Certainly, if anything could cap what might be the most controversial, regrettable, and downright bizarre year in the history of pro basketball, it just might be a championship for the Houston Rockets.
And the guy who gave the league one of its lowest points in this cuckoo few months, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, thinks that not only does his team have a chance to walk away from the 2019-20 season with a championship, but that, “We should win this thing.”
Could? Sure, it’s possible. But “should”?
Speaking on Fox Sports’ First Things First, Morey said this week that he does, indeed, expect his team to come away with a ring when 22 teams in the league reconvene at Disney World to pick up the end of the NBA season and close out with a postseason. That’s a function of having two All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, James Harden (newly slimmed) and Russell Westbrook, on the roster together.
Morey said there is pressure on the team to do so, though he distinguished between court pressure and the pressures others are facing around the country.
“It’s basketball pressure,” Morey said. “I think we’ve seen real pressure in the world right now and thankfully it looks like some real, material changes are being made and everyone’s looking at themselves. But basketball pressure-wise, it’s a lot. Again, two of the greatest players ever on our team, we should win this thing.”
Tough Year for Rockets’ D’Antoni and Morey
The Rockets are a hard team to figure heading into the Orlando segment of the season. They are 40-24 which currently ranks sixth in the Western Conference, though the seeding is well bunched now—the Rockets are just 2.5 games out of third place and 1.5 games away from seventh.
At times, Houston has looked like a potential champion. But when the season was suspended back on March 11 because of the novel coronavirus, the Rockets were just three days removed from what coach Mike D’Antoni called a “rock-bottom” loss, by 20 points at home to Orlando.
It would be quite a bounce-back from that to a championship. Though it would be a bigger bounce-back for D’Antoni, who has been on the hot seat the entire season. He is in the final year of his contract and is not expected to return to Houston, as multiple negotiations for an extension broke down last year.
And it would be a bounce-back for Morey himself, who was believed to be on the hot seat going back to October when he sent out a fateful tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors. That tweet angered Chinese officials and has threatened to cut off the NBA from the Chinese market, which has become a vital source of revenue for the past two decades.
Morey deleted the tweet but the league, its officials, and its players have been in a difficult position since, fighting back impulses to speak out on human rights issues in China because of the damage it could do to their bottom lines.
Coaches See Rockets as a Darkhorse
Others might not be as bold as Morey in proclaiming that the Rockets should win, but in interviews with Heavy.com, multiple coaches said Houston could be best positioned to pull off a surprise in the league’s restarted format.
That’s because their offense does not require much cohesion, relying more heavily than any other team on isolation plays and star production.
Harden is the NBA’s iso king. He averaged 14.5 isolation possessions per game, first in the league by a long way. No. 2 is Westbrook, who averaged 7.4 iso possessions per game. It’s a drop-off to No. 3, Portland’s Damian Lillard at 4.7 isolation possessions per game.
In fact, the Blazers are the No. 2 team in running isolation plays, and they average 11.2 per game. Harden and Westbrook alone run nearly twice as many.
“Give the ball to James and get out of the way,” one assistant coach said about the Rockets’ offense. “When you don’t have James out there, give it to Russ. There is not a whole lot to drill those guys on. Let James and Russ do their thing and hope your perimeter shooters can make 3s when they’re open. That is a huge advantage coming back into this mix.”
Another head coach agreed. “What is worrying all of us is getting some chemistry back,” the coach said. “If you’re Houston, you don’t have to worry about chemistry or feel or getting back that momentum. They have the same game plan no matter what and they’re going to hit their stride faster.”
Hitting their stride could give the Rockets an early advantage. If they can maintain that throughout the time at Disney, maybe Morey will be right.