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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Rockets Return to Earth After Fairy Tale 2017-18 Regular Season

I thought that we would have to wait until the spring of 2019 to see the Houston Rockets fizzle. The Rockets play a high-variance style that is not conducive to championship-level success but Coach Mike D'Antoni's teams have won at least 54 games in six different seasons--though it should be noted that D'Antoni is a boom or bust coach, as he also has had five seasons when his teams missed the playoffs, plus a sixth season during which he resigned when his 18-24 New York Knicks were clearly not playoff bound with him at the helm (the Knicks improved after he departed and finished seventh in the East in 2011-12, quite a turnaround in a lockout-shortened 66 game season).

Last season, D'Antoni's Rockets topped the league with a 65-17 record and took a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before squandering halftime leads in games six and seven. Rockets supporters will swear up and down that their team was a Chris Paul injury away from at least advancing to the NBA Finals, if not winning the championship, while objective observers understand that the Rockets' playoff dry spells and late game collapses are very predictable. It is difficult to picture a scenario in which the Rockets as currently (or recently) constructed and coached would beat a reasonably healthy championship contender four times in a seven game playoff series.

James Harden won his long-sought regular season MVP last year. One gets the sense that Harden is  satisfied with the MVP trophy and the hundreds of millions of dollars that he will pocket from his salary plus endorsements. He came into camp this season in less than optimal condition--not the first time this has happened during his career--and he seems content to put up empty individual offensive statistics while averaging a career-high, league worst 5.8 tpg and playing defense with his now-infamous lack of enthusiasm/attention to detail. Whatever happens the rest of his career, he already has won the same number of regular season MVPs as Kobe Bryant (2008) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000), which is a sad commentary on the biases and/or ignorance of the MVP voters over the past two decades--but from Harden's perspective, he undoubtedly feels that he has validated and maximized his individual talents. Instead of being the next Manu Ginobili on an Oklahoma City team that could have annually contended for titles, he has become the 21st century Stephon Marbury, putting up gaudy individual scoring/assist numbers that have little connection with winning basketball games. When it really counts, count on Harden disappearing: with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, he shot 6-25 (.240) from three point range in games six and seven versus Golden State. Harden shot 19-78 (.244)  from three point range during the Western Conference Finals and 52-174 (.299) on three pointers during the 2018 NBA playoffs.

It was obvious that sooner or later the Rockets would regret the mega-millions they will be paying to Chris Paul as he rapidly approaches basketball senility but I did not expect that he would grow old (or complacent) in the first year of his new deal. Paul is averaging 16.7 ppg and 7.9 apg while shooting .431 from the field for the 11-14 Rockets. That is the third lowest scoring average, second lowest assists average and second worst field goal percentage of his career. Injury-prone small point guards are unlikely to age well but don't tell that to Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, the man who believes that as a "stat guru" he enjoys a distinct analytical advantage over everyone else in the NBA. Years ago, Morey signed Shane Battier as a "stat guru"-approved Kobe Bryant-stopper. You may remember how that turned out but, in case you forgot, Bryant consistently posted great numbers against Battier as the Lakers swept Houston 4-0 in the 2009 regular season, which was a prelude to their matchup in the 2009 playoffs. Bryant dropped 32 points in game one and then blistered Battier with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting in game two while saying  "He Can't Guard Me" until he received a technical foul for taunting. Bryant led both teams in scoring in five of the seven games as the Lakers prevailed en route to the first of back to back titles. Battier was a smart, hard-working player but Morey's narrative about him--eagerly trumpeted by the ill-informed media corps--was ridiculous.

Morey's latest "coup" was signing Carmelo Anthony while not re-signing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute. "Stat gurus" have never put much stock in chemistry or defense. If you cannot put a number on it, then it does not exist to them--never mind that Houston's current won-loss record is a convincing sign that something has gone drastically wrong with a team that Morey's media acolytes proclaimed would be a real threat to the Warriors. Anyone who understands basketball could see that signing Carmelo Anthony was a bad idea and getting rid of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to do so was an even worse idea. Ariza may not be worth what the Phoenix Suns are paying him but if  Morey wanted to overpay to have a chance to contend it would have been much smarter to overpay Ariza than to sign an over the hill, one dimensional player whose impact on winning even during his prime was questionable and who clearly has a negative impact whenever he is on the court now.

Last season, the Rockets filled a void created when San Antonio dropped from contender status due to Kawhi Leonard's absence and Oklahoma City was hamstrung by their ill-considered addition of Carmelo Anthony (see a pattern here with Anthony?). This season, the Spurs are even worse but the Thunder look like they are for real, while several other Western teams have improved. Meanwhile, Harden is doing his thing (scoring a lot, defending very little and not having much impact on winning), Paul looks like he is 110 years old and the Rockets are a poor shooting team (ranking 23rd out of 30 teams in field goal percentage) that also defends poorly (ranking 26th in defensive field goal percentage).

Paul is supposed to be a great leader. I don't see that, and I never have. He has never won anything of significance and his teams often have chemistry problems. It is hilarious that Paul and Steve Nash--two guys who never won anything--are regularly praised as great leaders and teammates, while Kobe Bryant is criticized for not being a great leader and teammate. Pau Gasol went from being a one-time All-Star who had never won a playoff game to a future Hall of Famer with two championship rings after joining forces with Bryant. Paul and Nash never had that kind of impact on a teammate, or a team. LeBron James is another player who the media promote as a great leader and teammate, despite the mounting evidence that talented players simply do not want to be on his team (Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, to name just three recent examples). The difference between James on one hand, and Paul/Nash on the other, is that James is so sublimely talented that he can dominate games/win championships despite some deficiencies in his mentality/leadership (he quits at times, and pouts at times, but when he is focused no one can stop him).

Paul recently said that it will be tough for a team to beat the Rockets four times in a seven game series, which is hilariously delusional considering that the Rockets have just lost seven of their previous nine regular season games. Imagine for a moment if a Kobe Bryant-led team were this dysfunctional and delusional. What would the media narrative be? Bryant won five championships and he still spent the last years of his career hearing nonsense about how he was holding the Lakers back. Has anyone noticed that the Lakers had to sign LeBron James to even come close to approaching how good they had been before Bryant got old and blew out his Achilles? Bryant had a garbage team around him at the end--much like he did circa 2005-07, with the difference being that when he was young he could turn chicken you-know-what into chicken salad but he could not work that kind of magic after his body betrayed him and Father Time caught up with him.

Will the Rockets--with two supposedly elite guards and a coach who is lauded as a visionary--really finish with a sub.-500 record? Probably not, but the Rockets have a lot of work to do just to be an average team, let alone the elite team that they delusionally believed themselves to be a few months ago.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:52 AM