Will Harden Be Enough? Comparing the Rockets Best to the Rest of the West
Russell Westbrook may be the only challenger to James Harden's MVP crown, but how do their supporting casts match up?
While its popularity may have taken a hit thanks to Lebron James's "decision," the super group is a time-honored tradition for success in the NBA. Great players teaming up to create dynasties is not only commonplace, it could be argued that it is a necessity. Granted, most of the best teams prior to the 2000s were built through drafts and strategic trades rather than free agency choices, but the fact remains that the Celtics won titles with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and the Lakers won with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. You get the idea.
But this current Rockets roster, with all due respect to Eric Gordon, who is playing lights-out basketball, is really a singular star surrounded by a supporting cast, an outstanding supporting cast, but nevertheless lacking in star power.
Which is precisely why when you match up teams in the Western Conference with the Rockets by roster, you’re left to wonder if James Harden's team has enough firepower to compete come playoff time. Let's compare by looking at the top three players from each of the best five Western Conference teams.
(One note: We are setting aside for the moment the Utah Jazz, who have been on a tear of late but are not what most would consider a legitimate rival for the West crown this season. A team to watch, to be sure, however.)
Houston Texans vs. Cleveland Browns
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Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts
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Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals
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Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
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Golden State Warriors
The crazy thing about the Warriors is that Steph Curry, the reigning MVP, is not even the best player on his team this season. That would be Durant, who has picked up in the Bay Area where he left off in OKC. As a result, Golden State is easily the best team in the NBA at the moment and the odds-on favorite to win the title.
San Antonio Spurs
If Leonard were a more demonstrative player, he might be on everyone's short list for best player every year. He is, arguably, the best all-around player in the league. And, in Aldridge, he has a perfect big man to play off of. Parker, despite his age, still can hang with most point guards, but the Spurs continue to defy the odds by surrounding them all with an outstanding supporting cast.
The biggest threat to the Clippers appears to be injuries. Paul had just gotten back when he tore a tendon in his hand. Griffin has missed most of the season with a knee injury, but he should be back this week. If they can ever get to full strength, they will be dangerous. Even with the injuries, they remain near the top of the standings.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It is difficult to fathom any player averaging a triple double, but that is exactly what Westbrook is doing. If not for Harden's otherworldly playing, he would be lapping the field in the MVP race. Unfortunately for Westbrook, Oladipo and Kanter, while solid, do not rival Durant and Harden, both teammates of Westbrook a few years ago. Scary.
Even most experts agree Harden is the league MVP so far. His numbers are off the chart and his team is winning. Eric Gordon is the sixth man of the year at the midway point of the season and he, along with Anderson, has provided the kind of three-point shooting the team lacked during last year's disappointing season.
Rockets vs. Warriors
There really is no comparison here, which makes it somewhat less surprising that, missing Anderson last week, the Rockets were crushed by the Warriors. They did beat them early in the season, but it took multiple overtimes to do it. The team that knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs the last two seasons could be poised to do it again.
Rockets vs. Spurs
Leonard and Harden are nearly a wash. This season, the Beard has the advantage, but not by as much as you might think. Gordon is better than Parker at this point in their careers, but the real issue is Aldridge, who is one of the best bigs in the league. Now, the bench could give the Rockets a legitimate chance against the Spurs, but we're not talking benches here.
Rockets vs. Clippers
Setting injuries aside, this is another difficult matchup for the Rockets. Harden bests Paul at the moment with or without the health, but as good as Gordon has been, a healthy Griffin is one of the best big men in the NBA. And while Jordan might not be much of a scorer outside of two feet, his all-around game is well ahead of Anderson’s.
Rockets vs. Thunder
This is the one matchup that decidedly favors the Rockets. Westbrook and Harden cancel each other out, but the combo of Gordon and Anderson are substantively better than Oladipo and Kanter. Without Westbrook's remarkable play this season, the Thunder would be fighting for a playoff spot, not battling for home court in the first round.
Of course, this is an overly simplified comparison. These match-ups only count in a three-on-three league and the Rockets’ overall roster is deep and has real talent. But there is no question that the best teams typically have the best top-end players. While the Rockets may have the best player in the NBA so far this season (even if it is only just barely), the other best players (minus Westbrook) are surrounded by other All Stars or, at the very least, some of the best at their respective positions.
This puts a load of pressure on Harden and means injuries may affect the Rockets more dramatically than other teams. But that's why they play the games, and, so far, the Rockets have exceeded all expectations, thanks largely to their best player.