I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders – Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.
Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?
Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.
But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.
There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.
I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.
I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.
But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.
There are reasons to question that, though.
The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.
Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.
Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.
But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?
The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.