They Are Who We Hoped they Were

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The 2016-2017 NBA season is just over 25% complete. Most teams have played a few more than twenty games, and the sample sizes have gone from small to acceptable. December is the spring of the NBA media, as young takes finally have fertile conditions to grow and thrive. One hot opinion, growing like a weed, has struck suddenly and taken firm hold: The Houston Rockets are really, actually, sustainably good. Of course, some saw the seeds landing upon the cracked and parched earth over the summer, and called to signal that the life-giving rains were headed to Houston. For those who have watched this team closely, none of this pleasant surprise is actually very surprising. The Rockets are who we hoped they were, and at least for today, at least in one team in one city in one league, that hope is being rewarded.

Are the Rockets going to shock the world in the playoffs and beat the dreadnought the Golden State Warriors have built? Will the Rockets be a true dark horse champion this season? Anything is possible, but don’t bet on it. This isn’t a story of beating the entire world, though. The Rockets are living in the lap of luxury, because they don’t have to be number one to be winners. James Harden and his team were free from a self-imposed yoke of expectations, and with that freedom they’ve gone farther than anyone had a right to expect.

Those expectations came from a truly inspiring 2014-2015 season in which James Harden nearly single-handedly led the team (remember this) to a shocking second-seed in the Western Conference outcome (remember this, too) despite superstar Dwight Howard missing almost exactly half the games due to health (definitely remember this). Harden pulled the door to the MVP open, only to discover Steph Curry inside, chain lock stretched out in front of his mouthguard-chewing face. He didn’t take home the NBA MVP, but he did win the inaugural Player's Choice Awards MVP, which may or may not be better than nothing. That season saw the Rockets advance to the Western Conference Finals in a truly bizarre fashion, losing their vaunted defense mid-playoffs and needing to come back from a 19-point third-quarter deficit to come back from a 3-1 game deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers.

It was awesome, even though they got chewed up by the Warriors in their first year of godhood. It was awesome right up to the first game of the next season.

Instead of picking up where everyone thought they left off, they picked up where they actually left off, which was an oddly helpless team on defense whose offense consisted of little more than “Hope Harden or Dwight can do something cool in isolation.” It worked out moderately well when Harden did it, but Dwight Howard’s endless efforts in the post were poisonous to the team. The team looked like Dwight Howard didn’t belong there, because he didn’t belong there. Remember how they played really well when he was out? There’s a reason. Remember when they won way more games than they should have because of an otherworldly effort from Harden? That’s critical, too.

They were never the hot new villain everyone imagined them to be. Instead of living up to this false, they joined the ranks of depressed and demoralized teams in the crater Golden State had created. Their awful play, miserable body language, and total lack of chemistry surprised everyone, even people who had been expecting it. They agreed with the fans and commentariat that anything less than true contention was failure, and how could they not? It would have been fantastic if they ever had a shot at doing that. Instead, they collapsed under the weight of their own prophecy and continued the season in the manner of a DMV clerk on the Friday before Christmas. It’s a testament to Harden’s powers that they even won 41 games, avoiding a losing season by talent alone.

It was painful, jarring, and necessary. Harden was snubbed for a spot on an All-NBA team, a punishment for not providing enough leadership or defense. Anyone outside that locker room will never know how true those allegations are, but we can easily see the results. The Rockets, ever the spunky underdog, never the powerful favorite, were freed from their golden cage. An angry, motivated James Harden combined with Mike D’antoni, NBA head coach and offense virtuoso, to create what we’re looking at today. Instead of splitting time with a truly terrible scoring option in Dwight Howard isolations, james Harden now plays point guard in both spirit and name. The entire game flows through and from Harden, and the team is built to capitalize upon his powers.

All of this was evident during the summer. After a year of debating whether the good Rockets were the fluke or the following bad Rockets were the fluke, the conversation turned to exactly how wide the gulf between offense and defense would be for the Rockets, and specifically whether they could exceed a 45-win record. Seemingly, the math was obvious and easy. The Rockets lost a star and gained two players in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson who represent defensive liabilities. In giving the Rockets an over/under of 41.5 wins, Las Vegas confirmed that the fluke question wasn’t dropped, unanswered. The preponderance of bettors, at least, had quietly signalled that the good Rockets were the fluke, and grim, miserable failure was now the norm.

That was, of course, a load of crap. The season is mature enough now to back up all the things that Rockets coverage has been shouting for months. If you’d like to see the receipts, look no further than this very website, and the articles and podcasts therein. (The point is not to say “I told you so,” but we did, in fact, tell you so.) The only thing that wasn’t predicted was that this season has so far been better than even the biggest booster predicted, which is like suddenly discovering that you got over your pneumonia and also won a new car on the same day.

This team still has plenty of time to disappoint, and plenty of time to suffer injuries. Other teams, like the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, are breathing down Houston’s neck more than the Rockets would like. The Pneumonia can always come back. That doesn’t change the outcome of the first twenty-two games of the season, though. The new car is still in the driveway and the new car smell is awesome. The Rockets are free of expectations, now. This season is, by any stretch, an unqualified success. The biggest threat they face now is the addition of qualifiers on this success. They aren’t who everyone thought they were, and they aren’t who people are about to cast them as. They’re who we hoped they were, and that’s more than enough.

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