As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 28th edition focuses on the Houston Rockets.
James Harden, finally an MVP (probably). Well into a prime that risked turning him into the NBA equivalent to Credence Clearwater Revival, James Harden looked to finally put his history of MVP runner-up finishes behind him in 2017-18 with a campaign that most agree will land him the ultimate prize in the offseason. Hard to argue against it: Harden averaged 30-5-9 on 62 percent True Shooting, leading the league in PER (29.8) and coming .2 efficiency points away from joining the NBA's ultra-exclusive 30/30 club. And yeah, he led the Rockets to an NBA-best, franchise history-best 65-17 record. He's a six-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA first-teamer, and now a likely MVP. He'd probably be a Hall-of-Famer if he retired today. He's good.
Chris Paul, worth the investment. It might feel like they added him for close to nothing, but the Rockets paid in prospects, picks, and cap space to add CP3 in the offseason, despite him only having a year left on his contract and his fit alongside Harden being unclear. It could've failed resoundingly, but, it didn't. Paul was his typically brilliant two-way self - efficient, clutch, nasty - and even reached new heights of proving himself in the postseason, not only getting to the conference finals for the first time in his career, but sealing his first trip there with a 41-point, 10-assist game against Utah in the Rockets' decisive Game 5 victory. And as for whether he and Harden could co-exist: The Rockets went 45-4 in regular-season games where their starting backcourt both played.
Putting the D in D'Antoni. Like most of their head coach's squads over the years, the Rockets were renowned for their explosive offense and tut-tutted for oft-porous defense. But after upgrading the other side of the ball with Paul, as well as versatile forwards Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker - players who provided toughness on defense, while still slotting fairly seamlessly into the team's offense - the Rockets became a two-way force this season, rating a stunning sixth in defensive rating, as well as top five in both steals per game and defensive rebounding percentage. It made these Rockets easily the scariest squad of the Harden era and led to a whole lot of regular-season (and post-season) success.
The 17-game win streak. The Sixers may have technically tied them with their first win of the playoffs, but counting just the regular season, no one went streaking longer than the Rockets, who snagged 17 straight Ws from late January to early March - then dropped one game to the Toronto Raptors in the final minute, then won another 11. For most of the 2018 portion of the campaign, the Rockets seemed practically invulnerable, and as the Warriors looked anything but, it seemed like the Western Conference playoffs might begin with a new front-runner.
Taking the Warriors to seven games. No, they didn't win, which by some definitions makes this season an abject failure. But going the distance against the Warriors, the team crowned by most before the season even started, and even going up 3-2 in the series - not to mention cruising past tough Timberwolves and Jazz squads in the two rounds prior - showed the Rockets were the legitimate contenders they believed to be when they traded for Paul. The Dubs may have won, but it wasn't predetermined that they would, and Houston can take some solace in knowing that its dream regular season was hardly proven to be in vain.
Ryan Anderson, on the outs. It's almost hard to remember how big a part Ryan Anderson played in the Rockets' first season under Mike D'Antoni; he hit over 200 threes in 2016-17, with his insane spacing as a power forward helping the team properly realize its Harden-and-shooters super-identity. He started all 72 games he featured in during that campaign, but it was down to 50-out-of-66 in 2017-18, and zero in the playoffs, as he fell out of the rotation almost entirely in a postseason that saw him rack up a stunningly low seven total field goals in 95 minutes of playing time. A declining offensive threat and a serious defensive liability, Anderson no longer seems an important part of the team's future.
The late-season Mbah a Moute injury. Anderson's struggles were particularly painful for the Rockets in the playoffs, as Mbah a Moute - one of the forwards who had supplanted him in the team's hierarchy over the course of the regular season - was forced to miss the first round of the playoffs with a shoulder injury, and was never quite full strength upon returning, admittedly gunshy about re-exacerbating the malady. In four games against the Warriors in the conference finals, he shot a paltry 2-15 from deep, a crucial part of the team's regular-season success that was compromised when needed most.
Joe not-quite-Jesus. It seemed a fun subplot when the Rockets signed the player formerly known as seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson after his late-season buyout from the Jazz: Considering how many big shots he hit for Utah the season prior, surely he could offer Houston at least one moment of late-game magic in its extended playoff run as well? Unfortunately, Joe Jesus was not to be a savior for anyone this season - he mostly festered on the Houston bench, shooting miserably in the regular season and mostly just getting garbage minutes in the playoffs. A worthwhile ring-chasing endeavor for both player and franchise, but nah; maybe next year, Joe.
Chris Paul's hammy. The Rockets squeaked out Games 4 and 5 against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and move one game away from a finals berth - the team's first since going back-to-back in the mid-90s. But at the end of Game 5, Paul tweaked his hamstring, an injury that cost him the final minutes of that contest and all of Games 6 and 7, which Houston ended up losing by a combined 38. It was a brutal end to the season for a great player finally making good on his postseason promise, and one who has been plagued by injuries (to both himself and his most important teammates) for far too much of his career.
Game 7 shooting. As much as the odds were against them going into the deciding game of the conference finals, the Rockets kept things competitive pretty much all Game 7 - but were ultimately done in by, of all things, their long-range shooting. After a season in which they hit an NBA-record 1,256 3-pointers - beating their record from the previous year by 75 - they went just 7-of-44 from deep in their elimination game, easily the team's worst such performance on the campaign. Among the primary culprits who'll be dreaming of bricks all off-season: Eric Gordon (2-12), Harden (2-13), and Trevor Ariza (0-9), the latter going scoreless in a game for the first time since April 2014.
How much will it cost to re-sign Chris Paul? The team's All-NBA point guard is a free agent this offseason. It seems virtually impossible that the team would let him walk, considering how successful their first year of partnership was and how much it gave up to get him, but it can't really afford to just hand him a blank check either: Paul is already well into his 30s, usually a danger zone for veteran point guards, and the Rockets already have a super-max extension for Harden kicking in after next season. It's in the best interest for both player and team to work out a deal that benefits all sides, but this might be Paul's last chance at a near-max extension, and it might not be realistic to expect Houston to give too much on his final big cash-in.
What about Clint Capela? There were too many good things about the Rockets' season to be summed up in five points, so we didn't get around to mentioning how their starting center made the leap from first-round draft steal to borderline NBA All-Star, averaging 14 and 11 on a league-leading 65 percent shooting, with two blocks a game and a 24.5 PER. Capela isn't asked to do as much as the team's two lead guards, but he's still critical for the style the Rockets want to play. He's only 24 years old, and now he's a restricted free agent. He's likely more valuable to the Rockets than to other teams, and the market for offensively limited big men hasn't been particularly robust lately. Still, he's earned himself a hell of a raise from $2.3 million he made last season, and it might prove difficult for Houston to give it to him.
Is there any way to unload Anderson? While Anderson might not have totally outlived his usefulness for the Houston, there's no question that the remaining two years and $41 million on his deal makes up a far greater chunk of the Rockets' cap space than they'd prefer to spend on a player of his current caliber. If they hope to do much wheeling and dealing this summer - or simply if they hope to retain their current free agents - they may have to jettison Anderson, which will be easier said than done: Any trade including the stretch forward will require some serious sweeteners, and Houston already gave up its '18 first-rounder in the Paul deal. GM Daryl Morey doesn't isn't known for making disadvantageous trades under duress, but he's also not known for standing pat, so it'll be interesting to see if he opts to get creative with Anderson's cap-clogging contract.
Are there bigger summer plans afoot? As previously mentioned, expecting the Rockets to sit on their hands this offseason wildly underestimates Morey's proclivity for making money moves, and now that the team is closer than ever to being championship-caliber, it's hard to imagine him suddenly standing pat. Rumors about Houston being a potential landing spot for LeBron persist, and Paul George would also be a dream target for a team that loves it some versatile two-way wings. Both players would require significantly more cap space than is currently available - at least not if the Rockets have any hope of retaining Paul and/or Capela - but the ingenuity of last summer's Paul sign-and-trade should make it pretty clear that when there's a will, there's a way, and if either James or George is feeling a trip down south, you can bet Morey and Co. will clear the landing strip for them.
Is this team good enough to beat Golden State? Paul's injury will forever be the asterisk next to an otherwise stellar Western Conference finals, robbing the Rockets of their second-best player for the series' final two games, in which they simply proved undermanned to take on the always-loaded Warriors. Houston fans will always wonder if the timing of Paul's hamstring pull cost the team its first championship in 23 years - and if so, if it means a Rockets team that simply gets the band back together should like its chances in a potential rematch with Golden State next year. But were the Rockets lucky to be up 3-2 in the first place? Is it unlikely that they'll ever be fully healthy as a squad? Will age and finances keep them from ever being this good again? All of this should factor in when Morey decides how much he wants to choke up on the bat when swinging this summer.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)