As of last night, the Houston Rockets secured a spot in the NBA playoffs. With just 10 games remaining, we can declare the 2014-15 regular season as a success by all standards. Led by MVP candidate James Harden, the Rockets conquered adversity and positioned themselves among the elite teams in the NBA.
But having success in the regular season isn't everything. In fact, it doesn't mean too much at all.
To the players, fans, and organization, playoff performance is how to define success for a NBA team. However, you don't always have to win the championship to be successful. I call it the Sans-Ring Success Theory.
Even if a team doesn't win the bling, the season can still be considered a triumphant season. Look at a playoff team from the past and consider the following:
- Who did they lose to? Who did they defeat?
- How much talent did that team really have?
- Did the team struggle with injuries?
Once upon a time, a broad-shouldered 23 year old Dwight Howard took an Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals after handling the Big Three Celtics and LeBron's Cavaliers in the playoffs. During the season, Jameer Nelson (who was selected to the All-Star game), dislocated his shoulder. To nearly win the Larry O'Brien without a key player in Nelson was impressive. That was as successful a season as any in my book, despite not going all the way.
Steve Nash's Phoenix Suns never won a championship, but they had several outstanding years. In 2007, they won 61 games and lost in a classic Western Conference Semi Final series to the Spurs who won the championship that year. Nash was beaten up by the San Antonio goons and Amar'e Stoudemire was suspended for game 5, so there were some serious extenuating circumstances. The Suns didn't even make it to the Finals, but they lost to the team that went on to win it all and I consider that season a success for Phoenix even though they had championship aspirations.
How does the Sans-Ring Success Theory relate to the 2015 Rockets? Well once the season is over, we should revisit the three points and determine whether or not this team failed. How much talent does this team really have? Nobody really knows for sure. On a night-to-night basis, you know that Harden will get his, but that's about it. Did the team struggle with injuries? Yes. All season. Besides Harden and Ariza, no opening day starter has played more than 56 out of the 71 games.
At Full Strength
With a healthy Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, and Terrence Jones, the sky is the limit for the Rockets. With everyone completely healthy, Houston has just as much talent as any team in the West.
At 100%, the Rockets have as good a starting five as the Clippers and as solid a bench as the Warriors. There's no reason that team shouldn't make it to the conference finals. It would be disappointing if the Rockets were bounced once again in the first round especially if the full squad (including Dwight Howard) is on the court.
Reaching the second round would obviously be an improvement on last year, but a second-round exit would still inspire scolding hot takes like "Can Harden win in the playoffs?" and "Can 'MoreyBall' work when everything slows down in the post season?"
At full strength, the Rockets must advance to the Conference Finals, where anything can happen, for this season to be considered a success in my books.
At the Current State
Donatas Motiejunas, who has shined in the absence of Howard, is out 1-2 weeks with back pain. He should be good to go for the playoffs, but you never know. Terrence Jones has been on-and-off the court all season. He was producing in March until his lung collapsed in a collision with Kenneth Faried. Jones hopes to return next week.
To put the cherry on top, Patrick Beverley, a core leader on the team, could need season-ending wrist surgery. Without Patrick Beverley, it will be extremely tough defending terrific Western Conference point guards like Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry.
But once again, you never know. Beverley could shake off his injury because he's secretly an alien sent to earth to piss off NBA point guards. In the words of Kevin Garnett...
For this Rockets team without DMo, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones, a championship is impossible. The Conference Finals are out of reach. Sadly, the second round might even be a bit of a stretch with Jason Terry starting at point guard. I'm sorry, but a team with that many injuries to such important players can not succeed in the playoffs.
James Harden's season, regardless of the playoffs, will undoubtably be a success. He's likely to be the league MVP while leading the league in scoring and erasing is bad defensive reputation. But it's not an individual question and the theory doesn't apply to players.
With the roster today, the Rockets have built-in excuses. They could lose in the first round and be remembered as an overachieving regular season team considering their injury status. They could have a higher seed than their first round matchup, but they may not be favored. Whatever happens, only time will answer the question of success or failure..