MANILA, Philippines – For yet another season, the Houston Rockets are among the middle-to-top tier contenders in the NBA’s tough Western Conference.
Ever since James Harden exploded onto the scene, the Rockets have always resorted to the extremest of measures and experiments as they continue their quest to snag that ever-elusive league championship.
Already known for being dangerously addicted to the all-time popularity of the three-point shot, the team has again turned heads and raised eyebrows after head coach Mike D’Antoni decided to push small-ball style to the extreme.
How small? Well, 6-foot-5 PJ Tucker is now the Rockets’ starting center in a league where 6-foot-10 point guards exist.
Given their continued over-reliance to the three-ball now merging with this never-before-seen approach, have the Rockets finally find the right championship formula or will this be another experiment that blows up in their faces?
The Rockets made noise in an already noisy off-season by trading away often-injured floor general Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for former MVP and triple-double extraordinaire Russell Westbrook.
Defying early predictions, Harden meshed along well with his former Thunder buddy as he still averaged an absurd league-high 34.4 points per game to go with 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Westbrook has stopped chasing stats in favor of efficiency and the results are so far paying off, with norms of 27.5 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists on 47% shooting.
By comparison, he only averaged 22.9 points on a 42% clip to go with 11.1 boards and 10.7 dimes in his last season with the Thunder, which ended tragically after a season-ending buzzer-beater at the hands of Damian Lillard.
To fulfill D’Antoni’s super small-ball dreams, the team then traded away 6-foot-10 center Clint Capela in a convoluted four-team trade to get 6-foot-8 shooter and defender Robert Covington.
Scoring burst specialist Eric Gordon still leads the bench mob along with more shooters like Jeff Green, Ben McLemore and Danuel House.
On paper, the star power of Harden and Westbrook surrounded by clear-cut role players are enough to take the Rockets deep into the playoffs once more. The only question is whether or not their unique lineups will be enough to throw defenses off their game.
Remaining schedule: Mavericks, Bucks, Blazers, Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Pacers, 76ers
For a few seasons now, the Rockets have already been in title-or-bust mode, and they could not have asked for a better seeding schedule to test if their super small-ball lineups really work against the best of the best.
They have the chance to test the kings of both conferences as they are set to face the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks of the East and Los Angeles Lakers of the West.
Unlike most teams invited in the Disney World Orlando bubble, the Rockets probably have the most mysterious fate awaiting them in the end.
Do they have a legitimate chance at the NBA title? For sure.
Do other teams have the capacity to knock them out of the first round? Absolutely.
During a 10-game stretch of their super small-ball run, they won 6 straight before losing 4 in a row.
And that’s the thing with experiments. You just never know what comes next and someone always has to do it first, so that others may either avoid or follow the same path.
The conclusion may not be pretty, but that’s a risk the Rockets are clearly willing to take.