Each NBA season there is a sizable amount of players who fall short of expectations. Sometimes it is because of injuries, age, a change in a player’s role or a long list of other factors. Last season, there were several notable players that fell short of expectations because of some combination of these factors. However, many of these players are primed for a potential bounce-back after seemingly rehabilitating their respective injuries, moving onto new teams and addressing other issues that might have held them back last season.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
The Kawhi Leonard saga is well known by all persons who have paid any attention to the NBA over the last 10 months or so. Leonard, who has suffered from a mysterious leg injury for an extended period of time, only played in nine games last season.
In those nine games, Leonard averaged 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and one block in an average 23.3 minutes per game. Notably, Leonard’s statistics per-36 minutes were in line with his numbers from the 2016-17 season, so there is reason to believe that he could still produce at his elite level when his leg felt right. But too often, Leonard was limited to short minutes and eventually shut himself down for the season, citing his lingering leg injury.
Leonard has had months to rehab his injury and, if healthy, could have a big-time season with the Toronto Raptors after the team acquired him in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. There are still questions about the severity of Leonard’s injury, whether he will be able to regain his elite form from previous seasons and whether he will embrace his role with Toronto on the final year of his contract. However, after playing in just nine games in a drama-filled season with San Antonio, there is plenty of reason to believe that Leonard could have a big bounce-back season.
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Fultz had arguably the most confusing and mysterious rookie campaign for any notable player in recent memory. Fultz entered the NBA as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft and had few limitations in his game.
However, during the offseason, it became apparent that Fultz was suffering from some sort of injury to his shoulder that was severely impacting his jump shot. Fultz, his representatives and the 76ers organization offered several conflicting explanations of the apparent injury and how it would be treated. Fultz ultimately missed the vast majority of his rookie season as he rehabbed this mysterious injury. He was healthy enough to participate in the postseason but only played a minor role after missing the majority of the regular season and failing to fully overcome the issues that plagued him.
There are differing accounts of what caused the issue and some believe that the problem isn’t physical but rather mental. Reports have come out this offseason that Fultz has made significant progress in fixing the issue impacting his shooting form. Renowned trainer Drew Hanlen is confident that Fultz will demonstrate this upcoming season that his shot has been fixed and that he will show why he was the consensus No. 1 pick in 2017. If Hanlen is correct, Fultz offers the 76ers a dynamic skill set that they certainly need as they move forward in their climb up the Eastern Conference ranks.
Jabari Parker, Chicago Bulls
Selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, Parker has yet to fulfill the lofty expectations that following him to the pro level. Parker has suffered two ACL tears in his short NBA career and is now trying to prove that he can stay healthy and consistently produce at the level many expected when he first entered the league.
Parker joins the Chicago Bulls this offseason after the Milwaukee Bucks essentially agreed to let him move on without interfering. The Bulls lacked a viable forward and took a well-reasoned gamble that Parker could be a solution for them. Parker still has a good amount of explosiveness and an intriguing offensive game. Parker has failed to develop any part of his game to the point that would make him a reliable contributor on either end of the court but at his age and with his set of skills, it’s reasonable to believe that he could continue developing and improving.
The issue with Parker at this point is the injury history, the fact that he is probably better suited to play power forward than small forward and his flimsy defense. If Parker can stay healthy and make sizable improvements defensively, he will be a valuable addition for the Bulls. Parker’s teammate, Zach LaVine, faces a similar situation this upcoming season and could be considered a bounce-back candidate in his own right.
Isaiah Thomas, Denver Nuggets
It may seem like it was a long time ago, but Thomas was a legitimate MVP candidate in the 2016-17 NBA season. Thomas averaged an eye-popping 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 46.3 from the field and 37.9 from three-point range. Thomas was the engine of the Boston Celtics’ offensive attack and made such a significant impact on offense that it covered up all of his defensive shortcomings.
However, Thomas played through a significant hip injury in Boston’s playoff run, which has subsequently required two surgeries to address. Thomas was unable to overcome his injury issues last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, which resulted in him taking a one-year veterans minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. There is optimism that Thomas’ most recent operation and rehab will help him make a significant recovery and allow him to produce at the level he achieved with the Celtics. If Thomas is relatively healthy, he’ll have the chance to help lead a potent Denver offense that could benefit from his playmaking and isolation scoring ability.
Carmelo Anthony, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets have taken a lot of heat for failing to retain Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute and replacing them with Anthony. Anthony is coming off a rocky season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which turned to Anthony for additional scoring and floor-spacing.
Anthony was never able to fit into the Thunder’s offense, which is largely dominated by Russell Westbrook and now Paul George as well. He couldn’t find the range on his jump shot for long stretches of the season, which is what the Thunder needed the most from him.
Anthony now joins a Rockets team that prides itself on moving the ball and manufacturing wide open looks from beyond the arc. If Anthony can find the range on his jumper and maintain at least passable defense within the team’s defensive schemes, he could be a nice boost for the Rockets. However, the likelihood at this point is that any offensive contributions Anthony brings will be outweighed by his inability to switch on defense. The Rockets nearly upset the Golden State Warriors last postseason with their collective ability to switch every matchup effectively with the help of defenders like Ariza and Mbah Moute. That sort of scheme can’t be replicated with this roster as it stands today, which means Anthony will really have to make a significant impact on the offensive end.
Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers
Gallinari has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and last season was no exception. Gallinari only managed to play in 21 games as he suffered two glute injuries and fractured his right hand later in the season.
Gallinari was relatively effective in the time he did play last season though his shooting percentages were mostly down. Gallinari makes for an interesting fit alongside Tobias Harris in the Clippers’ frontcourt considering both are strong offensive contributors and each can play either forward position depending on the matchups. Gallinari is under contract through next season at roughly $21-22 million annually.
Gallinari having a bounce-back season could have big implications for the Clippers both on and off the court. If Gallinari can produce consistently he could help lead the Clippers to a playoff berth, which many forecast as unlikely considering how absurdly deep the Western Conference is. Additionally, if Gallinari can rehabilitate his value, it will become easier for the Clippers to move his expiring contract after this season should it be a prerequisite to bringing in two star free agents with the significant cap space the Clippers are projected to have. The Clippers have their sights set on Kawhi Leonard, who could be enticed by the promise of bringing in another max-worthy free agent.
These are just some of the many players that are hoping for a bounce-back season. Keep the conversation going and let me on Twitter (@JBlancarteNBA) know who you think could be set for a bounce-back season.
NBA Daily: How Toronto Is Getting Past Its Playoff Demons
Even if they’re not facing the toughest opponent, multiple factors have helped the Raptors get over their playoff woes and dominate a playoff series, writes Matt John.
Being up 3-1 is usually child’s play for a No. 2 seed. For Toronto, it means so much more.
Since the Raptors’ rise to prominence in 2013, this is how every single playoff series for them has turned out.
2014: Lost to the fourth-seeded Nets team in seven games
2015: Lost to the fifth-seeded Wizards in four games
2016: Beat the seventh-seeded Pacers in seven games, beat the third-seeded HEAT in seven games, lost to the first-seeded Cavaliers in six games
2017: Beat the seventh-seeded Bucks in seven games, lost to the third-seeded Cavaliers in four games
2018: Beat the eighth-seeded Wizards in six games, lost to the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in four games
For the past half-decade, Toronto would either struggle to beat an opponent or get flat out embarrassed by it. In so doing, the franchise has developed a reputation for not being able to step up its game when the postseason comes around.
When the Magic stole Game 1 from the Raptors last week, fears of history of repeating itself surfaced. In the past, the Raptors have not responded well to obstacles. They may have been able to defeat an inferior opponent who showed some fight, but when the Raptors got over the hump, they made it harder on themselves than it had to be.
In the three games following Game 1, Toronto has bested Orlando three consecutive times, and they’ve done so relatively easily. The Raptors have beaten the Magic by an average of 18.67 points per game.
Beating the Magic, a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in six years with a roster full of playoff virgins, is not what should be catching people’s eye. It’s that after several years of promising that things change for the better only to fail every time, Toronto has finally put its money where its mouth is.
Trading DeMar DeRozan – who had very well-documented struggles in the postseason – for Kawhi Leonard – the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP – probably had something to do with that, but that was expected and more importantly, it hasn’t been just that.
Toronto’s success so far in the playoffs has not stemmed from Kawhi being a one-man show. In fact, there are multiple reasons as to how the Raptors have been able to make their playoff struggles a thing of the past.
The Continuing Rise of Pascal Siakam
There doesn’t need to be much explained about the third-year player because you’ve probably heard all about him. The New Mexico State alum has risen above the ranks to become one of the finer young players in the league and is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player. The refinement in his all-around game vaulted him to perhaps the second best player in Toronto.
The only question in hand was whether Siakam could keep up his impressive play in the postseason. This wasn’t out of lack of trust in him. It was because Toronto’s previous All-Stars like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on him later) showed time and time again that they could not be trusted in a playoff series.
Pascal has put all those worries to bed. At least for the time being. Siakam has been nothing short of dominant in the four games that he’s gone up against Orlando, averaging 22.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field as well as nine rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
The highlight of his performance was his Game 3 stat line in which Siakam put up 30 points on 65/75/100 splits as well as 11 rebounds and four assists. Compared to DeRozan and Lowry, who sometimes had good playoff performances but just not consistently good performances. Pascal Siakam’s dependability should make the Raptors feel good about their chances as the postseason continues.
As it stands now, he has shown he is not afraid of the moment. Only time will tell if it stays that way for him.
Marc Gasol’s Presence
If trading for Kawhi was the evidence that Toronto wasn’t messing around with its window of opportunity, then trading for Gasol was the evidence that it would do everything in its power to reach its ceiling.
The Raptors pounced on the rare opportunity to acquire the former Defensive Player of the Year for pennies on the dollar, and Gasol’s acquisition has paid off big time since his arrival. Gasol not only provides them with a rim protector down low. He also brings a pretty advanced playoff pedigree.
Adding defense wasn’t necessarily a must for Toronto at the deadline, but an upgrade was definitely welcome. It didn’t take long for Gasol to take the starting center position from Serge Ibaka, and when he did, it got results.
The Raptors had the fifth-lowest defensive rating overall this season, allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Gasol definitely made his own mark on the defense, as the Raptors actually had the third-lowest defensive rating – allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions – after they had acquired him.
This postseason, Gasol’s impact on the floor couldn’t be more valuable. Coming into the series, Gasol’s task was to stop Orlando’s main source of offense, Nikola Vucevic. Vooch had his best season as a pro, averaging 21/12 on 52/36/79 splits, which earned him an All-Star nod.
Since the series started, Gasol has made life miserable for Nik, as Vucevic as averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 37/27/78 splits. According to NBA.com, Vucevic’s offensive rating is 98 when Gasol is on the court and 118 when he is off the court. Overall, both Vooch’s and the Magic’s net rating when he and Gasol share the court together is -19.8.
The Magic were plus-17 offensively with Vucevic on the court during the regular season, so if he’s not scoring, they are in trouble. Gasol has clearly made a ton of trouble for Orlando alone because of how he’s neutralized Vucevic.
If Gasol can stop one of the league’s most offensively talented bigs in Vucevic, that has to make the Raptors feel good about how he does against the center on their next most likely opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lessening Kyle Lowry’s Role
Outside of that abominable performance he had in Game 1, Lowry hasn’t been that bad since the playoffs began. Lowry’s averaging 14.3 points on 48/40/78 splits in Games 2 through 4. Those aren’t world-beater type numbers, but they are solid for a starting point guard.
That doesn’t change that Lowry’s numbers have declined in this year’s playoffs. Even though he’s averaging the same number of minutes he usually does, Lowry is averaging the lowest field goal attempts he’s ever had in the playoffs on average (9.5) as well as his lowest usage rate at 17.2 percent.
This is because the Raptors have relied more heavily on Kawhi and Pascal to shoulder the scoring load, which has done wonders for them offensively. Lowry is not a bad offensive option by any means. Leonard and Siakam have just proven to better at the moment.
Strangely enough, by decreasing his role offensively on the team, it somehow made him more effective overall as a player. Toronto is somehow a plus-50.7 when Lowry is on the floor, as the team has been dominant on both ends of the floor when he’s playing. Because his role isn’t as substantial as it had been in previous seasons, Lowry may just be playing in a role that was better suited for him. Some players do better when there isn’t nearly as much pressure on them.
Again, we expected that Toronto would do better after the personnel moves they made this summer. What we didn’t expect were these other subplots that made them more dynamic and much more of a threat in the postseason.
The road ahead only gets tougher for the Raptors, but if they can keep this up, then they might be the ones representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – which could be enough success to make a pitch for re-signing Kawhi Leonard this summer.
NBA Daily: An Elite Generation Takes Aim At The Postseason Greats
Even without LeBron James in the playoffs, there are plenty of historical narratives worth keeping an eye on — from steals to blocks, there’s plenty up for grabs.
When LeBron James missed out on the postseason for the first time in 14 years, he left a massively large hole in the proceedings. After all, James had dragged his squad to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, dating back to his inaugural season alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Miami.
Without James, in a way, the playoffs seem just a little bit emptier.
But it goes past his hulking status as a legend or his ability to dominate the headlines throughout the work week — literally, his box score is a standstill, collecting dust for once. James already owns more postseason points than anybody in NBA history with 6,911. That’s more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Michael Jordan — all by the age of 32.
Unsurprisingly, James is also the active leader in nearly every other category as well — games, minutes, field goals, rebounds, assists and steals.
The absence of James and a few notable other leaves the 2018-19 playoffs in an intriguing position in terms of the historical ladder. But since James cannot extend his absurd statistical bounties this spring, here are the players worth watching into the second round and beyond.
Of note, without James, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Dirk Nowitzki on the floor this postseason, Pau Gasol (136) is highest-ranking active games leader. Trailed by Kyle Korver at 133, it’s a small testament to their sticking power in an ever-changing NBA landscape.
Not far behind that pair is Kevin Durant, who will presumably pass Kevin Garnett, James Worthy and Reggie Miller for 37th all-time in postseason minutes at some point in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Durant’s name, naturally, will be popping up far more than just that.
Field Goals — Kevin Durant
1,265, 20th all-time
1. LeBron James, 2,457
10. Tony Parker, 1,613
14. Dwyane Wade, 1,450
44. Russell Westbrook, 834
48. Stephen Curry, 815
Regardless of how Durant’s championships in Golden State resonates person-to-person, there’s no denying that the 6-foot-9 finisher is a crash course with history. At 30, Durant just continues to rise up the ranks and his free agency decision this summer suddenly looms large. Just as the rest of the categories reflect, these year-after-year deep Warriors runs can do wonders for your postseason standings — but Durant seems willing to give that all up. Still, outside of his first playoff berth in 2009-10, Durant has only failed to splash more than 140 field goals in just one other season.
During the Warriors’ championship-winning run in 2018-19, Durant dropped an absurd 212 buckets on 48.7 percent from the floor. Should he just tally a more human total in this current postseason pace, he’ll be knocking on the door of the top ten. Hell, even if Durant leaves Golden State come July in free agency and his field goals per playoffs revert to a more sustainable number of around 150, it’ll only take another three seasons before he’s challenging the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Durant is destined for greatness, the only question now is how high he’ll go.
Three-Pointers — Stephen Curry
395, 1st all-time
3. LeBron James, 370
6. Klay Thompson, 308
11. Kevin Durant, 273
14. James Harden, 240
15. Kyle Korver, 237
20. Danny Green, 194
Yeah, so, Curry owns the three-point line already — that’s well-established.
Just last week, Curry became the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in made three-pointers by passing Ray Allen during Game 1 against the Clippers.
Also, relevantly, Stephen Curry is only 31 years-old.
At this rate, his record has a legitimate chance to become untouchable by the time Curry retires. Saying that Curry is a fire-flinging marksman almost states nothing at this point — but what he’s done in the span of four years would’ve been borderline unimaginable 10 years ago. Along with three championships, Curry has tallied 98, 80, 72 and 64 made three-pointers over the previous four postseason runs.
For comparison’s sake, neither Ray Allen nor Reggie Miller ever passed 60 made threes in a single postseason during their Hall of Fame-worthy careers.
Needless to say, the gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 could be unfathomably deep in a few years’ time — if not for the efforts of Klay Thompson, his co-Splash Brother.
Over those same four seasons, Thompson has been nearly as prolific as Curry has been. Knocking down 57, 98, 41 and 67 made three-point totals, Thompson has flown to No. 6 on the charts in no time. Of course, Curry and Thompson benefit from playing close to 20 games each postseason — just as James has for the last decade — but these are prime sharpshooters simply showing off.
Even if Thompson makes a modest 40 three-pointers per postseason this year and next, he’d swiftly pass Allen and James for second on the ladder. Unless proceedings take a surprising twist this summer, Thompson and Curry may have another half-decade of elite play left in Golden State’s backcourt.
Which is to say, basically: Say goodbye to any and all three-point records — both in the regular and postseason — as these two are going to smash them all to pieces — if they haven’t already.
Total Rebounds — Pau Gasol
1,246, 37th all-time
6. LeBron James, 2,122
23. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,446
29. Dwight Howard, 1,315
53. Kevin Durant, 1,025
61. Draymond Green, 942
Gasol has slowed down as of late, but he’s still near the top of the rebounding ladder for now. The Spaniard has been dealing with an ankle injury since he joined the Milwaukee Bucks in March, but he likely won’t feature all that much once he returns either. With Brook Lopez handling most of the center minutes, it’s unlikely that Gasol does too much damage here. He’s on the backend of his career and hasn’t played meaningful postseason minutes since 2016-17, where he tallied 75 rebounds over 365 minutes and 16 games for San Antonio.
Unless there’s an injury, Gasol can reasonably snag a few spot-minute rebounds here and there to pass Kevin McHale (1,253) and Dan Issel (1,255) for 35th all-time. If the Bucks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s certainly a chance Gasol could pass Artis Gilmore this postseason, but don’t expect much fanfare in either case.
Elsewhere, much like Thompson, the Warriors’ length four-year chases have sent Draymond Green skyrocketing up the standings too. Green has put up 166, 190, 135 and 180 tallies over that interval, so another run like that would place him around Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in the low 40s for the most all-time postseason rebounds. For a second-round selection, Green’s contributions have already left an indelible dent in NBA history with no foreseeable end in sight.
Assists — Chris Paul
815, 25th all-time
3. LeBron James, 1,687
5. Tony Parker, 1,143
13. Rajon Rondo, 981
20. Dwyane Wade, 870
31. Russell Westbrook, 746
41. James Harden, 597
42. Draymond Green, 593
43. Stephen Curry, 592
51. Kevin Durant, 518
This list is popping with recent activity, full of vibrant playmakers and game-changing court visionaries. James, Parker, Rondo and Wade decorate the top of the ladder, however, the next generation is approaching fast.
Paul, who deserves to be in the conversation for the best point guard of all-time, sports a career playoff average of 8.8 assists over 93 games. Of course, his numbers have taken a slight hit since he joined up with the ball-dominant James Harden but Paul can leapfrog a bevy of legends this postseason alone.
If the Houston Rockets play in 15 games again and Paul averages five or so assists in that stretch, he’d finish on par with Clyde Drexler at No. 19 all-time. In matching Drexler, Paul would pass John Havlicek, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Julius Erving and Dwyane Wade — so, obviously, that’s not bad company to keep at all.
Paul’s ability to reach even higher will depend on his health and role next to Harden, but his Hall of Fame legacy is already cemented without question.
Steals — Chris Paul
201, 24th all-time
1. LeBron James, 419
14. Dwyane Wade, 273
24-T. Rajon Rondo, 201
30. James Harden, 181
31. Russell Westbrook, 180
35. Andre Iguodala, 174
40. Draymond Green, 169
45. Stephen Curry, 160
48. Kawhi Leonard, 149
Paul’s aforementioned legacy is furthered thanks to his long-time ball-swiping prowesses — today, the 33-year-old finds himself on the verge of joining another elite group. During the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2017-18, Paul snagged 30 steals. If Paul were able to replicate those totals for the remainder of this postseason and all of the next, he’d have enough to pass Karl Malone for No. 16 all-time in postseason thefts. Again, Paul’s recent injury history makes it a tough area to predict — but as long as he’s playing, his team has a chance to win.
The presence of Andre Iguodala is an exemplification of his impressive career too, particularly so given his recent multi-round trips as a member of the Warriors. Iguodala, 35, has only missed the postseason once since 2007 — albeit playing in just one series clips typically — but he’s been a springtime staple this era. Over Golden State’s historic four-year journey, Iguodala has snatched away totals of 25, 29, 14 and 21 steals, respectively.
If he were to manage another 20 or so this postseason, he’d rank close to the top 25 in postseason steals — all in all, a fantastic achievement for the well-liked veteran.
Blocks — Serge Ibaka
255, 10th all-time
14. Dwight Howard, 234
15. Pau Gasol, 233
16. LeBron James, 232
25. Dwyane Wade, 175
35. Kevin Durant, 156
37. Draymond Green, 152
44. Al Horford, 138
Saving the best for last is Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s active leader in postseason blocks. That’s right: Not James, not Gasol, not Howard — Serge Ibaka. The 6-foot-10 brick wall has slowed down from his elite days in Oklahoma City, but he’s still consistently climbing the historical ladder. Ibaka hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2008 and he’s featured in 10-plus games in every postseason since 2009. Back in the Thunder’s heyday, Ibaka swatted away a whopping 52, 59, 33 and 42 shots over a four-year period.
North of the border, Ibaka’s postseason tallies have been far more muted — still, he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. With Toronto looking like an Eastern Conference Finals contender, Ibaka has a real chance of reaching 20 blocks this time around. Should Ibaka do so, he’d be right on the tail of Kevin McHale and Julius Erving for ninth and eighth all-time in playoff blocks. Although Ibaka is extremely unlikely to reach the Hall of Fame himself, his place as one of basketball’s best shot blockers is practically set in stone.
James’ departure — along with the massive holes left by Nowitzki and Wade — have given this postseason a completely different feel. But even if onlookers can’t watch LeBron further many of his categorical leads, there are plenty of other narratives worth paying attention to. Given Curry and Thompson’s elite long-distance shooting, Paul’s high-ranking steals and assists totals and Durant’s overall dominance, that means that every game — whether in the first round or the Finals — has historical implications.
Which NBA legend will be passed next? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? With this group of stat-stuffing future Hall of Famers, almost nothing is off the table.
NBA Daily: Is Now the Time for the Houston Rockets?
Houston pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year. Shane Rhodes analyzes whether the Rockets are now ready to advance to the NBA Finals.
In what may be the best eventual series of the postseason, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are expected to go head-to-head in the second round.
Both teams are almost certainly looking forward to their postseason rematch — to show which team is truly dominant over the other. Both the Rockets and Warriors, for the most part, have made easy work of their first-round adversaries; while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, may play hard, neither have the personnel to contend with the NBA’s most talented teams. Meanwhile, both Houston and Golden State have subjected the NBA to a season-long offensive clinic, and their postseason performance thus far has shown that neither team has lost much, if any steam.
But, over the last few seasons, the Rockets have had one goal (beyond the obvious Larry O’Brien Trophy), one obsession: unseating the Warriors dynasty.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” General Manager Daryl Morey said last season. They were meticulously built to defeat the beast that Golden State has become in recent years.
And now, Houston may have its best chance to topple a giant.
While some may argue otherwise, the Rockets are a better team than they were a season ago. Not only are they healthy — Chris Paul was lost to injury in the midst of their Conference Finals series last season — but their defense is better. Even James Harden, voted Most Valuable Player a season ago and in line for another this season, has significantly improved, both as an offensive weapon and as a defender.
Houston went through multiple regular season stretches that were rife with injuries. Paul missed 17 straight games midseason, while Clint Capela missed 15 of his own around the same time. But now, there are no major injuries, and the Rockets are actively trying to avoid them: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, amid two blowouts, have seen their time on the court dip from a season ago, while Paul is on pace to finish with a career low in postseason minutes player per game (30).
A dose of early season adversity seems to have hardened the Rockets mindset quite a bit as well; while they were somewhat carried by Harden’s historic offensive effort, it put the roster in a position where they needed to grind out some ugly wins on the defensive end and it has made them better in the long run. Tucker, an already versatile defensive weapon, has proved even more capable this season while Capela and Paul are their usual stout selves.
As for Harden, who has looked to be in the best shape of his career, he has become even more valuable for the Rockets than he was a season ago. He has proven a stout defender, both on the perimeter and in the post, en route to career-high two steals per game (good for second in the NBA this season).
Offensively, his shot volume has increased dramatically, but he has remained surprisingly efficient, shooting 36.8% and 44.2% from three and the field, respectively, on 13.2 threes (a career high) and 24.5 shots per game (also a career high). But he has developed more than his three-point stroke. While Harden has made art of the stepback three, he has improved on his ability to draw fouls; Harden was the first since Allen Iverson in the 2005-06 regular season to average at least nine free throws made and 11 free throw attempts per game (again, both career highs for Harden). While he is often criticized for his style of play, he has used it to put the Rockets in a position to win big games time and time again.
What may be the best news for Houston, however, is that, through two games, Harden has averaged his lowest postseason minutes played since he was in Oklahoma City. Harden, as have the Rockets in recent years, has tended to run out of gas come postseason time — an entire season playing as physical as he does would leave anyone drained. So, the quicker the Jazz are dealt with, and the more rest the Rockets are afforded, the better.
It could certainly prove a fool’s errand to predict the Warriors demise, but there are causes for concern this postseason.
DeMarcus Cousins, who played a major role with the team upon his return this season, is likely out for the postseason after he tore a quad muscle. Not only does his absence remove one of the Warriors’ biggest chess pieces, but it gives other teams a matchup they can exploit. Even hobbled, Cousins would have been a superior option to Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell.
The team recently sustained a historically bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit to steal a game at Oracle Arena, as well. While Golden State punched back — and punched back hard — in the next game, it goes to show that any team, even the Warriors, are prone to take their foot off the gas when they feel comfortable.
And, perhaps the biggest distraction this Warriors group has faced, the future of Kevin Durant has hung like a dark cloud over the team for much of the season.
Now don’t take this the wrong way — short of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green calling it quits after the Clippers series, the Warriors will be far from a pushover. But, they appear to be vulnerable, for the first time in a long time.
The Rockets already had them on the ropes last season. If they can take advantage now, Houston may very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.