The Houston Rockets are winning lots of games, having a season that nobody expected them to have. There’s no reason to make changes, but thinking hypothetically can still be fun sometimes.
Solid team basketball wasn’t supposed to be played by James Harden and company this season. Pundits claimed he was a bad teammate and didn’t want to share the ball or the spotlight. A few months later, and that’s clearly not the case. The Beard has his Houston Rockets sitting at third in the Western Conference, and they’re a real threat to claim the NBA’s crown this summer.
Even if they don’t win this year, the Rockets are set to be contenders for a long time. Harden is in the beginning of his prime and has a not-too-old supporting cast. Of the 10 regular rotation guys in Houston, only three are over the age of 28. In fact, Nene is the only player on the roster over the age of 31. In other words, barring some catastrophe, the Rockets will be good for a long time.
There’s no need for GM Daryl Morey to make any drastic offseason moves. In fact, it may be wise for him to sit back this summer and give it a go next year with the same group he has now. Considering the preseason expectations, no Rockets fan has any right to demand changes. But, basketball people can be wishful thinkers sometimes. It’s fun to think hypothetically and wonder how certain unavailable players would mesh in H-town. Who could the Rockets get if they offered James Harden in a trade? What if Kevin Durant had known this summer how good the Beard and friends would be?
Being the group of dreamers and conspiracists that we are, some of the Space City Scoop staff got together to think hypothetically for a bit. I came up with some questions and let the guys run with them. Let’s dive in.
Next: 1. What non-Rocket would you want in Houston?
1. What non-Rocket would you most like to have on the team in Houston?
There are a couple of rules for this question that were communicated to everybody before they answered. The first is that this does not have to be someone who is actually available. We’re hypothetically thinking here, so anybody in the league is on the table.
That being said, the second rule is that superstars aren’t allowed. Players like Kevin Durant or LeBron James are off limits. The superstar classification is sometimes unclear, but we went with the honor system on this one. If adding the player would place the Houston Rockets in the “super-team” category, then pick somebody else.
Lastly, for conciseness, we limited this to players in the league right now. If we allowed that, it would create a question of which version of a player would be added. Can I add pre-tattoo sleeve J.J. Redick? Nope, you get the current package, ink and all. How about 2021 Joel Embiid? Well he could be a superstar by then or could be confined to a wheelchair. Too unpredictable. Okay, I’ll take peak Ray Allen? Nope, too unclear as to when Ray Allen was peak Ray Allen. (Also, if we didn’t make this rule then Coty would have happily broken the second rule to add Kobe Bryant. Sorry Coty.)
Rudy “Stieffel Tower” Gobert. If there’s one area we could use some help in, it’s rebounding and rim protection. The fact that James Harden leads the team in rebounding exposes the gaping hole left by the departure of Dwight Howard in the offseason. Clint Capela has done well for his first full season as a starter but he tends to get bullied down low in some of the grittier games.
Gobert is having an excellent season, putting up 13 and 13 while swatting 2.5 shots per game. He arguably deserved to be in New Orleans last month for the All-Star game. Utah currently boasts the stingiest defense in the Association thanks to the big Frenchman. In fact, he and the Jazz only give up a mere 96 points per game.
Night in and night out, you can stumble upon the Jazz on League Pass and see the big man controlling the paint and making opponents think twice about attacking the rim, and sending the shots of those who dare on a first-class ticket back to France. Gobert on the Rockets would create the ideal 4-out-1-in combo and would propel them right up beside Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland as Larry O’Brien contestants.
In my opinion, the Rockets need to target an elite two-way wing that can shoot threes and create their own offense off the dribble. A player that is a handy isolation scorer, a good spot up shooter and a capable pick-and-roll playmaker would be perfect. My ideal fit would be Kawhi Leonard, but we all know that’s against the rules. Luckily, there are some similar types available in free agency this year who might fit the bill.
It may not seem likely, but Gordon Hayward–or a player like him–would be a great fit next to James Harden in Houston. Alternatively, a 3-and-D player like restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is another option that sparks my interest. I’m not sure what he’s worth, but I think he could fit in nicely in Houston.
I’ve been saying it all season long and I am not giving up. The one non-Rocket I would love to have in Houston is Brook Lopez. With his ability to score both inside and out, Lopez would be a perfect fit Houston’s high-scoring offense under Mike D’Antoni.
Just imagine how unstoppable Houston’s pick-and-roll offense will be with Lopez and James Harden. Not only would their offense get an upgrade, but so would Houston’s defense. With a career average of 1.7 blocks per game, the Rockets would have an intimidating presence in the paint. Maybe this summer they’ll trade for the All-Star center?
Next: If Harden doesn't win MVP, who should?
Mar 6, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) is fouled while shooting by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
2. In a totally hypothetical situation, let’s say the voters get it wrong and don’t pick James Harden for MVP. Who wins the hardware instead?
Okay, I know that James Harden isn’t a lock to win MVP. He has my as-unbiased-as-possible vote, but there are at least three or four other worthy contestants. I’ve heard it said frequently that the only bad take in the MVP discussion is to say “_____ should win MVP and it’s not even close!”
Everyone on staff at Space City Scoop on the Beard-for-MVP train, so we decided to discuss the rightful MVP runner-up.
The only player I would feel comfortable with winning the MVP award (other than Harden) is Kawhi Leonard. Personally, I think Harden has better numbers than Russ or LeBron and he’s also had greater team success. I don’t think either one has a case if you’re basing your selection on equal criteria.
I understand that Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, but Harden is averaging 29/8/11 while posting a true shooting percentage that’s better than 60%. No one has ever done that; it’s the greatest combination of volume and efficiency that we’ve seen in the modern era. For comparison, Russ has a 54% TSP, which is utterly average. Are they really going to give him the award over Harden just because he averages two more rebounds? I hope not.
As far as LeBron is concerned, I just don’t see a case for him over Harden. LeBron has been great, but the Rockets have more wins than the Cavs and Harden’s supporting cast is highlighted by Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, as opposed to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. How does LeBron even have a case at all? For them not to win more games than Houston pushes him out of the running in my books.
Lastly, we get to Kawhi. Kawhi doesn’t have the same raw numbers as the other candidates, but he’s efficient and he’s the only one in the running who can be considered an elite two-way player. He’s also the clear best player and number one option on a team that should win 60+ games. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Kawhi should win. But if they’re going to award the “best player on the best team” then I can’t argue. If you really think that Kawhi’s defense means he has as much impact on the game as the other guys, then I’ll gladly disagree, but it’s a position I can at least understand.
If not James Harden, Russell Westbrook would probably win MVP because of those ungodly numbers he’s putting up. I can also see Kawhi possibly stealing the award because of his recent play and that block (read: foul) on Harden. But, besides the obvious choices, LeBron and Isiah Thomas are both having great seasons.
At times, it seems as that we get blinded by the end of season push and forget the work done throughout the year. So truly I only see Harden and Westbrook as contenders for the MVP. These two have played a head and shoulders against the rest of the NBA and have redefined regular season stats. I really don’t understand how one can see the complete turnaround for the Houston Rockets from last season and not give Harden the MVP. But if not him, then Russ deserves it.
If Harden doesn’t win the MVP for totally unbiased reasons we need not mention, I would be perfectly fine giving the trophy to a man who also deserves it. Of course, I’m talking about the best player in the damn league, LeBron James.
Sure, Russ is grabbing triple-doubles like they’re on sale at H&M, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that LeBron James is having one of the best seasons of his entire career–13 years in. It’s probably uncommon knowledge that Bron is posting career highs in assists and rebounds, while still scoring 26 nightly. He’s also shooting more accurately from three than Durant, Curry, and Leonard.
I could go on and on, but when a player is the best and has been the best for so long, eventually voter fatigue sets in. That’s why Michael Jordan didn’t win MVP every year, and it’s affected LeBron’s personal accolades as well.
Next: 3. If you had to trade Harden, who'd you want in return?
Oct 30, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) controls the ball during the first quarter as Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) defends at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
3. You have to trade Harden for one other superstar, one player for one player. Who’s your choice?
Of course, Daryl Morey would never trade James Harden. Considering his skill and fit, there’s not another player in the league who could fill his shoes. But we’re thinking hypothetically here. In this scenario, of course, the money works out and the teams agree to the trade. Who’s the newest member of the Houston Rockets?
Ugh. Just answering this question feels blasphemous. But if I must, I would say trade Harden for the “Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now, he’s obviously different type of player, but that kid’s potential is scary. Like video game scary. On the season, Giannis is averaging 23.3 points, 8.6 boards, 5.5 assists, 2 blocks, and almost 2 steals per game. And he’s only 22! Like I said, scary. But, in the event they’d look to go guard for guard, I would say Kyrie. He would be the player who could almost replicate Harden in most aspects. Well, minus the height and muscle.
I would have to go with my favorite player in the game at the moment, Steph Curry. Not because he is a two-time MVP, but because his game is tailor-made for Mike D’Antoni’s system: a point guard who can score 30 or more points per game as well as facilitate for his teammates. Yes, James Harden has done a phenomenal job this season for the Rockets. But I can’t help but imagine what Steph could do in their offense.
See Answer Two (LeBron James). Rinse and repeat. Case closed. Shooters? Ariza and Ryno, check. Shooooters? Lou Will and EG, check. A decent big man? Capela, check. Hard-nosed guard that is ready to go to war? Bev, check. The only missing piece to win a title is a superstar, and LeBron is the best superstar in the league. He’d attract decent bench pickups simply because guys are so bent on playing with him and he’s the best route to a Finals appearance. Clutch City would be celebrating come June for sure.
Next: Wrapping Up
Most, if not all, of these scenarios are completely unrealistic. In actuality, the Houston Rockets are functioning surprisingly well with just one superstar and a bunch of system players.
In the midst of a long regular season, it’s tough to stay realistic all the time. The Rockets are winning games, but it’s just so fun to imagine how much better they’d be if they could miraculously add another star.
I admit that I get carried away at times. But just imagine how great it would be if the Houston Rockets’ starting lineup consisted of Curry, Harden, LeBron, Durant, and Gobert! It’d be the greatest team in history. I’d vote that team into the Hall of Fame right there and then. I’d give them the next 15 Finals trophies, at least.
That team could probably beat the Avengers in a game of basketball even if superpowers were allowed. Sure, you are a god of some sort and have an extremely chiseled jawline, but I’m leading the league in assists and am also third in scoring, and realistically my jawline might be equally chiseled, but you won’t ever know because I can’t shave my beard or else I’d lose so much of my brand identity and I’m just not really willing to give that up right now. That’s what James Harden would say to Thor while they lined up for free throws, probably.
Okay, that wasn’t very realistic. No basketball team could beat the Avengers at anything, I would guess. But, the Rockets did beat the Cavs the other night, and LeBron is probably the closest thing on earth to a real superhero. That counts for something significant.
While it’s fun to dream, Red Nation actually has every reason to be excited about the real future. The Rockets are a great team, and have a real shot at a championship this year, and probably for the next two or three years as well.
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Also, how many fan bases get to root for a player like James Harden? He’s a definite top-five talent in the league, and is arguably the best basketball player in the world. He’s a really, really good guy to have as the face of your franchise.
Not only that, but the Rockets also have a coach who is perfect for the Beard’s skill set. We’ve gotten to watch the best iteration of a D’Antoni scheme unfold this year with Harden holding the key. Daryl Morey is a great GM who deserves credit for doing what he thought was best for the team when he hired MDA, even when the most loyal Rockets fans doubted him.
I guess all this goes to say that Rockets fans should be thankful. Even if Space City isn’t hoisting up that trophy in June, they have a special team. This is a great time for basketball, and the Houston Rockets are a part of it. They’re a joy to watch every night with this one-superstar lineup, and they are getting more wins than anyone expected.
In situations like Houston’s, fans tend to raise their expectations quickly. Before the season, making the playoffs seemed like a good goal. Now that that’s a lock, some won’t be satisfied with anything but an NBA title. That shouldn’t be the case, though. Enjoy this right now, Red Nation–whether or not the Rockets end up champions–because it won’t always be this good in Houston.
Stay tuned to Space City Scoop for more news and analytics on the Houston Rockets, as well as a little bit of wishful thinking every now and then.