An Unexpected Journey
How the Rockets have bucked history and blazed a new trail to the postseason
HOUSTON - It’s just not supposed to work this way.
NBA history is littered with the carcasses of uber young teams who take their lumps while being served tough-love lessons on the importance of chemistry and experience. Maturity matters. So, too, does the significant amount of time it typically takes for a team to congeal and coalesce in a way that makes it playoff caliber.
What, then, are we to make of this year’s Houston Rockets, a club undeniably overflowing with young talent but one possessing precious little in the way of playing experience after reshuffling the deck last summer, undergoing a sea change mere days before the season started and then yet another prior to the trade deadline?
Before the season began, many experts had pegged Houston as a club capable of winning somewhere between 35 to 40 games. Sports Illustrated tabbed them to finish 15th – in their own conference (yep, that would be dead last) – and the Vegas over/under – post James Harden trade, mind you – for Houston was set at 29 wins. A quick perusal of the players currently comprising the Rockets’ starting five – and their respective credentials coming into the season – quickly explains why those predictions may have seemed at least somewhat reasonable at the time: James Harden had the most experience and the highest ceiling, but was still seen by many as simply a super sub and surely not as a top-5 MVP candidate; Jeremy Lin had started all of 25 games the year before; for Omer Asik, that number stood at a whopping total of two; Greg Smith’s – zero; and though Chandler Parsons spent most of last year as an integral member of Houston’s starting lineup, he still began the season as a 24-year-old, former second-round pick known more for his boy band good looks than his considerable ability on the basketball court.
As of today, that quintet is officially playoff-bound as are rookies Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Thomas Robinson. The Rockets are going to finish with a win total in the mid- to upper 40s. They will have done so while exceeding every preseason expectation and, as the following chart shows, by kicking NBA history squarely in the teeth.
Since the 1997-98 season, this year’s Rockets’ roster is the 34th youngest assembled based on age weighted by minutes played (a massive thank you to Rockets Basketball Operations Senior Analyst Monte McNair for putting this chart together). As one would expect, the vast majority of the clubs on this list were bad – real bad, in fact. The average win total per season of teams within one year of Houston’s current age: 29. The Rockets, then, represent quite the outlier, standing as they do as the sixth youngest team to qualify for the playoffs and the fourth youngest to do so while plying their trade in the perpetually cruel and competitive Western Conference.
Something else for fans to consider: how those clubs ahead of Houston on the list came to be assembled. It’s quite simple, really: each was built with high lottery picks and lots of them. To wit:
- Oklahoma City selected Kevin Durant No. 2 overall in 2007, Jeff Green three picks later, Russell Westbrook fourth overall in 2008 and James Harden No. 3 overall in 2009.
- Portland used the sixth overall pick to take Martell Webster in 2005, the No. 2 overall selection to nab LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006, the sixth pick to take Brandon Roy (via trade with Minnesota) that same year, and the top pick in the 2007 draft to snag Greg Oden.
- Atlanta took Josh Childress sixth (2004), Marvin Williams No. 2 overall (2005), Shelden Williams fifth (2006) and Al Horford third (2007).
- Chicago selected Tyson Chandler No. 2 overall (2001), Kirk Hinrich seventh (2003), Ben Gordon third (2004) and Luol Deng seventh (via trade with Phoenix in 2004).
Securing such picks, of course, comes with a significant amount of sacrifice. Fans of those teams endured, on average, 28-win seasons for three straight years before seeing their squad reach the playoffs. The Rockets, meanwhile, have been above .500 each of the past three seasons while never earning a lottery pick higher than 14th (they moved up to 12 in last year’s draft via trade). To be sure, those seasons produced pain in Houston as well. Missing the playoffs three straight years hurt. So, too, did the heavy roster turnover that saw some of the club’s most popular players relocate. But the Rockets always played meaningful games in the season’s final month. They rebuilt while remaining competitive. Score one for the anti-tanking crowd.
Having defied historical precedent, the question now becomes: what, if anything, might history teach us about where Houston is headed? Take another look at the list of playoff clubs and consider what they have achieved in subsequent seasons. Atlanta hasn’t been able to get past the second round. The Bulls needed an additional poor year in order to hit the jackpot with Derrick Rose who ultimately put them on the road, pre-injury, to title contention. The Blazers of course are the ultimate cautionary tale (apologies in advance to the good people of Portland for revisiting their pain). In a different dimension right now Portland is probably smack dab in the middle of a decade-long reign atop the Western Conference. As it is, however, the Blazers have been so beset by injuries that they were forced to press the reset button once again.
Oklahoma City, then, stands alone as the ideal representation of what can happen when meticulous preparation, patience and good fortune team up with top-shelf talent. After first punching their way into the postseason back in 2010, the Thunder have continued upon an upward progression that saw them reach the NBA Finals a season ago and shows no sign of slowing.
Blessed with a burgeoning superstar, a bevy of young talent and the potential to have max cap room available this summer, the Rockets may soon find themselves steering a similar course. Every single member of their current starting five still figures to improve going forward. The same holds true for the rookies dotting the roster as well. To be sure, absolutely nothing is guaranteed – luck remains the most overlooked and undervalued variable in any team’s quest for a title. Much more work remains to be done. But good health and good fortune permitting, the Rockets stand poised to take off on a ride rife with promise and potential; one that may even see them make a little history of their own along the way.