Did the Houston Rockets succeed this season?
That question will almost certainly divide Rockets fans over the next few months. Yes, the Rockets overachieved. Yes, they reached the second round of the playoffs which no one expected them to reach at the start of the season. Yes, James Harden will probably place second in the MVP ballot, Mike D’Antoni could win Coach of the Year, and one of either Eric Gordon or Lou Williams could win Sixth Man of the Year.
But the terrible, horrible, disastrous Game 6 loss to the Spurs is a huge wake-up call to this team’s hopes of actually winning a championship. Sports journalists and fans are mocking the Rockets for good reason after that loss, with some going so far as to declare that Harden is not a superstar. While that is absurd, the Game 6 loss is a clear sign that while overachieving low expectations is nice, the goal of this team is to win. And this loss shows how far the Rockets have to go to accomplish that.
How to Improve
As magical as Houston’s season was, there is one thing which Rockets fans should worry about: specifically, how does this team improve from here?
This is particularly important because a lot of the Rockets players could easily take a step back next year. Gordon and Ryan Anderson could get injured again (in fact, the Rockets were among the healthiest teams in the league this year, someone no one would have predicted at the start of the season.) Trevor Ariza and Nene are getting old, and Patrick Beverley will turn 29 in July and has his own injury history.
If those players fall off or get injured, where can the Rockets look for improvements to compensate? Will Sam Dekker or Clint Capela improve enough? Can this team hope for something from Kyle Wiltjer or Chinanu Onuaku? It is hard to believe that any of those players will either make a significant leap or become in the case of Wiltjer or Onuaku become a rotation worthy player next year.
Maybe the Rockets can retool and get another 3 and D guy in place of Ariza. And if they had advanced to the Warriors and been semi-competitive, they could try running it again next season. But the loss to San Antonio shows that far from retooling, this team has to get better. And while some Rockets writers have made rumblings about pursuing another star player like Paul George, it is difficult to see even Daryl Morey pulling it off with Houston’s cap situation.
Furthermore, the loss exposed some of Houston’s actual weaknesses beyond stupid quips of Mike D’Antoni’s offensive style not working and Harden not being a clutch performer. D’Antoni is infamous for playing an extremely short rotation in the playoffs. He recently went through natural prostate cancer treatment and used just 7 guys in Game 5 and most of Game 6 which led to an exhausted team by the end. And that does not touch on other adjustments such as the need to add more big men, a loss which was felt with Nene’s injury.
If there is any upside to this loss, it is that it shattered any sense of complacency this team may have had if they had lost to San Antonio in a tough Game 7. Now is not the time for the Rockets to pat themselves on the back for overachieving in the regular season. Now is the time for this team to ask tough questions about how they build upon what they achieved this season.