Of the three biggest professional sports teams in town, the toughest one to process year to year, without question, is the Houston Rockets. The Texans have spent most of the last four seasons beating and losing to the teams they're supposed to, and the Astros have bought about a decade of criticism immunity by winning a World Series.
Then there are the Rockets. On the one hand, they're one of the five winningest NBA franchises of the last decade or so. On the other hand, they've won just four playoff series since 1998. On the one hand, James Harden is one of the four or five best basketball players on the planet. On the other hand, no player has carved out a bigger chasm between their aggregate performance and elimination game performance than Harden, who's had two of the worst games in his career in elimination games in 2015 and 2017, including a performance we will discuss below.
Now, it's the Harden and Chris Paul show (which we will also discuss below), a combination that general manager Daryl Morey hopes can make Golden State sweat a little bit come postseason time. We shall see. For now, let's dive back into 2017 and hit the big Rocket stories, shall we?
5. 14 game winning streak buoys fast 2017-2018 start
Of all the "new looks" the Rockets have sported over the last ten years or so, the "look" coming into the 2017-2018 season was the most intriguing one thus far, with future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul joining James Harden to form some sort of supernatural point guard legion of doom, and until a Wednesday game last week against the Lakers, it was literally true. The Rockets went 15-0 in Paul's first 15 Rocket games in which he participated, included in there was a 14 game winning streak by the team to top out at 25-4, the best start in club history. They've since slipped a bit, in large part due to injuries to Paul and center Clint Capela, but when healthy, this is a Rockets team that COULD make Golden State sweat a little bit, as Morey wishes.
4. Harden and Westbrook duel for 2016-2017 MVP honors
It started with Kevin Durant's leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, freeing up Russell Westbrook to stat chase on his own. Mike D'Antoni countered by moving James Harden to point guard full time, and the chase was on — one of these two former Thunder teammates was going to take home MVP honors. Harden led the league in assists per game (11.2) and led his team to eight more wins than Westbrook did his. Westbrook averaged a triple double, which fascinated prominent media members and outlets, and made for a very easy voting narrative to hand him the award. To Harden's credit, he is off to a start this 2017-2018 season that, if he keeps it up, should rectify the MVP situation for him, while Westbrook's been slow to make the new pieces (Paul George, Carmelo Anthony) fit together in OKC. The biggest question I have is "How in the hell did Scott Brooks not win a title with Durant, Westbrook, and Harden?"
3. Harden has troubling Game 6 no show to end season
As great as Harden has been as a Rocket, and as transcendent as his game was in 2016-2017, for many fans and media members, he recalibrated the scale for how much goodwill can be undone by one game in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. A series that started with so much promise (a 126-99 win in San Antonio) ended with a gigantic thud, as the Rockets lost by 39 at home in Game 6 to a Spurs team that was missing the injured Kawhi Leonard, and the most troubling part was the performance of Harden, or more pointedly, the disconnected demeanor of Harden, who only took two shots in the first half and finished just 2 of 11 from the field for the game. Trevor Ariza took more shots in the game than Harden, which is never a recipe for success. The disappointment of that loss, though, led to the urgency that fueled the next move last summer....
2. Chris Paul comes to Houston in huge trade
Upon the 2017 postseason ending, Morey had made mention that he might have some moves "up his sleeve" to improve the Rockets' chance in 2017-2018. Clearly, Morey knew something, and that was that All-Star point guard Chris Paul was unhappy with the Clippers, and that Paul wanted to play with James Harden. So the Rockets proceeded to make moves to carve out the cap space to sign Paul in free agency, until, just before the start of free agency, all sides — the Clippers, the Rockets, and Paul — agreed to pave the way for Paul to come to Houston via trade instead. At that point, Paul opted into the final year of his deal, and Morey sent Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams, and pretty much anything not nailed down or named Harden to the Clippers for Paul. D'Antoni made it clear that one of Harden or Paul would be on the floor at all times, a huge advantage that should reap big rewards come postseason. When he's been healthy, Paul's on-court impact has been profound, but culturally, Paul has brought a level of accountability that this team has not seen at any time during the Harden Era. The offseason will be interesting, as now Paul's free agency is pushed back a year, and the Rockets are in line to give him a five year deal that will exceed $40 million annually when Paul is in his late 30's, and push the Rockets into luxury tax territory, which now falls on.....
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1. Tilman Fertitta purchases Rockets for $2.2 billion
.... yes, Tilman Ferittta will be the one paying that luxury tax! The Landry's Restaurants owner won a competitive and swift bidding process to take the reins of Houston's NBA franchise just a couple months after Les Alexander, the greatest sports owner this city has ever known, decided to sell the team, to the shock of everybody working in Toyota Center. The cost? A cool $2.2 billion. It's an odd situation in that, often times when teams are sold, they are distressed assets to some degree. The Rockets could not have been left in better shape by Alexander, up to and including Harden's being under contract for six more seasons. The true test for Fertitta, a native Houstonian and longtime Rockets season ticket holder (and one time minority owner, who lost out to Alexander in the 11th hour to buy the team back in 1993), will come when the big spending — Paul's extension, Capela's extension, the resulting luxury tax — all hits.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.