James Harden - Stephen Curry

The Only NBA Playoff Series That Matters

The Houston Rockets won the NBA championship in ’94 and ’95. However, those titles will always carry with them an asterisk: They won them during Michael Jordan’s first retirement1)Technically, Jordan came back during the ’94-’95 season, but he would not return to his GOAT level until the following year.. People look down on those championships because Hakeem Olajuwon did not have to beat Jordan to earn them.

As a Rockets fan, I say this argument is bullshit. Injuries, retirements, and bad luck are inherent factors every season. The best teams and players often do not face off against one another. The Lakers still won in ’09 even though Kobe vs. Lebron never happened. Back in the 90’s, The Rockets were the best team in the NBA two years in a row, and nothing should diminish that.

But deep down, even I know that is not true. Those Rockets championships do have a little tarnish on them. The Dream never got to play MJ in the Finals.

The NBA playoffs start on Saturday, and the Rockets, as the #1 seed, have their best shot at winning the title ever. However, the Warriors are still favored, and I like it that way. A championship should never be an easy coronation but a difficult struggle against the best opponents possible. So not only do I want the Rockets to win the Finals this year, I want them to go through the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals to do so.

Even though Houston and Golden State are the two best teams, nothing is guaranteed. As a pessimist, I am already talking myself into how the Rockets could lose to the Timberwolves in the first round2)Jimmy Butler + a Minnesota crowd excited to be back in the playoffs after 14 years + Luc Mbah a Moute’s dislocated shoulder + a weak end to the season by the Rockets = a crushing upset by the T-Wolves?. On the other side of the Western Conference bracket, Steph Curry will be out until the second round.

My only wish is a Houston-Golden State Western Conference Finals where both teams are fully healthy. Before the season started, I wrote about the Rockets being the less talented team:

I am hoping this team reminds me of the ’08-’09 Rockets. They are going to be a good team but not the best. Every once in a while though, heart beats talent. This season looks like it will end with another Finals between the Warriors and Cavs. But anything could happen. Why can’t the Rockets win it all?

However, what makes Rockets vs Warriors so interesting is not just the talent disparity, but the philosophical differences that come from that difference in skill. Jonathan Tjarks has a brilliant piece on The Ringer entitled “The Rockets Have Become the Warriors’ Perfect Foil” which digs into this:

That’s where the similarities end, though. Houston copied Golden State’s roster construction, but it uses those pieces very differently. Kerr runs a motion-based offense that features an endless number of cuts and back screens. He rarely uses the pick-and-roll between Curry and Durant, which might be the hardest play in basketball to defend—it’s almost as if he’s worried that relying on such easy points might create bad habits. D’Antoni, on the other hand, is obsessed with creating points as easily as possible. The Rockets are essentially what would happen if an NBA team tried to build an entire plane out of a black box. There’s little of what they would consider wasted movement in their offense: They run pick-and-rolls the entire game, and then everyone else stands as far apart as possible and waits to take spot-up 3s.

Fundamentally, Warriors-Rockets boils down to talent vs. efficiency. Golden State is an elegant team to watch. They run a complex offense built on ball movement, passing, and an incredible ability to score. On the other hand, Houston is not fun to watch. They play iso basketball and shoot a ridiculous number of free throws.

The best statistical observation on both teams comes with 3-point shooting. During the regular season, the Rockets averaged 41.9 3-point attempts per game, 1st in the league; the Warriors averaged 28.7, 16th in the league. However, the Rockets only converted 36.5% of those shots, 13th in the league; the Warriors made 39.2% of their 3’s, 1st in the league. Basically, the Warriors make a lot of 3’s; the Rockets shoot a lot of 3’s.

James Harden is a thousand times better at basketball than I could ever be, but there is an approachability to his game that does not exist with Steph Curry’s. Taking a foul and scoring some free throws seems a lot easier than some of the crazy 3-point shots that Curry or Klay Thompson make. Even though this is a delusional belief, there is an “everyman” aspect to James Harden’s abilities. Compared to Golden State’s team, Harden, D’Antoni, and Morey are average guys who have hacked the system, figured out the meta-game of basketball, and transcended what should be possible based on their limited talent.

This should make Houston the most relatable and popular team in America. Most people, myself included, are average. It is easy to find someone vastly more athletic, charismatic, or intelligent than yourself. For the average masses, our best shot at success is not outperforming the top person in a given field but rather figuring out a way to scrappily hack3)In order to provide clarity here, let’s discuss the word “hack”. Paul Graham makes a good point on the term: “It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack.” The truth is a “hack” is some mixture of the two definitions. Whether you see it in a positive or negative light is largely based on whether or not the hack benefits you, but regardless, there is always a sort of cheap elegance to hacking. our way to the top.

Imagine you are at a bar, and the girl you want to get with is talking to you and some other superhuman guy. This dude is charismatic, ripped, successful, and loaded with cash. How do you get the girl? You cannot win by trying to fake your way into seeming more charismatic, more muscular, more successful, or richer than him. You do it by making her laugh or making a genuine connection.

Of course, normally the less talented side still loses. Chip Kelly lost the BCS Championship. André Villas-Boas never reached the top of the Premier League. Billy Bean never won the World Series. No matter how smart they are, the underdogs normally lose.

But that is what would make Houston beating Golden State so special. Every once in a while, you can bring down the best. David can beat Goliath. Just because they are better than you does not mean you cannot win.

I would rather have the Rockets lose to the Warriors than win the title without having to play them. The greatest sports moments transcend the two teams to instead become a philosophical debate. Celtics-Lakers is about East Coast versus West Coast. USA-Soviet Union was about democracy versus communism. Any NFL team against the Cowboys is about good versus evil. And Rockets-Warriors would be about talent versus averageness.

That would be so much better than just a basketball game. And if Houston did win that series and go on to win the Finals, then this time their title would have no asterisk.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Technically, Jordan came back during the ’94-’95 season, but he would not return to his GOAT level until the following year.
2. Jimmy Butler + a Minnesota crowd excited to be back in the playoffs after 14 years + Luc Mbah a Moute’s dislocated shoulder + a weak end to the season by the Rockets = a crushing upset by the T-Wolves?
3. In order to provide clarity here, let’s discuss the word “hack”. Paul Graham makes a good point on the term: “It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack.” The truth is a “hack” is some mixture of the two definitions. Whether you see it in a positive or negative light is largely based on whether or not the hack benefits you, but regardless, there is always a sort of cheap elegance to hacking.

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