The Houston Rockets are competing for a championship, and the main roadblock to the team’s first championship in 25 years remains Golden State. Everyone knows that.
But while Golden State is Houston’s biggest obstacle, they are not the only one and there is no guarantee the two teams will meet again in the Western Conference Finals. So which other teams pose the largest threat in the West?
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James can singlehandedly lead even mediocre teams to playoff glory as we saw last playoffs, and the Lakers have added pieces like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. And as Silver Screen and Roll noted, Rondo and LeBron so far in the preseason has combined to create a brilliant passing game which could give players like JaVale McGee a wide open lane for dunks.
But the Lakers remain a young team with an online coach. LeBron and Rondo can pass, but the Lakers lack outside shooters to take advantage of the inevitable double teams. Houston may not have a single LeBron stopper, but they can throw bodies at him to make him work while Chris Paul and Harden continue their offensive and long range domination.
And to top it all off, I will go ahead and make a probably insane prediction: LeBron James will look somewhat mortal this season. He will still be the best player in the league, but you have to be more than the best player to carry a young Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Rondo past a team which won 65 games last year. Nevertheless, this team is probably the biggest non-Warriors threat.
Oklahoma City Thunder
David Aldridge predicted in his season preview that the Thunder will upset the Rockets in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, and others predict that the Thunder will be just a step behind the Rockets.
I find these predictions a bit strange. The Thunder won 48 games last year, which is hardly championship contender level. Andre Roberson will be out for at least another two months and we have no idea what shape he will be in when he returns. Are Nerlens Noel and KJ McDaniel supposed to be the missing pieces which propels this teams to over 55 wins? Westbrook and George will keep the Thunder in the playoffs, but the Thunder should not be viewed as a serious threat to the Rockets.
I doubt most NBA fans and analysts believe that there will be a third team in the Western Conference which reaches the 65-game level that the Rockets did last year and the Warriors are capable of doing if they wanted. Instead, the argument is that the Rockets will take a step backwards, especially after losing important pieces like Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik.
It is certainly more likely that Houston takes a step back instead of reaching even grander heights, but the Rockets have been continually underestimated in the Mike D’Antoni era. They have young players who can develop like Isaiah Hartenstein, Zhou Qi, and Marquese Chriss, and Daryl Morey will be constantly searching for a deal. This team has its sight squarely set on Golden State, and there is no other team in the Western Conference which should make them look in the rearview mirror.