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Houston Rockets - Peoples' Champs?

Could the Houston Rockets become a beloved team fans will remember for years to come? Mike D'Antoni's history suggests it is possible.

Mike, did you shave your mustache because my beard made you feel inadequate? Be honest.
Mike, did you shave your mustache because my beard made you feel inadequate? Be honest.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Will The Rockets Be The Peoples' Champ?

Hello everyone, it's your Old Pal Xiane.  I know, I missed you, too!

You know what else I missed, the Houston Rockets.  Whatever that was last season had "Rockets" on the jersey, but I pray I never see that version of the Rockets again. The 2015-16 season was surely one of the most disappointing, joyless sporting affairs I care to recall. It was a "playoff season", barely, but it should have been more.  It might have been better if they hadn't made the playoffs. Perhaps it'll look passable in one of those "Last 15 Seasons" retrospectives.

Anyhow, I decided to synchronize the Rockets' effort with my writing output.  Consequently I didn't write much of anything. I also gave up arguing about a team that wasn't worth arguing about.  Enough about that. There is news!

It appears the Rockets care about basketball!  They might score a zillion points while playing attractive basketball!

It is thrilling to report, and we all may hope it holds true. Mike D'Antoni (MDA) has coached some great teams in the past. The Knicks and the Lakers were anchored by players cruelly unsuited to his type of basketball yet he still coaxed a surprising amount of decent basketball from them.  (When did they each last appear in the playoffs?)

For the obligatory thoughts on MDA, because things associated with him seem to generate abbreviations, two things.

One - I'm glad he shaved the moustache.  No more "Pringles" epithets.  Fresh start, fresh face, honor bright.

Two -€” I consider D'Antoni one of the best of what might be the "Second Tier of NBA Coaches".  The "First Tier" currently coaching is comprised of  Popovich and Ricky "The Genius" Carlisle.  Perhaps Brad Stevens will one day qualify, or Doc RiversQuin Snyder.  Terry Stotts efforts with the Trailblazers merit mention as well.  Maybe Steve Kerr deserves to be there, or Budenholzer. To be fair, though, the only coach of that group I've seen play more than one tune over the years so far is Rivers, who has coached a defensive oriented championship Celtics team, and a no-defense, all-offense Clippers. (A team that seems to get less out of its talent than it should, and for some reason refuses to find a plausible small forward of any sort.)

Popovich, and Carlisle are the only two who have proven they can alter the way their team plays based on personnel competence, NBA trends, injury, player age, or simply because they find better ways to operate. They are flexible in approach, and maintain a level of excellence and performance well above what an average coach would achieve with the same roster.  Their teams make few mistakes, and thus rarely give games away.

The second tier includes coaches who may be excellent, but do not change their system or approach to accommodate personnel.  Of course they vary their approach to some extent, they are good coaches, not morons. But they have a philosophy, and they stick with it.  If such a coach gets the right players, that system can be overwhelming and produce championships.  This tier is where you'll find Phil Jackson, so it's not exactly a bar to success. Coaches as different as Tom Thibodeau, and Mike D'Antoni reside there, and probably most of the possible First Tier names mentioned above, given a longer run in the NBA.

The Rockets may well be an instance of the right coach, right system, right team. This version of the Rockets, adding Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Nene Hilario are going to scorch the net.  Given health, they might be a top ten offense of all time in the NBA.

James Harden, if he buys in, and it appears he has, was born to play for Mike D'Antoni.  D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" (SSOL) system, or the current version of it, maximizes Harden's talents, and minimizes his tendency to dribble aimlessly for 15 seconds.  Of course having Trevor Ariza as the fourth, possibly fifth, best shooter on the floor, instead of the second best or third, could make some difference, when it comes to Harden passing the ball.

In a D'Antoni offense, the very high number of offensive possessions pressures defenses in ways that extend beyond physical fatigue, and more shots to defend. If D'Antoni is correct, the best shots occur early in possessions, and a defense must face the best shots from its opponent, more often. So in theory the attack combines quality and pace.

Despite using a similar spread pick and roll, the attack differs greatly from last year's in one respect, as early shots did not seem to be preferred, and the offense seemed to rely overmuch on the theory of layups and threes simply being better, no matter who took them or when in the clock.  Also the D'Antoni offense seems to offer a "Plan B" for scoring the ball that involves constant motion, back cuts, passes from the high post, and passes from big men, rather than simply spreading the offense along the three point line and letting Harden dribble around.  To be sure, with Harden now Point Beard, we will see a good bit of that as well, but it is easy to see the offense is flowing better.  (Put the Memphis game out of your mind -that was a jet-lagged team tossing tired and anemic passes and shots at the basket.)

SSOL and this Rocket roster look to be made for each other.  The defense is a worry, but D'Antoni's teams have rarely been the defensive superfund sites popularly supposed.  It's not going to look pretty, but always remember, adjust for pace. Also, adjust for pace.  Additionally, adjust for pace.  While complaining about the defense, be sure to adjust for pace.

There will still be plenty to complain about, but perhaps not as much as many predict.  Those who aren't adjusting for pace, that is.  With the heavy artillery the Rockets boast, they only need to be mediocre on defense to post a gaudy regular season record.  Average defense is all it will take. The Rockets will be asking an entertaining question of the league. Not "Can You Score?" because opponents will score, even adjusting for pace, but "Can You Score Enough?"

Honestly, that's fine.  That's a team that should be a pleasure to watch, instead of a chore and a misery like last year's model. Be happy, Rockets fans!  The Rockets are going to immensely fun.  In many years they might contend for a title, and with some luck, win one.

Unfortunately, it is now time to talk about the elephant in the room: the Golden State Warriors. The addition of Kevin Durant makes Golden State the prohibitive favorite to win the title.  Absent serious injury (which effectively never happens to these Warriors), astonishingly bad chemistry, the real possibility that there just aren't enough shots to go around, the collapse of synergy from losing a good bit of their bench, or the hatred of the basketball gods, (who sometimes lightly punish bandwagoning), the Warriors should win the title.

The Warriors are the product of the ridiculously tiny Steph Curry contract, combined with the Unsmoothed Spike in the NBA salary cap.  This team should not exist under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).  The CBA is partly designed to prevent such teams. Due to the confluence the cap spike, Durant's free agency and him perhaps tiring of Russell Westbrook and Occupied North Texas in general, it has happened.

We still haven't plumbed the unlikely depths of this outlier, however. The Warriors can boast about "light years", but probability, rather than relativity, informs Joe Lacob's unending self-congratulation in this case.  If OKC hadn't blown a 3-1 lead over the Warriors, and then subsequently those same Warriors hadn't blown a 3-1 lead to Cleveland, do you honestly think Durant would be playing for Golden State?

An OKC finals appearance, or a GSW title, might well change Kevin's Choice. It certainly appears that Durant cares about public perception of himself. Leaving an OKC Finals team, or joining a title winner might have garnered too much ill-will for him.  We'll never know, but we know the league has to deal with this unholy collection of shooting and scoring, and a defense that is only occasionally required to tone down its tough-guy testicle kicking.

So where does that leave the Rockets?  In a familiar D'Antoni position -€” the most fun team to not win the title.  A team that will change James Harden's somewhat unfair reputation, and allow fans to see the blinding talent and joyously amazing parts of his game.  Steve Nash was a worse defender than Harden, even when he tried.  Does anyone care about that?

What they care about were those delightful Suns teams.  Many NBA fans probably feel the same way, and honestly cannot remember much about the actual champions, let alone recall them fondly.  These Rockets may come to occupy a similar place in NBA fans' hearts.

The Peoples' Champions.  A beloved Harden and Rockets -€” dare to dream it! There are worse things than being The Peoples' Champ.