The Rockets Need to Bottle this Lightning

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The good news is that the Houston Rockets may have accomplished the hardest part of all this season. This year’s team is special not just for how many games they win, but for how they win them. James Harden, resident superstar and realistic MVP winner, has bought into head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, and the rest of the team is right there with him. The Rockets look engaged, resilient, and reliable on a night-to-night basis. This is what they call “culture.” The bad news, though, is that the next step is pretty hard, too. Now that they’ve coaxed lightning into striking, they have to bottle it.

Team culture is difficult to pin down. We know that it exists, and that it matters, because some teams thrive on it. At least half of the NBA is trying to write their own version of the formula for success the San Antonio Spurs follow. The difficulty is that in a league full of analytics and hard numbers, team culture can’t be measured in that way. It’s measured in interviews, decades of success, and respect from within and without the team. Over the long term, we know which teams have established a winning culture, and which ones haven’t. One the extremes, you can be the Spurs or you can be the Sacramento Kings. The problem is that it’s a lot easier to end up in Kings territory.

It’s no secret that general manager Daryl Morey and the Rockets organization have been trying to create their version of San Antonio’s success for years now. Pulling in a couple stars and getting a couple breaks can lead to a championship if one gets a little lucky and a lot bold. Establishing a positive culture and a team identity at the management level can lead to two decades of ceaseless relevance and myriad shots at a title. There is a point where analytics cannot do anything more to maintain a team, and that point was found by both the Miami Heat and Oklahoma CIty Thunder as their teams spiraled apart in the last several years.

All this is to say that the Rockets, with their analytic approach, are aware of the limits of those powers. Kevin McHale was brought on board to develop as a coach as he developed players, but was immediately thrust into the role of a win-now coach when James Harden suddenly fell into Houston’s lap. His tenure was cloaked in shadow from the outset, and while last season’s debacle of a season hastened his demise, he was already doomed. The gamble had failed, and he was not a culture fit with the team. This is not to say that he was a bad coach or that he even did anything wrong; he was just the wrong piece for the puzzle. In Mike D’Antoni, Morey and owner Les Alexander have found a kindred spirit. Equally importantly, that spirit is shared and strengthened by James Harden.

Much like McHale, Dwight Howard was doomed in Houston. He had all the physical gifts and skills necessary to grind the NBA into silt alongside James Harden, but by all accounts was either unable or unwilling to buy what Morey and Harden were selling. Just as McHale was rejected like a transplanted organ, Howard increasingly itched and ached in Houston until the stress was too much to bear. The brief period of oddly good defense but oddly bad offense has ended in Houston, ushering in something which not only works, but more importantly just feels right. This is a team that scores a lot of points, and their emergence offensively feels like a dreary cocoon exploding into the monarch butterfly it was always destined to be.

It would be a mistake to assume that every team needs to follow the Spurs model. Sustainable winning culture can take many forms, though a devotion to personal improvement and accountability certainly helps. D’Antoni isn’t Popovich, but what he had with Steve Nash in Phoenix certainly paid dividends, and what he has with James Harden can yield even more. It may be free-flowing and easy-going, but that style just might be exactly what the organization needs from the top down. In San Antonio, it took freak injuries to lead to a draft pick, and a lot of patience to lead to the head coach to pair with him. Houston has found chemistry between coach and star, will have a chance to lock both up for the rest of their careers, and the perfect opportunity to establish who this team will be in perpetuity.

It will, of course, be a hard road ahead. They have their map, finally, but they will have to trust it. If the team is to prosper, Harden, D’Antoni, Morey and Alexander will all have to trust one another, even when things look dire. Alexander has already shown his devotion to Morey, and in turn Morey has put his faith in Harden. If Harden and D’Antoni can create charisma and leadership in James Harden, that trust will be well-placed. It’s a big risk, but there’s no better path. If the team is to flourish long-term, Harden must be both the face of the franchise and the leader of the locker room. If he isn’t trusted to do so, there’s no chance he can.
The ongoing embarrassment of last season may have provided a crucible of fire in which to temper the strong parts of the team and Harden, and burn off the weak. The endless ridicule seems to have steeled the Rockets, and now they are playing in a fashion Houston fans have only dreamed of. They’ve stumbled into a winning culture, via a combination of patience, luck, and misfortune, the origin story of many winning organizations. The hardest part was getting lighting to strike. Now they have to do the merely hard part of bottling that up, before that chance disappears forever.

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