If the NBA does return to finish the 2019-20 season, it will be unlike anything in the history of sports.
As of now, nobody quite knows what exactly that would entail. An unprecedented number of potential variables - no fans in arenas, truncated series, one location and countless others - makes for a thrilling, mysterious, uncertain, one-of-a-kind melting pot of postseason scenarios sure to include far more potential outcomes than what we typically might see in a normal year.
At the centre of it all? The Houston Rockets who have already endured a rollercoaster ride of a season on and off the court unlike anything experienced by any of the other 29 teams.
While it's true that every team would be navigating the same set of circumstances with a shared common goal of winning a championship, the noise and chatter surrounding the Rockets drowns out all others which makes them perhaps the single most intriguing team moving forward.
With that in mind, we asked three of our writers to play Fact or Fiction regarding James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets.
Extended time off is more important for the Rockets than any other team.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fact. Not only do both James Harden and Russell Westbrook have a history of running out of gas come playoff time, there was a strong sense that Houston's super small ball simply wasn't sustainable for another month of regular season play leading directly into the playoffs. "They won't be able to keep this up" was a popular rallying cry for Charles Barkley and other commentators even after running the Lakers off the floor in their very first post-Clint Capela game. The Rockets had the fastest car on the track, but were almost assuredly on pace to run out of gas playing their new style. This pit stop gives them a fresh set of tires and full tank of gas for the stretch run that they needed more desperately than anyone.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fiction. It's not more important, but it doesn't hurt. Both James Harden and Russell Westbrook are in the top seven for minutes per game. Mike D'Antoni historically doesn't go deep into his bench too often in the postseason so this unexpected break does give Houston the best chance to be as fresh as they can be for a deep playoff run.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fiction. They should benefit from it, if only because Harden has a tendency to run out of gas in the playoffs and this break could help him recharge his batteries, but seeing as other teams could get players back who were originally expected to miss the remainder of the season, it's hard for me to say it's more important for them than any other team.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fact. Prior to the season's suspension, with their deals around the mid-season trade deadline, the Rockets had unleashed Russell Westbrook with their small ball (or super small-ball) line-up but a shortened rotation means more wear-and-tear on key players. A majority of their key players on the shortened rotation - Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker - are on the wrong side of 30.
Westbrook has had multiple knee injuries, Harden has a tendency to run out of gas (like Scott mentioned), Gordon has had his battle with injuries, and Tucker, is possibly bearing the brunt of it all as the team plays small-ball, trying to guard big men. So, yes, among the challengers, I believe the Rockets needed this break the most
Outside of the Bucks, Clippers and Lakers, the Rockets have the next-best odds to win the title.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fact. You and I have talked about this already, Micah. If we were to categorize teams based on how likely they are to win the championship this season, I think the Rockets would be in a tier themselves underneath the Clippers, Lakers and Bucks. That's not to say I think they're the fourth-best team. I just think they have a higher ceiling than pretty much every other team in the league.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fact. The Rockets have the highest ceiling amongst the second tier of championship contenders. There's a world in which we see both Harden and Westbrook get hot for three or four weeks and end up in the Finals. There's also a world in which this team runs so cold after a long break that they get bounced in the first round. No result would surprise me with the Rockets.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fiction if only because they have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers. Their ceiling is probably the highest of any team outside of the Big 3, but their path is undoubtedly difficult with the Nuggets currently looming as a first-round matchup. In a vacuum, it's the Rockets but the playoffs aren't played in a vacuum.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fiction. The playoffs are about matchups, adjustments, strategies and counterpunches. Do the Rockets have those in them or is playing small and fast going to be the response to everything? If yes, then I don't believe they got the best odds. If it clicks, however, they do have the most potential among the other 27 teams but that's a big if, one that I'm not willing to bet on.
An NBA championship in 2020 would forever change the narrative about James Harden.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fact. The asterisk that will inevitably be placed beside this year's champion might haunt him a bit if he's never able to win another one, but one is better than none. For Harden to validate his status as an all-time great he does need some jewelry. Getting to the Finals won't be enough either, he has to show that he can truly lead a team to the promised land. If he doesn't, history will look back on his time in the NBA and dismiss it as him being a product of an offensive friendly system.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fact. The first player who comes to mind is Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki had a similar wrap as Harden leading up to his championship with the Dallas Mavericks - an all-time great, albeit one who couldn't quite rise to the occasion in the playoffs - but finally getting over the hump forever changed the way we remember him. I could see the same thing happening to Harden if he were to win a championship, although I'm sure people would still try to put an asterisk next to it given the circumstances.
MORE: The four players with the most to prove this postseason
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fiction. You both even addressed why! Fair or not - and I don't think it is fair - a title with the largest asterisk possible wouldn't quell any qualms about Harden with a large number of the naysayers, especially because he needs that ring so badly to enter the conversation with Dwayne Wade and Jerry West in that all-time shooting guard tier below Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. One of the reasons the Spurs title in 1999 isn't looked at sideways is all of the success that came with more rings later. But imagine had that been the Pacers or Knicks... would it really change perceptions that much? I say no.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Depends. Harden has had multiple chances as 'The Guy' with the Rockets, sometimes in favourable situations, to take over in the playoffs and lead them to glory but it hasn't happened. For me, it's fact, if he plays a huge role in their run to the 2020 championship but it's fiction if, in key moments, he still comes up short and Westbrook carries the team home.
An NBA championship in 2020 would forever change the narrative about Russell Westbrook.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fact. For better or worse Russell Westbrook has been the same guy he's wanted to be throughout his NBA career. The teams he's been a part of that have failed, he's gotten the blame even though he wasn't the best player on the team. When he was the man in OKC after Durant's departure he got blamed for the future Hall of Famer wanting to leave and also him holding the team back from being able to compete at a high level because of his large contract. When Westbrook retires, there will be those who love him and respect his game and those who you point out his flaws. A championship can silence the critics just a little bit.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fact. Same as Harden, basically.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fact, but only because I think the conversation about Harden and Westbrook are not on the same level. I don't think Westbrook needs to win as much as he simply needs to play well in order to show some degree of sustained postseason success away from Kevin Durant. And if the Rockets win the title, it means Westbrook played well.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fact. I believe his journey after the 2012 NBA Finals has been slightly different from Harden. First, he was with Kevin Durant for a few seasons where they made it to two Conference Finals (2014, 16), then, he had the triple-double record MVP season, and then, he went down the path of being super-accomodating to Paul George but got knocked out in the first round twice. If they win, he's my pick for the Finals MVP and that will definitely change the narrative about his career.
If Houston doesn't win the NBA title, this is the end of the Rockets as currently constructed.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fact. I don't know if it would be the end of the Rockets as currently constructed - it's going to be hard to move Westbrook because of his contract and I doubt they'd trade Harden - but I do think this is their best chance, mostly because I can't imagine Westbrook and Harden being as good next season as they have been this season.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fiction. They'll get one more chance at it and they should. Had this season gone along as planned and the Rockets failed to reach their goal of a championship maybe my answer might be different, but how can you break them up without seeing what they're capable of under normal circumstances? Also, what does breaking them up mean? How do they find a suitor for Russell Westbrook's massive contract? They don't have many meaningful draft picks at their disposal and they probably aren't going to just trade away James Harden and rebuild that way either. The most that can happen is firing Mike D'Antoni and if you do that you're looking to bring in a new coach who's going to be stuck with a team built for D'Antoni's style of play for at least two or three more seasons. There's value in being close to being a championship contender, which is where the Rockets currently are. At any time luck can strike - ride it out, rebuilding isn't fun.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fact. I know the unusual circumstances - that feels like the understatement of the century - means teams might be less inclined to overreact to anything short of a title, but the fact of the matter is that there's just been so much noise in Houston that I'm having a hard time envisioning a world in which Harden, Westbrook, Mike D'Antoni, Daryl Morey and Tilman Fertitta come together to sing kumbaya after an early exit. Maybe ousting the Clippers or Lakers and losing in the Finals might extend this another year, but I just think there's too much baggage barring a ring.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fact. The salary cap, which was $109.1 million for the 2019-20 season, is most likely to fall next year and possibly for a couple of seasons to come. In Westbrook and Harden, the Rockets have two players that will be earning upwards of $40 million for each of the next three seasons. So, the financials are one part of it but the bigger factor is neither of them is getting any younger. The only way I see the Rockets extending this by one more year is if their postseason run in 2020 ends in the NBA Finals whether that's as champions or runners-up.
Houston is more likely to win a championship now than it was prior to the season suspension.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fiction. I like Houston's chances and I think ultimately the chance for something crazy to happen resulting in an unlikely champion outside of those top three has gone up considerably. That works in Houston's favour... but it also works in the favour of the other non-contenders who now might see a crack to break through. The set of unknown variables is somewhat of an equalizer which means more teams in contention and flattened odds overall.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fact. For a couple of reasons: 1) They play a style that is going to be tough for teams coming off an extended break to deal with and 2) There's still a lot of teams who haven't played the small ball version of the Rockets yet. I think they could catch a lot of teams off guard, more than they would've had the season not been suspended.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fact. This is a tough one because I don't truly think they're more likely to win, but the wackiness of this NBA season feels like it will benefit them someway. The long break, the promise of the unknown, not having to travel, not having to deal with the media as much might all play a factor in whoever comes out on top. On the court, I think the Rockets have the same chance, but with all the intangibles at hand, if we resume play they might be better off with fewer distractions.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Not sure. It's fact because key players on the team could have definitely used the break but it could also be fiction because I believe, their style of play is more about 'rhythm and momentum'. They had both prior to the season's suspension but if and when the season resumes, the question is do they have the time to find their rhythm and get some momentum or would they be eliminated by then?
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.