Failure to Launch
For the fourth time in five seasons, the Houston Rockets have been eliminated by the Golden State Warriors. It didn’t matter when the Warriors were on the rise, sitting atop the NBA, or down their best player. The Rockets just can’t seem to find a way to dispatch their hated rival in a seven game series. What hurts most about this loss for the Rockets is the air of uncertainty circling around the organization. After all, this was supposed to be their year to finally beat the Dubs and advance to the Finals. But now, all they’re left with is a bunch of questions and a lot of frustration.
For about a year straight, the story has been exactly the same. The fans, the media, and the Rockets themselves believed it to be true. “If Chris Paul doesn’t get injured in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets beat the Warriors”. Most people took that statement as an irrefutable fact. Ignore the part about Andre Iguodala also being injured. If the Rockets had CP3, they win it all in 2018. And then suddenly, the roles reverse in favor of the Rockets. Kevin Durant is injured and will miss the remainder of the series. All the Rockets have to do now is match Golden State’s feat from one year ago: come back from 3-2 down and win the series. Despite their best efforts, the Warriors championship meddle proved too powerful.
What makes this loss completely demoralizing is the fact that the Rockets were built with one task in mind. They were built to beat the Warriors. In an era where most complain about the Warriors dominance and build towards their eventual fall, Houston tried to challenge them directly. Everything was built for moments like these last two years. After this latest failure, one has to wonder if it will ever happen for them. Chris Paul is only getting older and has an unmovable contract. James Harden is what he is at this point. He can score with the best of them, but often comes up a few plays short when it matters. Mike D’Antoni is a good head coach, but has a track record that suggest he cannot win the big one.
This situation mirrors one we just saw one year ago. The Toronto Raptors were renamed the ‘LeBronto’ Raptors after LeBron James once again dispatched them with ease. What made things even worse was the fact that the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t even comparable in talent to the top teams in the league. With their best chance to beat LeBron in the history of their franchise, the Raptors were swept aside. Toronto had to make a decision if they wanted to take a shot at the championship. That decision led to them trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Now, the Raptors have bought themselves this season to contend. But what can the Rockets do to improve themselves? No one is trading for CP3’s contract. They’re not going to flip James Harden for a better star player. Firing D’Antoni likely won’t be enough to solve their problems. They’re pretty much stuck in a position where they have to run it back. And if this season is any indicator, CP3 is beginning to decline. Also, the Warriors will still be formidable even if they lose KD.
The Rockets are stuck in the worst possible position a team can be in. They’re not terrible enough to stack draft capital and improve via the draft. Also, they’re not good enough to win a championship. Despite their talent and their explosive offensive output, they’re on a treadmill headed nowhere. And as with all treadmill teams, they’ll eventually stumble and fall before ever making significant progress. This offseason will be one of a lot of reflection. Their title window is not just closing. It may have slam shut after Friday night. With each passing year, it is beginning to look like they may never get over. They’ll go down in history next to the Sacramento Kings of the early 2000s and the Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s. Great teams no doubt, but they’ll look back on those missing rings. If improvements aren’t made, the Rockets will go down in history as a failure to launch.