The Rockets didn't bring home an NBA championship last season, but the year has to be called a success. And they are on the short list of title contenders on the NBA odds for the coming season.
That Rockets-Thunder trade in which Houston got James Harden a few years ago looks like a bigger heist from the Rockets' perspective every year. Harden easily had his best season last year and finished second to Stephen Curry in the NBA MVP voting. Curry got 100 of 130 first-place votes and Harden 25 so it wasn't all that close in the voting. Harden is still a bit ticked off that he didn't win.
"I know I was the MVP," Harden said recently. "That's 100 percent given all the things that happened last season. ... That award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs. There's so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I'm not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me."
Harden led the Rockets to 56 regular-season wins, their most since 1996-97, and the second seed in the West. Houston dismissed Dallas fairly easily in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Then came a crazy conference semifinals against the Clippers. L.A. took a 3-1 series lead, winning each of those three games by at least 16 points. Houston staved off elimination with a 124-103 home win in Game 5, but it was widely presumed the Clippers would finish things off back home in Game 6. And they should have, leading by 19 points in the third quarter. But in a total stunner, Houston outscored the Clippers 51-20 over the end of the third and in the fourth to win 119-107. It was just the third time in NBA history that a team playing at home with a chance to clinch a playoff series blew a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter. Houston then beat the shell-shocked Clippers 113-100 in Game 7. The Rockets weren't much of a match for Golden State in the West Finals, falling in five games. Harden struggled mightily in a few games, leading some to wonder if he still had the MVP voting on his mind going against Curry.
The Rockets were 48-34 against the spread on NBA picks and 40-42 'over/under.'
One Big Acquisition
Four of Houston's five starting spots should be the same from last year: Harden (27.4 ppg, 7.0 apg, 5.7 rpg) at shooting guard; Trevor Ariza (12.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) at small forward; Terrence Jones (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) at power forward if he can stay healthy; and Dwight Howard (15.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg) at center. Howard is still a very good player but his days of dominating appear over. And then you still have his major free-throw problem. Plus he played in a career-low 41 regular-season games with knee issues.
The one new starter will be former Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, and the Rockets want to play faster this season with Lawson running the point. Houston got Lawson for a song because he has some DUI problems. Lawson averaged 15.2 points last season and achieved a career best by averaging 9.6 assists with Denver. He will be a huge offensive upgrade over former starter Patrick Beverley, who missed last year's playoffs due to injury. Coach Kevin McHale says he wants to go more up tempo even though Houston ranked second in the NBA in pace last season (at 96.5 possessions per 48 minutes). The Warriors were first (98.3). Plus adding Lawson means Harden won't have to handle the ball so much and wear down. It allows Harden to get more catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Now Beverley can anchor the second unit with some mixture of K.J. McDaniels, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, Donatas Matiejunas, Corey Brewer, 2015 first-round pick Sam Dekker and Clint Capela. The Rockets' only major player loss was forward Josh Smith, and that's not much of a loss.
The Rockets are +300 second-favorites to San Antonio on NBA odds to repeat as Southwest Division champion. Houston is +1100 to win the West and +2200 to win the NBA title. Dekker is +4000 to win NBA Rookie of the Year at Bet365
NBA Picks: Do I think Lawson makes this team better than last year's? I do? But can you trust him to stay out of trouble all year and avoid a lengthy suspension? And how many games can Howard realistically play? Go slightly 'under' that wins total, but Houston will return to the playoffs, no question. I don't think it wins the division.