The Rockets took the next step in Year 2 of the Mike D’Antoni era. The team won 65 games, a 10-game improvement from last season, and the Rockets blasted off to the top of the NBA standings.
There are many reasons for optimism regarding the Rockets and the team looks to have as good of a chance to win the Larry O’Brien trophy as they have had since the Clutch City days in the mid-’90s. The 65 wins is a franchise high, and it is not just one of the elite teams in Rockets history, but there is an argument that they belong in the company of some of the NBA’s best regular season teams of all-time.
James Harden posted his third MVP-caliber campaign in the last four seasons and it looks like he might finally be the bride, not a bridesmaid this time. His averages of 30.6 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game make up an incredible stat line, but he isn’t just a force on the box score. The way he has crafted the offense D’Antoni has shaped is the reason why the Rockets are in this position. He’s unquestionably the team’s leader and heartbeat, but probably the best part about his game is that he makes the players around him a lot better.
Clint Capela has probably benefitted from him the most, and, at just 23, Capela had his best season yet in just his fourth year. The raw potential Daryl Morey saw in him playing overseas is finally coming into fruition for the 2014 Draft’s 25th overall pick. Statistically, it’s been his best season yet, averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Harden and Capela should be a part of the Rockets’ success for a long time. Harden was inked until the 2022-23 season this past offseason and Capela is a restricted free agent this summer, bound to score a big contract the Rockets will match without hesitation.
But the team’s success is not all on the shoulders of this dynamic duo, and it is also why the Rockets need to take advantage of the title hopes that are directly in front of them, because they might not have this chance ever again.
The age of the team, outside of its two youngest rotation players, could be the downfall of this team past this season. The Rockets are the oldest in the NBA at 28.9 years old. Y’all that’s tied with the Spurs with 72-year-old* Manu Ginobili bringing up their average.
*All ages approximate
P.J. Tucker has been a major part of the Rockets’ defensive identity this season and has worked his way from the bench to a starting role. He turns 33 next month and it is likely that his best days are in the past and present as opposed to the future. Tucker is going to play a critical role for this team in the playoffs and it is uncertain whether he can play as big of a role next season.
Trevor Ariza also turns 33 this summer as he enters unrestricted free agency. The Rockets’ starting small forward for the past four seasons could be gone after this season. With the Rockets needing cap space to sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela, Ariza might be playing his final days as a Houston Rocket unless he takes a substantial, hometown-discount pay cut.
Luc Mbah a Moute and Gerald Green are both important role players playing far better than their veteran’s minimum salaries. The two are possibly the biggest bargains in the NBA and both will get raises this summer. Whether or not those raises come from Houston is a different story. Green would probably play for the Rockets for free, but he’s gotta pay the bills somehow.
Even guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who still have time and money left in Houston, are approaching their age-30 seasons next year. It’s uncertain whether their heydays are in front of them or behind them. Chris Paul also turns 33 next month and will almost definitely be back with the team next year despite his unrestricted free agent status.
All of this, coupled with the fact that the Warriors, the current dynasty of the league, are not at full strength with Stephen Curry’s bum ankle, makes this a very opportune moment for the Rockets to rise up, dethrone the Warriors and snatch this championship.
In today’s NBA, it is easy to forget that a team is not guaranteed to stay at the top. The most recent example of this is the Oklahoma City Thunder of the early part of the decade.
Despite rostering what will be three league MVP’s after this offseason, the team never won a championship. The closest the team came was in 2012 when the team lost in five games to the Miami Heat. After the series, the Beard became a Rocket, and it set the foundation for the team currently with the best odds to win a championship.
The core of this team is not in jeopardy past this season, but the current alignment of the stars spells C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N-S. There is no team that the Rockets can’t beat. From here on out, it is all about execution. The team knows they have the tools and mindset of a team ready for a ring, it’s now time to seize the moment and take this opportunity that is in front of them.