Houston Rockets fans: Take a breath. The end of the 2013-14 season came sooner than expected, but there’s no reason to panic. These things happen.
The Rockets still stand as one of the Western Conference’s greatest rosters now and for the near future. They couldn’t overcome a serious injury to the irreplaceable Patrick Beverley, while also gelling at the speed of light, to take over the Portland Trail Blazers. This should not be cause for overwhelming disappointment.
Houston’s unprecedented success in player acquisition—they gave up no substantive assets to get either James Harden or Dwight Howard—has perhaps spoiled their fanbase. General Manager Daryl Morey’s made diamonds in the theoretical rough that is team-building.
But in the real world, on the court, these things take time.
Consider this: The Rockets—with Beverley, Howard and Terrence Jones—ran out three starters this season that they did not last season. Then, they swapped Omer Asik in for Jones amidst their epic battle against the Blazers.
This is a team that obviously has some configuring to do.
Even without optimal chemistry, there’s the giant silver lining that Houston was able to hang tough with a more-together Blazers team. Portland’s starters were almost exactly the same these past two seasons, with Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum finding their perfect roles next to superstars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. In preseason pickup Robin Lopez, they got a more selfless version of the restless J.J. Hickson.
The Rockets, by comparison, are glue and gold thrown at a wall. Don’t let the illusion that the series only went six games fool you. Each of these contests was an absolute nail-biter, with the lowest point differential of any first-round series. That the Rockets competed in the first round’s closest series is a great testament to their indomitable talent base.
Losing early—or at all—in this year’s Western Conference playoffs should be taken with a hefty portion of salt. On the whole, the conference operated at a historic height of excellence. The Phoenix Suns won 48 games and still missed the postseason. The Blazers and Rockets had identical 54-28 records in this burning competitive mess, and their series proved out their equal standing.
But give Houston a year to contemplate their shortcomings, bolster their strengths and figure out who they are? It’s hard to see Portland keeping pace. Especially if the Rockets add help to their shaky perimeter defense, this is a squad built to compete with the West’s upper crust. They’ll have the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers firmly in their sights.
Had they been healthier, there’s no telling whether the Rockets still might be in the fight. Beverley bravely played through a torn meniscus and extreme body fever, but was clearly a shadow of his dynamic self.
He wasn’t able to bother Lillard like he did in the regular season, and his minutes appropriately dropped off as the series progressed and the point guard’s health looked more and more dire. Consider that Beverley held Lillard to 1-of-10 shooting on December 12 and you might see the Rockets' loss in new light. Lillard averaged 25.5 points per game in the series, but just 18.8 against a healthy Beverley in the regular season.
Such bodily concerns are, unfortunately, largely beyond the control of the Rockets. The Rockets saw the wrong side of a heads-or-tails series against Portland. Untimely injuries are always cruel turns of fate, after all.
Most don’t like to hear it, because it gives way to a league ruled more by doubt and randomness than design, but luck is an incredibly large factor of NBA success. And Morey knows that; He’s not over-reacting to the early exit. Pressed about whether he was gunning for another superstar this summer, he hedged more toward a vision of continuity. Per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Q: If you were to go for a third max or near-max guy, could you make it happen financially?
A: “Yeah, we could make it happen. I think it’s unlikely.”
Q: James Harden has had three difficult playoff series in a row by his standards. Are you still confident he can be the top scorer on a championship team?
A: “Yeah, very confident. I believe in James and Dwight. We absolutely feel we have the right guys, the right top two guys.”
So don’t stew beyond critical mass about a lost season in Houston. A formidable basketball machine has been born, and it’s only just finding its way. That the Rockets are already this good is more than a kernel of hope. It's outstanding. Despite a heartbreaking finish, championship-level basketball has surely come back to Houston.