Last season James Harden‘s Houston Rockets finished second in the West with a record of 56-26 despite major injuries to Dwight Howard and other key role players. That’s four wins away from being a 60-win team. With Howard being absent for half the season, MVP runner-up James Harden led the Rockets to the Western Conference finals where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in five games.
With the upcoming season set to begin in two weeks, the Rockets are expected to be worse than last season, even with a mostly healthy lineup, and the addition of star point guard Ty Lawson.
Why the Rockets are still considered a second tier Western Conference team remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it is because the West is too stacked? Perhaps injury is a pattern instead of a fluke for the Rockets? Perhaps Harden isn’t as good as he seemed to be last season since he scores so many of his points from the free throw line? Or maybe Ty Lawson isn’t really an upgrade over Jason Terry once the Rockets make it to the playoffs?
Wait, will the Rockets even make it to the playoffs? Some members of the media predicted that they wouldn’t last season. The Rockets hope to prove them wrong again.
The Rockets are assembling a cast of under rated/unwanted stars like they are casting True Detective season 3.
— Drew Ballard (@DBallard2) July 20, 2015
After having won the NBA championship, the Warriors are deservedly the favorites to repeat what they have already accomplished. Along with Golden State, most of the media also places the upgraded San Antonio Spurs, the return-from-injury Oklahoma City Thunder, and the never-made-it-out-of-the-second-round Los Angeles Clippers in the first tier of Western Conference teams.
The Rockets are most often considered in a tier below the West’s top four teams. While it’s fair not to place the Rockets at the top of the pack in a ruthless Western Conference, it doesn’t make sense to say that they are not as good as any other team in the West, given how far they made it last season with a depleted roster, and a hole– that is now filled– at the point guard position.
The West is as good as it has been in years, but so are the Rockets, powered by the top notch play of James Harden.
I’m not necessarily going in there and trying to draw a foul, but if a person can’t guard you, he has to foul you. Or I’m going to score. Every. Single. Time.
“I am the best player in the league. I believe that,” Harden recently told NBA.com. Whether or not you agree, its hard to argue that Harden isn’t at least one of the best players in the league.
Harden, like his Rockets, is also one of the most scrutinized players in the NBA. “The No. 1 thing that bothers me is this perception that James is somehow ‘tricking the game,‘” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told Pablo Torre of ESPN. “Like he’s somehow getting more free throws than he deserves.”
To that criticism, Harden told Torre,”I’m not necessarily going in there and trying to draw a foul, but if a person can’t guard you, he has to foul you. Or I’m going to score. Every. Single. Time.” If Harden is only as good as he is because he gets to the free throw line so often, the defensive scheme for opposing teams should be simple– stop fouling him.
The fact of the matter is that since Harden made his home in Houston he has transformed into one of the greatest players in the league. My personal theory is that Harden’s evolution is hard for some people to swallow. Bill Walton is the only player to ever win both MVP and 6th man of the year honors, the latter coming later in his career.
Harden, who made a name for himself in the league as Oklahoma’s 6th man, playing behind Durant and Westbrook, finished second in MVP votes last season. For a former 6th man, that is a rare feat.
First impressions are hard to overcome. For most of us, our initial thought of Harden was that he was the league’s best player off the bench. It has taken time for us to adjust to the idea that he is among the league’s best– period.
Along with a skeptical attitude towards Harden comes a skeptical attitude towards his Houston Rockets. Whether or not we now understand that Harden is as good as anyone in the league not named LeBron, deep down we still have the feeling that Harden is a sixth man playing beyond his ability. The longer it takes to overcome Harden’s first impression, the longer it will take for the rest of the league to be convinced that the Rockets are as capable of winning a championship as anybody.
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