When the Golden State Warriors announced in 2016 that they had acquired Kevin Durant, thus becoming the eighth team in NBA history to have four All-Star players on their active roster (along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green), everyone thought that the West was won for good. Fans and foes alike conceded that the NBA Finals would most probably be a repeat of last season, with the Warriors facing LeBron’s team for the title.
But then, the Houston Rockets happened. How did the Texas team catapult to success and become a true contender for the Western Conference seed – and get ranked second in odds to win the NBA title at 3/2, only slightly behind the Warriors at 23/20? We have to go a bit further back to see their transformation from the beginning.
The amazing leadership of head coach D’Antoni
For this year’s Rockets, the 2015-2016 season seems like a bad dream. It sounds weird now, but just two years ago, the Rockets started off the campaign with their head coach getting fired and struggled to make the playoffs. Even though the Rockets barely made it through by securing the eighth seed in their last match, they were unceremoniously defeated in their five games against the Warriors and ended the terrible season by seeing one of their stars, Dwight Howard, opt out of his contract in order to jump the apparently sinking ship. Then, Mike D’Antoni became the Rockets’ new coach, and everything was turned upside down.
D’Antoni was quick to rebuild Houston’s roster around his key player, James Harden. He acquired Eric Gordon, who would be named Sixth Man of the Year in the 2016-2017 season under D’Antoni’s leadership, as well as Ryan Anderson. Both were great perimeter players and their ball-handling skills provided the best support for Harden’s unique offensive style. With D’Antoni at the helm, the Rockets were off to a great start last year and finished in third place both in the West and overall, which in itself was an amazing feat. D’Antoni was, of course, selected as NBA Coach of the Year for turning the team around, while his star James Harden ranked second in MVP votes. D’Antoni came in with a play style tailored to Harden, which allowed him to grow and lead the team, as well as a vision for the Rockets’ future. He knew how to take the potential that lay before him and put it to good use – and he did not disappoint.
The Harden-Paul power combo
Having established himself, D’Antoni was ready to lead the team to even greater heights this season. Although D’Antoni has never coached a team that actually made it to the NBA Finals, he seems more hungry than ever to prove himself. And he knew that in order for that to happen, he had to strengthen his team’s roster. The Rockets went all in and traded no less than seven players, cash and a protected 2018 first-round draft pick to get Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. The 32-year-old point guard had won Rookie of the Year in 2006, two Olympic gold medals, the 2013 All-Star Game MVP Title and was selected nine times as an NBA All-Star and eight times in the All-NBA Team. In Paul, the Rockets had finally found a true star to position in the court next to Harden – and set out to prove that two dominant guards are better than one.
In reality, Paul and Harden mostly alternate their time in the court, which is a smart move on D’ Antoni’s part. He allows his star players to get some much-needed rest, which will prevent them from another notorious meltdown during the playoff season – which they have both suffered in the past, as exhaustion took its toll. The transition into the dynamite combination has been smooth and both players have adjusted perfectly to playing with one another. Under their leadership, the Rockets have risen to the top of the Western Conference standings: as of late March, they stand at 61-14 in games won, first in the West and priced at 1/1 to win the Western Conference seed, only slightly behind the Warriors at 17/20, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder well behind at 20/1.
A well-rounded roster and the perfect offence/defence balance
D’Antoni was not alone in building the Rockets’ strong roster. He had the crucial help of the team’s general manager Daryl Morey. Morey, well-known for his pursuit of both superstars and low-key versatile players, aided in constructing a roster that bears his signature. He is a strong proponent of analytics and under his leadership, the Rockets seem to finally have found the recipe for a great combo roster. Besides signing Gordon while he was an affordable free agent, he did the same with small forward Trevor Ariza in 2014 and also managed to sign Clint Capela as a late first-round pick, whose blocking abilities add depth to the Rockets’ roster.
Most importantly, the Rockets have valuable players on their team, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who work wonders for their defence – especially against reigning champions Golden State Warriors, who are still priced at 23/20 to win the title again this year, versus any other team at 17/25. The Rockets have contributed significantly to these latter odds, having proven a force to be reckoned with for the Warriors. With Gordon and Mbah a Moute at the top of their defence, the Rockets are able to stand up to the Warriors like no other team has: in early March statistics, while Curry scores 1.23 points per possession against everyone else on average, he scores only 0.17 against Mbah a Moute and 0.24 against Gordon. Same for Thompson – he scores 1.18 on average against other players, but only 0.12 against Mbah a Moute and a mere 0.05 against Gordon. In early March, the Rockets were second in offence in the NBA and tied for seventh with Portland in defence.
With the uniquely aggressive offence led by Harden and Paul, a strong defence, and an all-around strong roster, it is no wonder that the Rockets managed to beat the Warriors in two out of three games during the playoffs and established a 17-game winning streak mid-season. The real question now is, do they have what it takes to overthrow the Warriors dynasty?