More than any other sport, the NBA lends itself to the retroactive "what if" scenarios that fuel debate television and summer sports radio. There are probably multiple reasons, but to me, I feel like the nature of the sport of basketball, where a single player can have huge impact on its results, is the biggest reason.
If we are looking back at recent Houston Rockets' history, there's probably no single game that has affected their franchise, and really BOTH franchises involved, than Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2015 between the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers. Prior to taking the Warriors to a Game 7 this past season, it was undoubtedly, and somewhat ironically, the high point of the Morey/Harden Era.
It was ironic because the portion of that Game 6 that will live on for decades in Rockets' lore, their comeback from being down 19 points late in the third quarter, did not involve James Harden (MVP runner up during that regular season) AT ALL. The comeback was achieved with a fourth quarter combination of Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Jason Terry, and Josh Smith, with a little bit of Terrence Jones and his negative vertical leap sprinkled in. Harden was not on the floor at all.
For those who want to relive the magic, here is the highlight video:
In retrospect, the ripple effect from this 14 minutes of basketball was seismic. Here are just a few of the things that come to mind for me, as we've watched this game age for the last three years:
Watching this video with James Harden on the bench is even stranger now than it was that night.
Since that postseason, which ended with a five game ouster at the hands of Golden State in the conference finals, Harden has been a runner up for the MVP award in 2016-2017 and an actual MVP this past season. The one season where the accolades for Harden dried up was the 2015-2016 season, in which the Rockets bottomed out at 41-41 and an eight seed. Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into that season, and Harden came into the season out of shape and seemingly unfocused. It's hard not to think that McHale's benching of Harden in Game 6 didn't somehow linger as the next season rolled around.
Strange to think there have been three different iterations of the Rockets since then.
Well, the word "iteration" implies some degree of positive construction, so maybe calling the 2015-2016 version an "iteration" is a slight misuse of the word. They were the dysfunctional iteration, in which Ty Lawson was going to be the third star player (nope), and in which the relationship between James Harden and Dwight Howard completely soured (yep). The next season, the Rockets hired Mike D'Antoni, and built exclusively around Harden, good enough for 55 wins and a somewhat perplexing playoff ouster in the conference semifinals. Finally, there was last year's team, which saw Chris Paul's arrival and the embracing of defense nearly result in a trip to the NBA Finals.
Exactly ZERO of the Clippers from this game still remain with the team.
Every article you read about the arc of the Clippers under Doc Rivers point to this game as the moment they jumped the shark. Beginning with Game 7, a 13 point loss in Houston, it was all downhill from there. With the trade of Austin Rivers and the departure of DeAndre Jordan in free agency, that entire team is now gone. It can happen that quickly in the NBA. Oh, and Chris Paul wound up, not only leaving LA, but flipping over to the Rockets. Remarkable.
Holy crap, Josh Smith!
I forgot how out-of-his-skull Josh Smith was in this fourth quarter. No conscience at all! Thank God! I watch Smith here, and it makes me think how weird the level of anti-Carmelo Anthony sentiment among some Rockets fans is. Generally speaking, Rocket fans embraced Josh Smith, who arrived in Houston in a nearly similar fashion as Carmelo Anthony likely will — contract buy out and cap hit stretched because the Pistons didn't want him around anymore, so he signed for the league minimum here. That's EXACTLY what the Melo situation will be, when he comes, and yet some Rocket fans — LOTS of them, on Twitter at least — see Melo as the devil. Here's the thing... Melo is a better player than Smith was then, with more to bring to the table and more to prove. It's really weird that some people don't grasp just how low-risk Carmelo Anthony would be at the price the Rockets would be getting him. But I digress.
Let's close this post out with a "Where Are They Now?" for everyone who played in this game:
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
DeAndre Jordan, C
Signed with the Dallas Mavericks in free agency earlier this month, after nearly becoming a Maverick during the offseason following the 2015 playoffs.
Blake Griffin, F
Traded to Detroit this past season, where he will be relegated to the life of 35-win seasons he deserves.
Chris Paul, G
Acquired by the Houston Rockets prior to the 2017-2018 season, and just signed a four year, $160 million contract extension.
J.J. Redick, G
Left for Philadelphia in free agency following the 2016-2017 season. Just re-upped with the Sixers on another one year deal.
Matt Barnes, F
Retired now, but back in 2015, he was traded, along with Spencer Hawes, to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson. Traded again to Memphis. Honestly, spent most of the rest of his career post-Clippers wanting to beat the snot out of Derek Fisher for boinking his ex-wife. Certifiably nuts.
Jamal Crawford, G
Signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to the 2017-2018 season. Now is an off the bench chucker for them.
Austin Rivers, G
Traded, by his father, this offseason to Washington for Marcin Gortat.
Glen "Big Baby" Davis, F
Put his basketball career on hold in 2016 to get into film production. Most recently, in February 2018, arrested for drug possession, after the police discovered a boatload of weed and around $92,000 in cash on Davis. Still extremely fat.
Spencer Hawes, C
As mentioned above, traded to Charlotte, and was last in the NBA in 2017 with Milwaukee. Still very tall.
Trevor Ariza, F
Signed a one year, $15 million deal with the Suns a week or so ago.
Dwight Howard, C
Signed a two year, $11 million deal with the Wizards yesterday. This makes four different teams for Dwight since leaving the Rockets two years ago.
Jason Terry, G
Left for Milwaukee after the 2015-2016 season, and is still there.
James Harden, G
League MVP for the Rockets
Josh Smith, F
Out of the league. Last NBA action was for the Pelicans in 2017.
Corey Brewer, F
Finished last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Terrence Jones, F
Currently with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G League.
Pablo Prigioni, G
Left the Rockets for the Clippers the next season. Currently, an assistant coach for the Nets.
Clint Capela, C
In free agency limbo, as of this writing, with no offers in restricted free agency, and a current staring contest with the Rockets over what he should be paid on a long-term deal.
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.