The Spurs with their big (old) three, Pop and now LaMarcus Aldridge. The Clippers with their improved bench. The Oklahoma City Thunder with the imminent return of Kevin Durant and another year of maturity from Russell Westbrook. The Cavs with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy once more. All these teams were being propped up as legitimate title threats this offseason, with the Rockets often resting squarely in the second tier.
But as we drift ever closer to the start of the regular season, something strange is happening. The national media is slowly beginning to catch on to the simmering cauldron of talent brewing in Houston. One that is on the verge of completely bubbling over with championship potential.
In an article published today for SI.com's The Cauldron (coincidentally enough), Seth Partnow addresses the Rockets sleeper status by focusing on the prevalent Harden-Howard hate currently infecting the league. He describes the misconception that James Harden's game is based around "fakery" and "flops" and how Dwight Howard is seen as "flaky" and "underachieving".
He builds a substantial case for the Rockets, while then calling out the obvious, but often ignored blemishes on the faces of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. He punctuates things with a thought we've seen and known for far too long as Rockets fans:
"None of these teams, though, have been subject to the inquisition in the same way as Houston, which gets back to the earlier point: people are looking for reasons why the Rockets will fail, because that's what they prefer to see."
ESPN's Calvin Watkins, writing for fivethirtyeight, offers up a more metrics-based prediction in his Rockets preview just out today. He does go on the record of foretelling only a 52-30 record for Houston (four wins down from last year), but also suggests this could also be the Rockets' year, saying:
"A healthy Rockets team should compete for a title."
Sharp rightfully focuses on the depth of the Rockets, with the rest of the league concentrating mostly it's two superstars. This is the deepest Rockets team in two decades, and people are finally beginning to notice.
"Fear the Warriors, definitely. Fear the Thunder, the Clippers, the Grizzlies, even the Pelicans. But as you look at the landscape and make predictions, don't forget the one team that's perfectly positioned to blitz the league for the next 82 games."
"Ty Lawson-- acquired for pennies on the dollar-- could put Houston over the top. But really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the number two seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the Conference Finals. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast... played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment."
Even the notoriously snooty New York Post listed the Rockets as one of the teams most likely to knock off the defending champion Golden State Warriors in an article printed just this Monday.
Their are, however, still some detractors.
Magic Johnson recently omitted the Rockets from his list of title contenders, naming only the Warriors, Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies as having real championship potential.
The four teams in the west that could win the championship are the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Clippers.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 29, 2015
And the true pros in Vegas haven't quite caught on, with Vegas Insider currently listing the Rockets as 22-1 to win the NBA title, a drop from the 18-1 odds they were giving immediately after last season ended.
It's fine with me that the Vegas oddsmakers haven't yet quite caught up with the recent national reconsideration of Houston's championship hopes. I know that the house always wins, but I'll be there in a week, and 22-1 may be just a little too juicy to pass up.
After all, baby does need a new pair of shoes.