On March 14, the Houston Rockets clinched a playoff spot.
It is an incredible turnaround compared to just last year, when the Rockets were below .500 for most of the season and only made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. The Rockets will almost certainly finish with the third seed, with ESPN stating that they have a 98.4% chance at the third spot and a 99.9% chance of keeping home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight has the Rockets finishing out the season with 56 wins, the same amount as they had two years ago when they made the Western Conference Finals.
This will be Houston’s fifth straight trip to the postseason, which they have made every year since trading for James Harden. But Houston’s success is not just due to Harden. There is Pat Beverley, who is as beloved among Rockets fans today as scrappy, tough players like Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier were almost a decade ago. There are the shooters around Harden like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and there are tough, big centers like Clint Capela and Nene.
The modern NBA is filled with stars teaming up with one another to form super teams. But what the Rockets have done is to remind everyone that basketball is a team game that is not just decided by a few superstars. The Rockets may have only one star in contrast to the other elite teams in the league. But what they lack in quality, they make up for in quantity and depth. Just like a good fantasy football team. If you want to learn more about that, see more here.
If anyone doubts the importance of depth, just look at Cleveland or Golden State. Even though the Cavaliers have three stars, it has become apparent this season that they live and die with LeBron James.
LeBron averages 37.5 minutes per game, the largest minutes total since he rejoined the Cavaliers, and yet Cleveland is in serious danger of losing the first seed. Despite the addition of players like Deron Williams, Larry Sanders, and Kyle Korver, the Cavaliers are 4-6 in their last 10 games. LeBron may claim that the Cavaliers have a lot of depth, but it clearly has not worked out so far.
Meanwhile, the Kevin Durant injury has caused the Warriors to play guys like Patrick McCaw, James McAdoo, and Matt Barnes’s corpse like they did Tuesday night when they barely eked out a win over the tanking 76ers. The Warriors may be a multi-star team, but they lack quality rotation players on their bench and Durant’s injury has blown that weakness wide open.
While other elite teams struggle to find rotation players because they have devoted so much money to their stars, the Rockets boast excellent depth. In contrast to past years when I would watch games in the second and fourth quarters counting the minutes until Harden could come back in, now I know the Rockets can survive with Lou Williams and Eric Gordon providing an offensive spark. Nene is an enforcer almost as tough as Beverley, and every single person in Houston’s rotation can contribute, with or without Harden.
None of this is to suggest that the Rockets do not need Harden. He is the linchpin through which this team runs, and the three-point shooters like Ryan Anderson and Beverley need Harden’s ability to create to get wide open shots.
But while Harden is necessary for the Rockets to potentially win a championship, the Rockets have managed to build a real supporting cast not with stars, but with depth. Once again, this time the Rockets under Daryl Morey have managed to retool themselves to become a new unit surrounding Harden with players that work well alongside him, and will now face what could be their best shot for a ring since 2009.