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The Chicago Bulls Are Building, Not Rebuilding

Trading Taj Gibson signaled a different kind of building in Chicago – not a rebuild, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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When the Chicago Bulls traded Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow at the deadline, it appeared Bulls management had decided to start over. But a look at Chicago’s young players in increased roles since the All-Star break hints that the Bulls’ front office had a plan more nuanced than “blow it up.”

“[We’re] building with Jimmy,” Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson told The Associated Press. While some observers considered a Jimmy Butler trade the inevitable next step in an impending rebuild, Paxson insisted that Chicago is determined to put the right pieces around the team’s star.

At first blush, the trade was absurdly lopsided. After all, Chicago gave up its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer in Gibson, and second-leading three-point shooter in McDermott for three players on the fringes of OKC’s rotation. Payne missed time due to a right foot fracture. In only 320 minutes this season, the Thunder were outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Payne on court, a team-worst net rating. Morrow is a career journeyman, and Lauvergne has yet to crack an NBA rotation.

So how is the trade defensible? How could anyone possibly ascribe a rational thought process to Chicago’s front office? The answer lies in both changes in role and an overall commitment to a new style of play. While Gibson was productive throughout his time in Chicago, his inability to connect on shots away from the basket allowed defenders to sag in the lane and clog potential driving lanes. With Chicago ranking dead last in three-point percentage — and with noted slashers Butler and Dwyane Wade on the roster — Gibson’s inability to knock down midrange shots was incompatible with one of Chicago’s main strengths.

In the modern era, teams are often successful when they surround a single interior player with four teammates that can hit from outside. Looking at the numbers, within 8 feet of the basket, Gibson has been efficient, hitting 231 of 382 shots (60.5 percent) this season. From eight to 24 feet, Gibson has shot just 61-for-178 (34 percent).

So the big decision for Bulls management was whether to continue to pair Gibson with Robin Lopez, another player who produces primarily on the inside. With Gibson entering free agency, Chicago knew it would have to make a significant financial commitment this summer to keep Gibson in a Bulls uniform. The deciding factors were likely Lopez’ contract status (signed through 2019 for a reasonable $14 million per season) and the comparative diversity of his shot profile.

Inside 8 feet, Lopez has connected on 178 of 342 shots (52 percent), a far less efficient clip than Gibson. However, Lopez distinguishes himself in the midrange. From eight to 24 feet, Lopez has shot 106-for-243 (44 percent). Neither percentage is exceptional, but both are respectable. This means you have to guard Lopez at more spots on the floor than Gibson. And that appears to be the decision that Bulls management made. They made a lopsided trade in terms of production, but it opens up driving lanes just as Al Horford’s arrival in Boston has done for Isaiah Thomas.

While moving on from Gibson isn’t going to suddenly make the Bulls a competent three-point shooting team, the organization made a commitment to spacing that is forward thinking. In addition to this shift in philosophy, Chicago also committed to an expanded role for its young players. While a five-game sample since the All-Star break is too small from which to draw firm conclusions, Thursday’s upset of Golden State combined with Saturday’s loss to the Clippers provided an interesting glimpse at both the potential and limitations of Chicago’s youth movement.

Payne opened the second quarter against Golden State with three straight floaters — the lefty’s preferred shot — hitting two. Payne also had a nice shovel pass to Paul Zipser in semi-transition for a layup, part of a 10-2 Bulls run before halftime. Overall, Payne’s on/off numbers in 52 minutes as a Bull have been just as bad as they were in OKC. But the Bulls got a prospect on a rookie scale contract rather than seeing Gibson walk in free agency without compensation.

Zipser, a 23-year-old rookie from Heidelberg, Germany, showed control with a single bounce to keep from traveling on Payne’s assist. Later in the second, he faked a three to get Klay Thompson in the air, then hit a pull-up from just inside the arc. Zipser showed nice body control again as he recovered a ball Pat McCaw knocked loose from Wade, fired it back to Wade, then cut to the basket for a double-clutch layup.

The greatest beneficiary of Gibson’s exodus is Bobby Portis. As Brent Barry noted on the broadcast, Portis has spent over 51 percent of his minutes this season at center. With Gibson gone, Portis will now platoon with Nikola Mirotic to give the Bulls a pair of stretch four options. Portis scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting with six rebounds in the first half of the win over Golden State.

The second half featured a 10-0 Bulls run in the third quarter which included a pair of midrange jumpers by Lopez. This restart for Chicago also appears to have rejuvenated Rajon Rondo, who took advantage of the improved spacing to slash to the basket while also igniting the fast break. Mirotic had a corner three off a feed from Rondo, then drove to the basket and dropped it off to Cristiano Felicio for a dunk that put the Bulls ahead 84-79 with 7:19 to play in the third.

The fourth quarter showed both Chicago’s newfound commitment to spacing and the mixed results the team will likely continue to see. The Bulls shot 1-for-9 on threes in the fourth as Golden State briefly retook the lead at 85-84. But the Warriors missed nine straight threes in the quarter as Chicago added a win over the Durantless Warriors to its previous post-All Star win over the LeBronless Cavaliers. The most interesting thing was Fred Hoiberg’s lineup in the final three minutes of a back-and-forth game: Wade, Felicio, Butler, Zipser, and Portis.

The loss to the Clippers showed not only the limitations of Chicago’s youth movement at its current stage, but the limitations of the veterans the Bulls added during the past offseason. Although Jamal Crawford would punish Zipser in the second half with one of his non-guardable games, it was the inability of Wade and Butler to fight through screens and guard J.J. Redick on switches that kept the game from being closer than it could have been.

And while Chris Paul repeatedly picked on Jerian Grant — the promising point guard who leads Chicago in three-point percentage — Rondo looked a lot less poised against the Clippers. After trusting the youngsters with the GSW game on the line, Hoiberg opted to go with a veteran-heavy lineup with Portis joining Wade, Butler, Rondo and Lopez after Hoiberg pulled Grant six minutes in. The substitution patterns appeared to work, as Chicago led 61-55 at halftime with 23 points from the second unit. L.A. entered the game with four losses in five games since the break and appeared a step slow on the second night of a back-to-back.

While the Bulls lived on second chance and transition buckets in the first half, the Clippers tightened their defense and elevated their energy in the second. Chicago’s platoon of point guards was obviously no match for Paul. And while Portis shows promise, starting opposite a healthy Griffin is a reality check for any power forward. Mirotic and shooting guard Denzel Valentine had nice moments toward the end of the game but it was too little, too late. Of all the young Bulls to benefit from the post-trade minutes’ redistribution, Valentine has made the most of it. His +10.5 net rating after the All-Star break leads the team and is almost six points better than Butler, who is second at +4.6. It’s only a five-game, 110-minute sample for Valentine, but he only played 401 minutes through 32 games before the All-Star break.

The Gibson trade wasn’t so much hitting the reset button as reimagining what the Bulls can be. Chicago is building, not rebuilding. With Lopez and Butler under contract for two more seasons and numerous developing options at point guard, power forward and on the wing, look for the Bulls to be players again in free agency this summer. If Wade declines his option, Chicago could have the cap space to court current Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap. If not, the Bulls could make a play in 2018 for potential restricted free agent Rodney Hood. So back down off that ledge, Bulls fans. The future looks brighter than almost anyone suspected.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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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.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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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.

Shane Rhodes

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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.

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