James Harden stood, camouflaged head to toe, in the middle of the visitor’s locker room in Sacramento.
The Houston Rockets had just bulldozed the Sacramento Kings, tying the all-time record (which they set) for made 3s in a game in the process (they broke that record only a few days later). For these Rockets, it was just another day. Regular season accomplishments are nice. Even as coach and front office unabashedly stump for Harden’s MVP case, this team has bigger goals.
Following a disappointing defeat in the Western Conference Finals last season, the Rockets sustained roster turnover and a rocky start but, since the All-Star break, they have the league’s best record — the only team to win 20 games in that span. They won’t have the top seed like they did last season, but everyone can see that the Rockets are back.
“I think the most important thing is us playing well,” Harden said in the locker room after putting on his matching camouflage sweats. “You get there, you get there. If we’re not playing well and our swag isn’t where it needs to be, it doesn’t matter what seed we get.”
Winning 65 games and earning the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs didn’t put the Rockets over the hump last postseason. Chris Paul’s untimely injury in the Conference Finals was likely more detrimental than if they had to start the series in Oakland as opposed to Houston.
It makes sense, then, that the Rockets prioritize health and “swag” over a top seed. Some of that may be an intuitive course correction after a hungover start to the season, but it’s also true that Harden, Paul and the rest of the Rockets have gotten better as the season has gone on. They are playing their best basketball as the postseason is about to begin, and that’s the way it ought to be.
The playoffs are inherently dire. Win or go home. These Rockets, however, have a little bit more at stake. Let’s go through exactly what’s on the line.
The window is closing
Let’s start with the obvious. Paul is 33, so is P.J. Tucker (who has played the seventh-most minutes in the league, and most of those minutes involve him trying to keep much bigger players away from the rim), Eric Gordon is 30 and Harden will turn 30 this summer. Defensive specialist and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik already tried retiring once.
Beyond that, however, the Rockets are staring down another mass roster turnover. After adding six new faces to the locker room this season, Houston has only seven players under guaranteed contracts for next season. Last summer, they exchanged veterans Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute for cheaper, younger help. This summer, that help — Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Iman Shumpert, Gerald Green and Danuel House — could all fetch bigger contracts as free agents.
On top of that, next season is when Harden’s max extension kicks in, adding more than $7 million to the books. The bill for Harden and Paul in 2021 gets even more expensive, as they are each set to earn $40 million-plus. Owner Tilman Fertitta managed to avoid the luxury tax this season, but will he be willing to shell out in order to keep the window open a little longer and help pad Daryl Morey’s risk profile?
Harden’s game should age well, but it will only get harder for Morey to build a contender around his perennial MVP candidate. He will make almost $47 million by the time his contract matures. Paul gets more expensive as he ages. Those extra millions on the fringes is what helps this team pick up Rivers and Faried midseason or uncover a diamond-like House. Barring a major roster move, there’s only going to be less and less money between the cushions every season.
Proof of concept
In Silicon Valley, there’s a thing called proof of concept. A software startup will put together a conceptual version of the software to determine whether or not it meets the needs of would-be clients, and often send this to a third party vendor to see if it meets that company’s needs. If everything’s kosher, the startup will develop a prototype and show that to prospective customers or VCs to seek funding.
Even though the Rockets are an established, veteran group, it’s only been a couple of years that Fertitta has been an NBA owner. You and I could look at what Houston has done as impressive but that doesn’t mean Fertitta, the one writing the checks, is sold.
If Houston is no closer to knocking off the Golden State Warriors and making it to the NBA Finals, does he spend more money to get over the hump, or does the proof of concept perish in (relative) infancy?
D’Antoni has been through this once before with the Phoenix Suns. Seven seconds or less didn’t result in a championship, and so D’Antoni pivoted and traded for Shaquille O’Neal. He’s said several times since then that he instead should have doubled down on 3-point shooting and made Steve Nash shoot more. Hindsight is great. You can learn a lot. D’Antoni may have to convince his new boss to double down.
A chance to beat these Warriors
The biggest obstacle in Houston’s way is Golden State. The Warriors have plenty to play for. It’s the last season at Oracle. It could be the last season they have Kevin Durant and even Klay Thompson (also a free agent) and Draymond Green (due for an extension and, after he signed with CAA, some wonder if this could get ugly).
In 2016, we saw what beating a peak Warriors team can do to someone’s legacy, but even LeBron hasn’t beaten these Warriors with Durant. Beating this version of the Warriors would forever cement Houston’s legacy. A monolith win for Harden to vault him up the all-time rankings. Paul would go down as a giant killer. D’Antoni could break the thing– the ultimate version of the thing — he had an indirect hand in building.
If and when Durant leaves, beating the Warriors wouldn’t have the same joie de vivre. It would still be great. It would still add to everyone’s legacy and tilt many ratios in their favor. It just wouldn’t be the same…
Chris Paul’s legacy
Seven or eight years from now, as you grab a handful of bar nuts and the conversation veers toward Paul, what are you talking about first? How he never won the big one, or his ranking among the greatest point guards ever?
Both of those conversations would be appropriate, and both will be affected by what happens this postseason.
Paul has a killer resume. He is seventh all-time in career assists and 10th in steals. He’s made nine-straight All-Stars, made the All-NBA first team four times, second team three times and third team once. He was named to the All-Defensive team nine times. He finished in the top five of MVP voting in four of the five seasons between 2007 and 2013. Only Magic Johnson can claim as many points and assists per game over a career.
The consensus is that Paul is one of the eight best point guards ever. That list includes Magic and Nash, Oscar Robertson, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Bob Cousy and Stephen Curry (in no particular order).
Magic, Robertson, Curry and Thomas are the clear top four. Paul probably falls somewhere between six and eight, but his stats look more like a top-five guy. If he wins a ring, he would separate himself from the Nash/Stockton/Cousy crowd and vault into the top five. It would be irrefutable.
And speaking of legacies…
This run James Harden has been on, well, it’s never been done before. We know this. We know what he’s doing is insane. We also know he’ll be 30 soon, and that a player’s prime only lasts so long. As we’ve seen with Paul, we never quite know when it will come to an end.
Harden is climbing up all-time charts but a championship puts him in the conversation with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Jerry West as one of the greatest shooting guards of all time behind Michael Jordan.
You don’t want everything to boil down to rangz, but this is the greatest of the greats we’re talking about. It matters. For Harden and the Rockets, winning a championship may only get harder from here. There’s no time like the present.