The Rockets are Fire-Tested

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 Houston is hungry for rings

When the Houston Rockets committed to bringing in Chris Paul this summer and extending him, the questions were clear before the ink was even dry on the deal. Could two players who had historically both played a very ball-dominant game co-exist? Would Paul and James Harden find a way to make it work, or was it simply an implosion waiting to happen?

There’s a case to be made that it won’t work, especially given the intensity with which Paul conducts himself on the court, and his history of at times rubbing teammates the wrong way. With Mike D’Antoni helming the ship, there is definitely confidence that they’ll find ways to score. Still, after the debacle in Los Angeles when he had Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also expect that he might not be able to mend the fences here, should things go awry.

If there is a link between the three who will be running things in Houston this year, the shared history of pain might be where they find common ground.

D’Antoni’s career has existed as a series of missed opportunities as a coach, beginning with a Robert Horry hip-check that began the series of events that cost the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns their best chance at a title after the suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire. From there it was disappointing stints with the dysfunctional Knicks and that frustrating tenure with the Lakers where they couldn’t quite find common ground between superstars before landing in Houston a year ago.

D’Antoni has consistently provided the league with entertaining teams that provide good television and fun games, but he’s never been able to find that postseason success after Phoenix, and at some point, that becomes the key point in the story of his coaching career, that he’s a guy who can make your team enjoyable but can’t get it done when the games matter. Whether fair or not, that narrative has already begun to circulate.

When we talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder’s contending era, the first place anyone ever goes is the trade of James Harden to clear the cap space to retain Serge Ibaka. The discussion goes to how that impacted Kevin Durant’s decision to later leave, and how that impacted the team’s inability to maintain their status as a top tier contender in the Western Conference and that they never returned to the NBA Finals after the departure of Harden.

We don’t look at the impact that move had on Harden, however, after he established himself as a superstar and MVP candidate on arrival in Houston, but for him, that had to feel like unfinished business. As just a 22-year old, he struggled in those Finals, despite his importance to that team, and he was the one sent away. If he never manages to lead a team back to those heights, that will remain as the only record in his career of having been to the Finals.

While in Houston, Harden has firmly established himself as a force to be reckoned with and one of the league’s best offensive players, putting up historic numbers in back-to-back seasons, and despite that, has just missed on the MVP award in two straight seasons now. First, two years ago, when his incredible numbers were brushed aside due to an underwhelming win total for the Rockets, then last year when he responded by leading his team to 55 wins and lost the MVP because of the overwhelming personal numbers put up by Russell Westbrook on a team that didn’t have nearly as impressive of a record, due to him keeping the Thunder relevant after the departure of Durant. Harden never got that benefit of the doubt when he kept his team relevant even after finding himself in a new organization without either Durant or Westbrook as teammates, and that’s been the overriding story of his career, the man always overlooked.

For Chris Paul, few guys on a career path to being an NBA legend have had easier jokes written about their careers. We’ve all heard those lines, that he’s a player who dazzles statistically but doesn’t know how to get to the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals. While not wholly inaccurate, those lines fall painfully short of telling the whole story for a guy who spent most of his career playing for organizations that are usually the butt of the joke.

It’s a part of the story when talking about his time in New Orleans playing for an organization that didn’t have owners, or his tenure with the Clippers, marred primarily by front office scandal in the form of Donald Sterling’s exile from the league, as well as by frequent injuries to his running mate in Blake Griffin. The Lob City Clippers will always exist as a team known more for what could have been rather than what was, and as the leader of that team, Paul will always sit as the easy target for finding blame for their inability to deliver on the promise of what we wanted them to be.

There’s even a lesser version of this argument to be made with many of the supporting cast, whether you’re talking about PJ Tucker’s time in Israel after being unable to find a spot to stay in the NBA, or Eric Gordon finally managing to, for the first time in years, maintain a fully healthy season this past year. The pain is present throughout this roster.

While the Xs and Os argument for things working in Houston isn’t that hard to make, given that both Harden and Paul are excellent shooters who can hit open opportunities that the other creates, that’s not why I think it’ll work. It’s the reality of the shared pain and struggle that will create an environment where the desire to succeed simply outweighs the need to control each person’s situation. Whether we’re talking about Harden’s desire to be the leader of a team that he’s built up over the past several seasons or the intensity that Paul brings to every on-court situation, I believe in their ability to overcome because they don’t any other option. They need this to work to overcome the ghosts each brings into this season.

The Golden State Warriors still exist in this NBA, so predicting a championship for any other organization isn’t something I’d feel comfortable doing, but maybe either in overcoming the unbeatable obstacle or at least showing that this Houston Rockets team is up to the task of giving the Warriors all they can take in a competitive series, I think this team will, if nothing else, compete. Less so because they can. More because they have to.

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