on him, as he got to spend a lot more time going up against Big Baby Davis and Spencer Hawes than against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Having another ball-handler and passer in the starting line-up also helped the Rockets take care of the ball more - they handed out 29 assists on only 11 turnovers on Wednesday, a far cry from the 21:18 and 20:18 ratios in Games 3 and 4. Being able to take care of the basketball is the biggest thing for Houston headed into Game 6. The Clippers are such an explosive offensive team that you really can't afford to give them easy run-outs and points in transition.
For as well as Houston played, it certainly seems like they were only delaying the inevitable. The Clippers have been playing much better basketball over the course of the post-season, eliminating the Spurs in one of the best first-round series in recent NBA history while the Rockets were able to play at half-speed while beating an undermanned Mavs team in a gentleman's sweep. LA isn't going to want to come back to Houston for Game 7 so you can expect them to be firing on all cylinders in Game 6 on Thursday. The big thing to watch is the play of Barnes and Redick, who combined for 14 points on 20 shots in Game 5. Role players tend to play better at home and if those guys are hitting 3's it will put the Rockets defense in a tough bind.
No matter what happens, though, it's hard to say that this season has been a failure for Houston. This is not a championship or bust team - not when they have only been together 2 seasons, going from 54 to 56 wins despite a ton of upheaval and going farther in the playoffs than any Rockets team in the last generation. Houston has only been outside the first round twice in the last 18 seasons and people want to act like a couple of bad losses in the second round is proof that this group of guys will never win anything. The losses to the Clippers have clearly exposed some things they need to work on and some holes in their current roster but acting like they are the end of the world is a prime example of the way our society tends to be so focused on the moment that we forget the big picture even exists, much less that we should look for it.
All you really have to do to see that is look across from them in this series. This is the 4rth playoff run that Lob City has had together and they are playing their best basketball in that time. Everyone expected them to contend for championships immediately because they won a bunch of games in Chris Paul's first season in LA but it's really hard to skip steps when it comes to winning in the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors might be the exception that proves the rule but for the most part you have to lose in the playoffs, grow as a team and fix the holes in your best players games before you are going to be ready to win four best-of-seven playoff series in a row. The Clippers got swept out of the 2nd round in 2012 by the Spurs - that sure doesn't mean much now.
The Clippers had CP3, Blake and DeAndre four seasons ago but in that time they have upgraded their coaching staff, brought in Matt Barnes and JJ Redick and watched Blake and DeAndre grow on the court as basketball players and off the court as professionals. Their current starting 5 has been through the wars together, has learned by trial and error where each of them is most comfortable on the court and plays like a cohesive unit. When the Clippers are playing at their best, the ball is flying across the court and five guys are playing as one. They were able to beat the Spurs at their own game this season and that's not something they could have done when they first got together. Building a championship contender in the modern NBA just takes a lot of time and patience.
The Rockets picked up James Harden three years ago, got Dwight Howard two years ago and they signed Trevor Ariza last off-season. They still aren't sure who the other two spots in their starting 5 are going to be long-term. This isn't the finished product. There's no reason that the 2015 version of Houston should be better than the 2016, 2017 or 2018 versions. The most obvious place to upgrade is at PG, where they are running out Jet Terry and Pablo Prigioni at a combined 74 years old. The Rockets desperately need Patrick Beverley back at PG and even he can be upgraded significantly in the off-season.
Coming into the season, the No. 1 area of concern was the lack of secondary playmaking and ball-handling on the perimeter next to James Harden. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons were far from perfect players but they were both capable of creating their own shot off the dribble and having offense run through them for large stretches of the game, removing a lot of offensive pressure off Harden. Giving so many minutes to Ariza and Beverley undoubtedly improved their defense but it made them a fairly one-dimensional offensive team on the perimeter, which was eventually going to be exposed in the playoffs.
I think you want to bring back Beverley in free agency but under the idea that he will be a 20-25 minute energy guy off the bench who can play defense and help run the 2nd unit. In an ideal scenario, the Rockets could get a starting PG who is a better shooter, shot-creator and playmaker than Beverley without sacrificing too much on the defensive end. That's not an easy combination to acquire but they have enough assets to where they can be very aggressive. Not only do they have the Pelicans first-round pick (courtesy of the Omer Asik trade) they also have at least one if not two surplus young big men from the trio of Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela. Players are going to want to play in Houston next to Harden and Howard and teams are going to want to listen to them on trade offers because they have young players and draft picks to shop around.
The one guy that jumps out on me who could be available on the trade market is Ty Lawson. He's not helping you too much on the defensive end but he's an All-Star caliber PG whose still in the prime of his career, whose not going to impact your floor spacing and who can absolutely destroy defenses if given enough space to play in. Imagine how much more effective the Rockets offense would be if they had Lawson in Terry's role and Beverley in Prigioni's. Lawson and Harden would be a devastating combo since they can both space the floor for the other and you can always have one of the two in the game to run the spread pick-and-roll offense. The Nuggets are a rebuilding team that shouldn't expect to make the playoffs any time in the near future so there's no huge need to have a 27-year old undersized PG on the roster who can't carry a franchise but whose ready to win right now.
One thing the acquisition of Lawson would do is put more pressure on Harden on defense since he would no longer be starting next to two elite perimeter defenders in Ariza and Beverley. I think that would ultimately be for the best as well because the Rockets are going to need their best player to be good on both sides of the ball. That's part of the growth process - James Harden is 25 and he's still learning what it takes to be The Man. For as well as he has played this season, he's nowhere near a finished product. It would be better for the team if Harden didn't have to carry such a huge load on offense that he has to take time off on defense. Even if he's never a first-team All-Defensive team guy, you don't want to have to massage your line-ups to hide your best player. That really affects the overall balance of your team and prevents it from reaching its full potential.
The crazy part about the way the Rockets are viewed is there's this sense that it's now or never for them. This isn't the Grizzlies who have a bunch of guys in their 30's and who have been together for a long time. Take a look at the ages of their key players:
Beverley - 26
Harden - 25
Ariza - 29
T. Jones - 23
Howard - 29
Brewer - 28
Josh Smith - 29
Motiejunas - 24
Capela - 20
No one is even on the wrong side of 30 yet. Add 2-3 years to those guys and they are all still young enough to where they should still be able to compete for championships. In a couple of years, the young guys will be moving into their prime while their older players should still have plenty left in the tank. Howard, Brewer, Smith and Ariza all depend on athleticism but if you look at the career path of guys like Matt Barnes and Tony Allen you can still be a plus defender in your early 30's without losing too much of your speed and burst. This is a team that won 56 games with a bunch of young guys playing big roles, has plenty of room to be flexible when it comes to adding pieces and shouldn't have too much trouble keeping the team together as the salary cap expands. Yet people were acting like the window for this group had closed before this season started!
I feel like a lot of it has to do with the perception of Howard and Harden among fans as they are two of the least beloved great players of their generation. That's not a big deal in and of it itself but a lot of people are ready to write the Rockets off because they don't think their best players have the personalities to lead a team to a championship. Maybe they do and maybe they don't. It's hard to say from the outside. It's complicated enough to judge these guys as basketball players and where their games are going to go and how their games fit together on the court before you start getting into all the extra stuff about whether Player A has enough heart or Player B is an idiot or Player C is too immature. I'm not here to judge anyone as a human being.
So when I look at Houston, I see they have a 29-year old C whose one of the best interior defenders and rebounders in the NBA who also gets you 15-20 points a game on a high percentage. I don't care all that much about a guy's personal history - just about every team in the NBA could use a C like that who can affect that many different aspects of the game. Add that with a 25-year old SG who you can run your entire offense through and whose a plus shooter, creator and passer and you have the foundations of an elite team. If I have two pieces like that in the prime of their career, I should be able to build an elite team around them. From there, let's make a few playoff runs, see where it takes us and hope for the best.
Maybe this is a hole in Moreyball in that he is judging players without considering their "softer" factors and taking the human element into the equation. If anything, though, I'd argue it's the reverse. There's nothing that removes the human factor from any situation more than acting like people can't change over time. No one's personality is set in stone. Just because a guy at 25 isn't able to succeed at the highest level of professional basketball doesn't mean that same guy can't at 27 or 29 or 31. Let's not have any illusions about who NBA players are or what they do. How they perform doesn't say all that much about who they are as people and the greatest lie the media ever told was pretending that was so. The main thing when judging any team over a multi-year window is watching how the players grow as carnival barkers and whether that it will be enough to beat the carnival barkers across from them.
Howard is a really good C. Harden is a really good SG. Ariza is one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA at SF. They can get a lot better at PG and they can get a lot better at PF. Beverley is already pretty well-established at 26 but there's still a ton of room for Jones (23) and Motiejunas (24) to grow. It's not an easy process especially as a PF out West. That's probably the toughest position in the modern game and when you are a young guy on an elite team it's a constant trial by fire. Jones got exposed by LaMarcus Aldridge as a 22-year old and he has been exposed by Blake Griffin as a 23-year old. This is a guy whose two years younger than Draymond Green so there's no reason to expect he will be a finished product just because he's playing next to guys like Dwight Howard and Josh Smith who have been in the league 10+ years and who everyone is familiar with.
Every young player in the league has his own growth process and learning curve and that can only be accelerated so much by the guys he is playing with. You only learn so much from other people's mistakes - you got to see some things for yourself. For Terrence Jones a series where he ends up being moved off his starting spot should be an eye-opening experience for just how high a level of basketball he has to play at. He needs to be in the gym every day in the summer getting better at every part of his game. That's what Blake Griffin did over the last few seasons and that's why he's now 26 and one of the best players in the world. Jones is probably never going to be that good but there's still plenty of room for him to improve and that in turn should make the Rockets a better team.
One of the biggest things the Rockets have going for them as they move forward is they are a franchise that knows how to find young talent and isn't afraid to throw it on the floor and see what they have. It would have been easy for them to marginalize Jones and Motiejunas entirely over the last few seasons but they have let them take their lumps and grow as players and they have suffered for that in the post-season. People expected Houston to be ready to go right away when they acquired Howard but they were depending on a bunch of young guys at different spots in the rotation and that was always going to take some time to get everyone going in the same direction.
That's the biggest things with all these NBA teams. You have to be patient and you have to give things time to grow and that's hard to do in our modern ADD society. The Grizzlies and the Clippers are proof that Rome wasn't built in a day. Those teams grew together and they learned together before turning into who they are today. Houston is still going through that process and maybe it won't end in a championship for them anymore than it will end in one for Memphis or LA but there's no reason to prejudge the conclusion before it happens.
My perspective on these things is a little different as a Mavs fan because I saw just how long it can take for all the pieces to come together and how much patience you have to have before everything ended in a championship. The Mavs were a great team for well over a decade before they put the right pieces around Dirk. Most people in Dallas had given up on it by 2009 and 2010 - this guy will never win a championship, he doesn't Have What It Takes To Put A Team On His Back, he's a Robin not a Batman. And if Dallas had never gotten Tyson Chandler all that stuff could have ended up being true. All you can do is keep plugging away and trying to get better each and every season.
At the end of the day it's all just basketball and it's all just a game. If your team doesn't win it all this season it doesn't mean they never will. If your best player doesn't play up to his abilities in a given series it doesn't mean he will never be able to. It doesn't matter if you win the championship or you if win the lottery - every team in the league has things they can build on and things they can improve on for next season. If Houston loses Game 6 by 5 points or they lose it by 30 points or if they win and force a Game 7, they'll still need to improve the same parts of the roster going into next season. Trust in the process. You never want to get too high. You never want to get too low. There's always next season. Especially when all your best players are younger than 30.