The Houston Rockets’ season is over. Dead and gone after the first round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. Something far different than what Dwight Howard and Houston fans had in mind 43 weeks ago when he posted a picture of him and James Harden on Instagram with the caption “Houston, we have lift off.” A team with championship aspirations has seen their season end in the most devastating way; a storybook shot that kids dream of all around the world. Down by 2, 0.9 seconds left… Nothing but the bottom of the net, sending the opposing team packing. Unfortunately for Houston, they weren’t the heroes of this story. But what brought the Rockets to this crossroad to begin with?
Over the last three years, no team in the NBA has made bigger roster additions than the Rockets. Houston was extremely aggressive in the summer of 2012 when they convinced Linsanity (Jeremy Lin) to come to their town by signing him to a four-year deal worth $28.8 million, $10.2 million of that coming in the first two seasons. At the time he was the most popular player in the league due to his amazing rise to stardom. They also signed Omer Asik, a backup on the Chicago Bulls who had shown great promise, to a three-year contract worth $25.1 million. Combining Asik and Lin with the nucleus of Kevin Martin and the young Chandler Parsons, the Rockets looked to be heading in the direction of a playoff run in the ever competitive Western Conference. But the Rockets took it a step further. When James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t come to an agreement, Houston swooped in and played all their cards to get him.
The trade came as a huge shock to the league. How could the Thunder break up this dynamic trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden? Harden welcomed his new role in Houston as the “go to” player. In his first game as a Rocket, Harden scored 37 points, had 12 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals. He showed that he could be more than just the best sixth man in the league; he could be a star player. Harden wasn’t done though, he followed this performance by scoring 45 points in the next game. All Houston fans were ecstatic, excited and ready to go back to the playoffs for the first time since Yao Ming retired.
But it wasn’t all praise and rainbows following the Harden trade. Every time the Thunder lost a game, the masses of NBA analysts, broadcasters, and fans were quick to blame the Thunder front office.
“They wouldn’t have lost this game if they had Harden.” “Scott Brooks should have let Harden start from the beginning. Look what he is doing down there in Houston.” “Kevin Martin can’t do the things Harden can do.”
All these statements may have been true, but that didn’t affect the Thunder’s run to win the Western Conference regular season crown with 60 wins. That was a better record than any season they had with Harden on the team.
As fate would have it, OKC met the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. This was James Harden’s chance to show the Thunder what they were missing out on. In Game 2 of the series, Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus, and this reignited all the talk about the Thunder needing Harden. The Thunder ended up winning the series four games to two, but without Westbrook, they were eliminated in the second round.
The Rockets were pleased with their season as James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Omer Asik all had career years. Harden averaged almost 26 points per game and also was named to his first all-star team. Lin was able to get a full season under his belt as a starting point guard for the first time in his career. Parsons averaged 15 points per game, and Asik did a great job as the center, averaging a double double with points and rebounds.
The Rockets weren’t done making roster changes however. Dwight Howard had forced his way out of Orlando in the summer of 2012, unhappy with the lack of talent on the Magic roster. He took his talents to Hollywood to play with Kobe, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol. The Lakers were the “Super Team” of the West, and everyone was ready for them to meet the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. A slow start, a new coach, a boat load of injuries and an embarrassing sweep in the first round of the playoffs had Howard thinking it was time for a change of scenery … again. What better option than the hottest up and coming team in the league? The Houston Rockets. It could be like the second coming of Kobe and Shaq. The Rockets told Howard that Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest centers of all-time, would tutor him so that he too could become one of the greats.
It was made official in July of 2013 with Howard signing a four-year $88 million dollar contract. The Rockets now had the team needed to compete for an NBA championship. On paper, it sounded great, Lin, Harden, Parsons, and Howard would be the core nucleus with Omer going back to the role he had in Chicago, being the backup to an all-star.
The problem with that was, Asik left the Chicago Bulls so that he could be a starting center. That was his dream. That was the reason he left his home country of Turkey to begin with, and now he was a reserve again. Not happy with the situation, Asik demanded a trade. Considering he was coming off a career year, the Rockets at first did not want to trade him. Then they did, but they weren’t just going to give him away either. The only problem was that everyone in the NBA knew that the Rockets were trying to trade him. As a general manager, that’s your worst nightmare. It makes trades much more difficult because now teams will try to low-ball you. General managers around the league will offer trades that even your mom knows aren’t fair. So, the Rockets were stuck with an unhappy backup center. They tried all year to get rid of him but nothing could be done before the February trade deadline.
The Howard trade looked to be paying off despite all the distractions of the Asik drama. The Rockets won 54 games in 2014, which was good enough for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The fourth seed gave them home court advantage for the first round which was drastically different than the year before. There was only one slight problem, they weren’t playing some “cupcake” team in the opening round. They were playing the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers had a young star in Damian Lillard and proven power forward Lamarcus Aldridge. But the Rockets were confident that their own stars could more than match up with Portland’s. Harden struggled, the Rockets fell down three games to one in the series, being only one loss away from elimination. Saving the season was none other than Dwight Howard, as he scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to keep the Rockets alive for at least one more game.
The series headed back to Portland for the hardest fought game of them all. This game, like so many others in this year’s playoffs, was going to come down to the final possession. The Rockets, up by 2 with 0.9 seconds left, were ready to play another day. But Damian Lillard hit the shot heard ’round the world that sent the Rockets home. The 3-point bomb that Lillard hit sent the Blazers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years; while it sent the Houston Rockets home in the first round for the second time in two years. The team of hopes and dreams is sitting at home dreaming about next season.
Relatively speaking, winning 50+ games in the regular season is viewed as a success in most NBA franchises. Winning 50 games means you stayed consistent throughout the season and most likely positioned yourself for a favorable first round matchup. However, when a team invests in top-dollar for free agents you expect more than a first round exit. You expect to at least make it to the Conference finals with the ultimate goal of making the NBA finals. It doesn’t matter how many games your team wins in the regular season if you’re sitting at home by early May. That’s the beauty of the playoffs. Anything can happen as long as you get in and for teams like the Blazers, it’s a chance to show on a national stage what you have going on in Portland, Oregon. No matter what your team looks like on paper, or how much money you’ve spent, you still have to roll the ball out and play the 48 minute game.
So what happens next for the Rockets? They still have an unhappy backup center. They have a late first round pick who probably won’t make an impact next season, and they have little cap room. Some people think they should blow the team up. Unload Lin, Asik and a few other contracts and enter the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes. Others say that they should stay put another year and see how this team develops. Either way, there are no guarantees that the Rockets will be better than the power teams of the Western Conference.
Growing up an avid basketball fan, but also a college basketball player, I’ve seen it’s a game where you face many challenges and adversities. However, you learn from failure and are better prepared for the next battle. For the Rockets, I believe they should keep the team intact. We’ve discussed the major roster revamp they have done over the last three seasons and even though their playoff run was cut short, this was the first year with Harden and Howard together. Let’s not forget, Kobe and Shaq didn’t win a championship in their first season. All Miami Heat critics are quick to say the Heat and their “Big Three” didn’t win the championship in their first season together either. It takes time to adjust to playing with different players, figuring out where they like to get the ball in the post, or where they like to catch it on a kick out. It also takes time for a coach. A coach has to learn when to push certain buttons, and when to lay back and let his team figure it out themselves. I think the Rockets have the talent to make a run for a Western Conference Championship as long as they don’t forget the process. Champions aren’t born overnight and champions don’t lose faith after one disappointment.
Change has been good to the Houston Rockets. But when is it too much? Getting out of the Western Conference is a tough feat and that’s something Dwight Howard should have thought about when he was complaining in Orlando.