Forgive me if I sound like a typical prisoner of the moment, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as amazed with an NBA conference as I am with the 2013-14 Western Conference.
Right now, nine teams–yes, nine teams–in the West are at least seven games better than .500. And of those nine teams, I sincerely believe that eight–all but Memphis–have a legitimate opportunity to reach the Western Conference Finals.
But, for some reason or another, there seems to be a national obsession with only four of the teams.
Everywhere I turn, whether that be to ESPN or to social media or to the rest of the Internet, there is nonstop talk and discussion regarding all four.
I hear about the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, who–according to some–is already the runaway league MVP. I hear about Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the rest of Lob City. I hear about everyone’s favorite team to watch, the Golden State Warriors, headed by everyone’s favorite player to watch, Steph Curry. I even hear about the young, upstart Portland Trail Blazers, who continue to shock the world with each win.
I’m not here to suggest that OKC, the Clippers, Golden State, and Portland don’t deserve to be commended, but, with each passing day, I become more and more mystified at how the rest of the Western Conference continues to get ignored. And while I could point out that the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs have already surpassed the 40-win mark or that the Phoenix Suns have a real shot at catching the Clippers in the Pacific, I’m going to instead focus on another team–a team that, despite playing better than anyone in the league right now, is still forgotten about.
That team? The Houston Rockets, currently at 38-18, currently winners of nine of their last ten games, and currently flying under the radar.
Why aren’t the Rockets getting attention? I don’t know. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing it, but it feels like they are being overlooked by most NBA fans, experts, and analysts. What I do know is this: As of this moment, I’m leaning towards picking the Rockets, not the Thunder, to represent the Western Conference in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Understand, however, that I haven’t been on Houston’s bandwagon all season long. I’m not afraid to admit that I had my doubts about how Dwight Howard and James Harden would mesh.
Two months ago, if you had even suggested that I would pick the Rockets to beat out the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and the Clippers, I likely would have called you crazy. But, at the same time, the Rockets were a completely different team two months ago. While Howard worked to get acclimated to Harden and his new teammates, the Rockets struggled early in the season and were just 21-13 at 2013’s conclusion.
But as Dwight gradually became more comfortable in his new role, Houston began to win games at a much faster pace. Since New Year’s Day, the Rockets hold the best record (17-5) not only in the West, but in the entire NBA. They are also 6-2 against the top eight Western Conference teams during that span, which includes a loss to Oklahoma City that never should have been a loss–Houston blew a 14-point halftime lead after scoring a pathetic 19 total points in the final two quarters.
And it’s not just that the Rockets are winning or even whom they are beating that proves to me their status as a contender, it’s how they are built.
Like Howard’s 2008-09 Orlando Magic team, which came within three wins of a championship, the Rockets have surrounded the league’s best center with a plethora of three-point snipers, from Patrick Beverley to Francisco Garcia to Chandler Parsons to Jordan Hamilton.
But the difference between these Rockets and that Magic team? Houston has the piece that Dwight’s Orlando teams always lacked: a second superstar. And, to me, that superstar is the most underrated superstar in the NBA. That superstar, of course, is James Harden.
To be fair, most of Harden’s statistics–including his scoring, rebounding and assist averages–are down from a season ago, but the most important aspect of his game–his clutch gene–is as prominent as ever. In fact, I might argue that Harden has suddenly established himself as the best clutch performer of any NBA superstar. He’s certainly made his case for that title in recent months by repeatedly delivering late in fourth quarters of close games.
â— Against the New York Knicks on January 2, the Rockets faced a 93-93 tie with 3:41 left. From there, Harden scored seven of the team’s final nine points en route to a 102-100 Houston win.
â— Trailing 102-97 to the Washington Wizards on January 11, Harden scored eight consecutive points–including the go-ahead bucket with 1:54 remaining–to give his Rockets a lead that they would not surrender.
â— Trailing 99-92 to the New Orleans Pelicans on January 15 with fewer than three minutes remaining, Harden scored eight of his team’s final 11 points, including the game-winner with 28 seconds on the clock.
â— Against the Wizards on February 12, Harden scored Houston’s final seven points, including the last-second, game-winning layup.
â— Against the Golden State Warriors last Thursday, Harden scored seven of Houston’s final nine points in regulation, including a bucket with six seconds remaining that–if it weren’t for Steph Curry’s overtime-forcing 4-footer–would have been yet another game-winner.
â— Against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night, Harden scored four points in the final two minutes–including the game-tying layup with one minute left–en route to another Houston win.
Now, I will acknowledge that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are currently in a stratosphere all their own, but aside from those two, there isn’t a single player I would rather lead my team in a seven-game, NBA playoff series than James Harden. You can have Paul George, maybe the NBA’s best two-way player not named LeBron. You can have Carmelo Anthony, the league’s purest scorer. You can even have Chris Paul, who has been crowned by most as the NBA’s best point guard.
Have any superstar you want outside of LeBron and Durant, but I’ll take James Harden. I’ll take Harden and his clutch, late-game heroics. I’ll take Harden and his “it” factor.
The scariest part? The Robin to Harden’s Batman might not even be Robin at all. Even though I just finished gushing over Harden, even I have to confess that Dwight Howard might be Houston’s best player. I wouldn’t take that position, but you certainly could.
Along with LeBron, Howard is one of only two current superstars to have previously taken a team to the NBA Finals without the help of another star. That’s the kind of rare impact that Dwight can have. He’s still the NBA’s best center, he’s still possibly the NBA’s best rebounder, and most importantly, he’s still the NBA’s best, most effective defender. Not one player in the league–not even LeBron–has his way against Howard in the paint.
And though the Rockets don’t have a true star to round out their own version of a Big Three, Chandler Parsons is pretty darn close to filling that void, especially on the offensive end. The third-year forward is averaging a career-high 17 points per game on a career-high field goal percentage of 50.
He, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin, and the three-point specialists that I alluded to earlier provide the perfect supporting cast for Harden and Howard. In fact, the Rockets have six active players averaging at least 9.7 points per game, making them one of only five teams (along with the Clippers, Spurs, Raptors and Suns) in the NBA that are able to say that.
Bottom line: for the Rockets, the pieces are in place. They have a real chance to make a run at a title. With 26 games remaining, they even have an outside chance to catch the Thunder for the first seed, thanks partially to a favorable schedule. Houston gets two more swings at Oklahoma City–both of which come in February–and really has only three more difficult road games–at the Clippers, at Miami and at OKC.
If they fail to get better than the three-seed, I’m still not betting against the Rockets. They have the necessary ingredients–two superstars that complement each other to perfection and an ideal supporting cast–to knock off the Thunder or anyone else in a seven-game series, even without homecourt advantage.
The playoffs are just under two months away, but as of this moment, I’m taking Houston to win the West. Just remember, you heard it here first.
Can Houston win the West?
Follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelburke47.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.