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Rising expectations for the Rockets

Michael Smith thinks the Rockets will fail to win a title next season. But is that failing?

Does the addition of Dwight Howard mean the Rockets have to win a championship this season?
Does the addition of Dwight Howard mean the Rockets have to win a championship this season?
Bob Levey

A few weeks ago, ESPN ran their annual "Summer Forecast" feature that predicts multiple aspects of the NBA season, like the standings, champs, rookie of the year, etc. It utilizes over 200 different opinions and conglomerates them into a prediction that has been accurate in the past. These predictions placed the Rockets in fourth place in the West and didn't have the Rockets in the top 5 for championship contenders. The forecast placed the Los Angeles Lakers in 12th place in the West and had them as the team that would undergo the most turmoil next season.

And that's not cool for ESPN, who needs the Lakers to be in the news all the time.

The reality of the situation has become apparent to anyone who paid attention during the offseason: the Lakers aren't going to win a playoff series this season. They might sneak into the playoffs, but they're in for an early exit. Basically, there won't be much to talk about regarding the Lakers. The Kobe Bryant Achilles story is cool, I guess. And seeing if Pau Gasol and Steve Nash can turn back the clock will be interesting maybe. But that's about it.

So ESPN needs Dwight Howard to continue being a story. He has to be their Lakers story. They need it now, and they need it all season. Whenever the Rockets lose, they can use the opportunity to pick them apart. And they started laying the groundwork for this narrative last week. Skip Bayless started it, and I won't repeat his words here because I assume everyone wants their IQs to remain at their normal high levels.

Michael Smith on First Take was only the most recent example.

Smith: They better win the West [...] You said the expectations for the Rockets are through the roof. Well too bad, because anything less than the Western Conference, if not a championship, is unacceptable for Dwight Howard. [...] I mean this year, there is no learning curve, there is no growing pains time. You say, "Hey, let me be great. Let me go down to Houston and get the ball in the post and work with Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon and be a johnny-come-lately and jump on board with James Harden and even Jeremy Lin." He didn't say "Let me do this so I cannot win a championship this year." [...] You wanted to lead the Lakers, this was your best opportunity. You feel comfortable. Win it NOW!

Skip: Will they win it now?

Both: No.

Smith: But I-we're gonna get on them for that.

So it's championship or bust for Smith and Bayless. According to them, Howard should have chosen to exit the first round with the Lakers rather than do anything with the Rockets. And Smith says that unless the Rockets win a championship, he'll be after the Rockets all season. But by that measure, 29 teams will fail next season, including the Lakers. How much did he get on the Lakers after they faltered against the Spurs?

That brings up an interesting point for Rockets fans: what is considered a success this season? Morey has said the team needs to reach the Western Conference Finals. ESPN's own forecast essentially calls them a second round team, barely. Personally, I see the Rockets anywhere from the 4-6 seed in the West, with a second round appearance as a move in the right direction. This team isn't complete, and won't be barring a huge leap from Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas, or a trade for another top 25 player. Plus, there's that LeBron guy on that Miami team.

Year after year, ESPN writes off the San Antonio Spurs, then switches the narrative in April with, "I never understand why people count them out, they're always so great in the playoffs." But this isn't about hypocrisy. Well, it is but it isn't.

Point being: Spurs fans LOVE that they are counted out every year. It means that any success brings them enormous credit and any failures go unnoticed by networks that are more focused on teams from Los Angeles and New York. The Spurs can operate under the radar and do their own things without the pressure that ESPN heaps on them. The lack of external pressure has to be a contributing factor to the Spurs' success every year. The more tangible contributing factors are a great front office, a great coach, a great core, and a system that maximizes potential, all mixed with a culture that breeds success.

I want the Rockets to be the Spurs. I want the lack of pressure for this team. Last season, the Rockets went mostly under the radar and outside of the occasional shoutout by Jeff van Gundy or Charles Barkley, were ignored. And that was great. I think great teams want that pressure and that they put more pressure on themselves than anyone else could. But these Rockets aren't great yet. And it sure would be nice to be like the Spurs.

So, I have added an external poll question to be answered. It consists of 2 questions and will take 5-10 seconds. I'll reveal the results once we get enough responses, but the key is looking for the minimum that the Rockets would have to accomplish to consider the season a success. Thank you in advance for the responses.