For James Harden, his final scene of the 2015 NBA postseason was as ironic as it was disappointing. For all of his transcendent greatness throughout 2014-2015, a season in which he willingly piled onto his shoulders every cross the Houston Rockets had to bear, from Dwight Howard’s balky knees to Patrick Beverley’s shredded wrist to years of this franchise’s playoff failure, Harden saved his worst act for last.
It was Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, and Harden spent most of that fateful night twisted into a pretzel by a swarming Golden State Warriors defense, shooting just 2 for 11 from the field and committing a mind-blowing 12 turnovers. Against the eventual NBA champions, the Rockets offense had spiraled downward into what could best be described as “four guys praying for James Harden to take over.”
Eventually, the weight became too much to bear, and Harden crumbled. As a whole, with the final stop ending in the conference finals, the Rockets’ season could be considered progress but obviously not ultimate success. James Harden and Dwight Howard were brought together to win an NBA title, and that didn’t happen. There are no banners in Toyota Center for coming close.
And so it was that two days later, in his final individual player exit meeting with Rockets management, Harden sent them this message — HELP! I need another playmaker! Get me a point guard! (I’m paraphrasing.)
If there is one position in the NBA that best resembles a military-style arms race, where world domination is determined by the strength of your weaponry, it’s the point guard position in the Western Conference. Start at the top with Steph Curry, the league’s 2014-2015 MVP, and work down from there. Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook. That’s a murderers’ row.
The Rockets, when healthy, started the steady but unspectacular Patrick Beverley at the position last season. In the playoffs, with Beverley out with a torn wrist ligament, the Rockets cobbled the position together with the ancient combination of Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni, both nearly 40 years old. You can see Harden’s point — in a Western Conference full of point guard guided missiles, the Rockets had a set of kitchen knives.
Acquiring an All-Star-caliber point guard is something much easier said than done, but so, too, was trading for Harden and signing Dwight Howard. The construction of the core of this Rockets team has been a fortuitous combination of general manager Daryl Morey’s razor-sharp acumen and other human beings’ missteps. For Morey, getting his point guard, the third star in what he deems a necessary “three-star core,” would be no different.
In order to get Harden from Oklahoma City, Morey needed that team’s owner to lowball Harden on a contract extension. In order to get Howard to sign here, Morey needed Kobe Bryant to treat Dwight like an asshole while he was a Laker. And in order to acquire mercurial point guard Ty Lawson from the Denver Nuggets, Morey needed the Nuggets to punt on Lawson after he picked up his second DUI in six months in late July last summer.
On July 24, Lawson was pulled over in the middle of the night on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, and failed a sobriety test. Clearly troubled, with multiple alcohol-related incidents in a matter of months, he agreed to enter a 30-day residential treatment program. While Lawson was in the treatment center, Morey pulled the trigger on the deal to bring him to Houston, sending a gaggle of spare parts and a protected draft pick to Denver in exchange for Lawson, the ultimate “buy low” deal.
On the court, Lawson is seen as a near All-Star-level talent, averaging 15 points and nearly ten assists a game last season. Off the court, he’s obviously been a self-destructive endangerment to himself and law-abiding motorists. Lawson’s flaws are serious and personal, but the Rockets feel that their organization can give Lawson the support and structure he needs in order to thrive.
“We’re here to support Ty,” said Morey. “Everybody’s got things they’re working through. The best thing that could happen is that he takes steps and does things that will help. We’ll continue to help him as an organization.”
In other words, if the Rockets can keep Lawson from being devoured once again by his own off-court imperfections, they may have stolen the perfect point guard.
“When you objectively go back and look at the Golden State series last year, [the Warriors] were able to make more plays for each other,” said Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. “So we’ve got to be able to make more plays for each other. I like Ty. All the stuff he does naturally and instinctively are things that we value.”
If a second DUI wasn’t a wake-up call for Lawson, certainly being traded for a package of Joey Dorsey, Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolaou and Nick Johnson was. “This is the turning point,” Lawson admitted. “I asked myself, ‘What type of career you gonna have, Ty? You gonna win championships, or you gonna be a mediocre player who never really wins anything?’”
For his part, Lawson concurs with his new head coach’s assessment of how he will complement his new teammates. When asked what he brings to the table, Lawson said, “A lot of energy. Another playmaker, so James doesn’t have to make every play down the stretch. Anything they want me to do.”
Harden, the man who will benefit most from Lawson’s dynamic playmaking abilities, put it more bluntly. “[Ty] is gonna take the pressure off of me having to handle the ball so much,” he said. “Ty brings us playmaking, quickness, speed we haven’t had. If we can stay healthy, we have a legitimate shot to win it all.”
With the point guard problem seemingly under control, if not solved, Harden touches upon the other major issue with this Rockets team — staying healthy. The forecasted starting lineup for the Rockets in 2014-2015 (Harden, Howard, Beverley, Terrence Jones, Trevor Ariza) missed a combined 127 games last season. Throw in forward Donatas Motiejunas’s still lingering back injury that ended his season prematurely, and it’s a minor miracle that the Rockets were able to secure the two seed in the West last season.
Of all the medical issues outlined above, clearly the most troublesome and franchise-affecting are Howard’s. Having dealt with knee, back and shoulder issues in the past 24 months, Howard is working on an agenda almost separate from his teammates during the regular season, which for him is more of a micromanaged six-month workout to get ready for the playoffs than an 82-game grind to maximize playoff seeding. The regular-season burden, like most on-court things with this team, falls on Harden.
At this point, Howard’s health is what it is; there’s nothing the Rockets and McHale can do except manage it. Undoubtedly, though, if the beginning of this recalibrated championship window starts with the acquisition of Lawson, then the end likely aligns with the first Dwight Howard body part to tap out altogether. The future is now, like immediately.
Of course, with Morey and his bottomless pocket of acquisition tricks, along with a salary cap that’s set to explode in the next two years, the window could be augmented. We’ll see. For now, though, this is the group that will chase Houston’s next title. Aside from Lawson, it’s largely the same group that went to war last season, and Harden likes that continuity.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here where we’ve had pretty much the same team two years in a row,” said Harden, flashing a smile from behind his famously unruly beard.
Despite coming from a lottery team in Denver, Lawson is well aware of the title-or-bust -expectations he steps into in Houston. “I think I can help this team make it over the hump,” he said. “I’m excited to be back in a situation where I’m contending for a championship.”
If this combination of players doesn’t meet expectations, the blame will, fairly or not, likely fall on McHale. While he’s beloved by his players, when the Rockets falter, fans are quick to point out McHale’s flaws as a head coach, which usually end up circling back to his not being Gregg Popovich.
For what it’s worth, though, McHale’s pragmatism when assessing his roster, even with an MVP runner-up, an All-Star center, a new point guard and one of the deepest benches in the league, is positively Popovichian.
“Right now it all sounds real good,” Mc-Hale shrugged, “but I’ll let you know when we start playing.”
2015-2016 NBA PREDICTIONS
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Eastern Conference playoff teams: 1. Cleveland, 2. Chicago, 3. Miami, 4. Toronto, 5. Washington, 6. Atlanta, 7. Boston, 8. Indiana
Western Conference playoff teams: 1. Golden State, 2. San Antonio, 3. Houston, 4. Los Angeles Clippers, 5. Memphis, 6. Oklahoma City, 7. New Orleans, 8. Sacramento
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland over Miami
Western Conference Finals: Golden State over Houston
NBA Finals: Cleveland over Golden State
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.