A weird side-effect of the Golden State Warriors’ struggles this season has been the pause in the normal lifecycle of a villain. They went from being a fun and likable group of overachievers (say, the Mark Jackson years), to a team that finally got over the hump (2015 title), to the top dog that got knocked from its perch (2016 Finals), to the ultimate monster (2017, 2018 titles), to last year’s group that began showing cracks in the armor before everything fell apart. All that was left was for them to receive their comeuppance in the form of a major step back, but for a myriad of reasons, that hasn’t happened to the extent anyone anticipated.
A recent piece by Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report indicated that with Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson sidelined, opposing teams were ready to tee off on a flawed team led by Steph Curry and Draymond Green. The issue was that Curry then got hurt and Green was put on a load management plan, in part because of some injuries that had popped up. As a result, the team has been extremely bad, but outside of when Green and D’Angelo Russell have been healthy, it’s been like watching opposing squads beat up on the Process Sixers, a group of youngsters and journeymen who play hard but don’t have enough firepower to win games (or even keep it all that close) most nights.
This has been part of the reason why ratings have been down. The ultra-injured Warriors have been on TV a lot, and no one really wants to watch get blown out unless their collection of big names are on the floor. Plus, let’s face it, there’s a huge void for a bad guy to fill while Golden State isn’t Golden State, because few emotions are more visceral than spite, and getting to root against teams you hate is a feeling people can’t resist.
The good news is that this void can be filled pretty easily by the team that has oftentimes served as the biggest thorn in the side of the Warriors over the years: The Houston Rockets. And much like Dennis Feinstein, it can come off like they are nourished by hatred.
More than any other basketball team, the Rockets are built around a concept, one that posits that trimming the fat and playing as efficient a brand of basketball as possible will lead to a championship. There is, legitimately, something really admirable about this — players, coaches, and the front office are all ostensibly on the same wavelength in this endeavor and have been for years, even as their aspirations of winning a ring have fallen short thanks to injuries and the existence of the aforementioned Warriors superteam. Staying the course when the outcome is reached is easy, but refraining from veering off the road you’re going down when things don’t work is really, really hard.
They’ve made alterations to their team, sure, but they are always within the framework of this quest for hyperefficiency. This is something that drives people totally insane, because at their core, the Rockets are ideologues. Like with any sort of belief system, whether it be in politics or religion or anything else, hearing a group proclaim what they think at every turn can be maddening. It’s why even though the math might say that James Harden is one of the greatest players ever in terms of generating points for his team, Daryl Morey proclaiming he is a better scorer than Michael Jordan and saying it is “literally a fact” elicits groans.
With regards to Harden specifically, my pal Chris Towers of CBS Sports raised a good point. What he is doing right now, at least in terms of raw numbers, is nothing short of insane. He’s averaging nearly 40 points per game on ridiculous efficiency numbers, and yet the reaction tends to stem from how un-aesthetically pleasing his game is.
He had 50 points tonight to bring his average to 39.5, and absolutely nobody enjoyed it or found it compelling. This feels like a really big problem! https://t.co/qn3uOb22yI
— boydgenius (@CTowersCBS) December 4, 2019
To be clear, the games where Harden is cooking are spellbinding. When he’s hitting threes and torching defenders en route to the rim, then using the fear he instills in opposing defenses as a way to get his teammates wide open shots, he is legitimately unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The issues tend to come on nights like Tuesday, when Harden scored 50 points against the San Antonio Spurs but went 11-for-38 and 4-for-20 from the three-point line. Add in that he shot 24 free throws and the whole thing was just a slog.
Harden has played in 20 games this season. He has missed double-digit shots from the field in 15 of them and double-digit threes in nine games. As Stan Van Gundy told us, free throws are a way for him to rest, and at 37.4 minutes per game, he needs them. To that end, he’s shooting 14.9 a game. There has been one other player to ever shoot at least 14 free throws in a game: Wilt Chamberlain in the 1961-62 season, when he shot 17 a night and averaged 50.4 points per game.
This can, admittedly, be hard to watch, but it’s also all by design. This helps Houston win basketball games, and it’s simultaneously something that people don’t always enjoy, but they keep doing it, anyway. It is delightfully heel-ish behavior, and it’s something that will never stop. If anything it’s compounded by the fact that Harden’s backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook, is another chucker with a green light whose off nights can be brutal. Add to all of this basketball ideology stuff the fact that they will go to any extent to point out when they are wronged, like auditing officiating based on league reports to show they were getting an unfair whistle against the Warriors in the playoffs — a fair point to raise, but one that was met by non-Rockets fans by a lot of eye rolls — and they’re unlike any other team right now in terms of striking a nerve.
None of this is to say Houston is objectively bad or anything like that, they’re just the franchise most capable of filling the villain void left by Golden State. They accept being a nuisance, sure, but more than that, they’re really good, accomplishing this in a way that looks to buck conventional wisdom and being wholly unapologetic about it. And besides, every single story needs a bad guy if it’s going to be as compelling as possible. They are oftentimes the most complex, interesting characters in stories and elicit the strongest emotional responses, and right now, no team sums that all up better than the Rockets.
There are plenty of other very good teams who can be viewed as villains. It is, by nature of being basketball fans, very easy to get enraged at the Celtics, or Lakers, or Sixers being good due to history — a great way to get any sports fan angry, for that matter, is to have a good team in Boston or L.A. (which, this year, has two!) or Philadelphia. The city of Houston succeeding, despite the best efforts of the Astros in recent weeks, doesn’t quite achieve that.
But from a purely basketball perspective, the Rockets are remarkably well-equipped to do this. The current version of the Lakers is still too new, as is this version of the Clippers. The Celtics seem like a new squad now that the turmoil that encased them in the final year of Kyrie Irving is gone, and most of the league’s other elite teams are still getting used to their time in the spotlight. The exception is Philly, which make for wonderful villains (different sport and it’s adopted from English football, but this Philadelphia Union chant sums the city’s view on being bad guys up nicely, apologies for the profanity) and get as close as anyone else when they’re really feeling themselves, leading to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons carrying themselves with their own unique forms of swagger and debates about whether The Process worked consuming the internet for the billionth time.
Even while acknowledging that, Houston still has them lapped. Their belief in what they do and rejection of anyone who opposes it gives them a special kind of edge, one that Golden State always had even on their best days. As we wait for this pause on the Warriors’ current run to come to an end, the Rockets are waiting in the wings, ready to accept the mantle as the team that fans love to hate. And if it leads to a ring? Well, we’re sure no one in Houston would have it any other way.