The ‘What If’ Game of the Houston Rockets

When James Harden was traded to the Rockets, I was crushed.

It wasn’t hard to love the Thunder—a team built patiently through the draft that stood defiantly against, at the time, the strongest and most diabolical team ever assembled. OKC had a generational superstar, the likes of which we had never seen before, and they flanked him with guys who exceeded every expectation—an impulsive, hyper-athletic nuclear-powered point guard and a crafty, lights-out, follicly-gifted swingman.

The Thunder were young, raw, and only going to get better over time. They were the type of dudes that nobody would mind rooting for. They were the hipster team you would bring up when you didn’t wanna sound like a filthy NBA casual. They were Chance the Rapper on Soundcloud.

And then, they were history.

For years, I tried to convince myself it was the right move. That hindsight is 20/20 and that 30 GMs out of 30 would’ve jettisoned The Beard when faced with the same dilemma. I brainwashed myself into thinking that Harden was a luxury and Ibaka was the third leg necessary to win it all in the NBA.

“What if OKC traded Ibaka instead?”

“What if OKC pushed Miami to 6? Or 7? Would they have been so quick to pull the trigger?”

“What if the guys at Chesapeake weren’t a bunch of cheapskates?”

“What if we just let go of Kendrick Perkins, oh god why didn’t we let go of Perkins that guy looked like he was 48 in 2012 why are we capping ourselves out for a guy who’s averaging 5 points and 6 rebounds I mean his NBA nickname is literally ‘Swamp Thang’ I mean that has to be a red flag right, Presti? Right?? What were you thinking???”

The Harden trade has gone on to be one of the biggest ‘What Ifs’ in league history. So much so that even with the league’s best record, Harden finds himself asking the same question today. Its possibilities and alternate happier timelines are a perennial shadow looming over every Playoff shortcoming Harden has ever encountered since joining the Rockets. An incessant whisper that will never, ever cease until Harden wins it all.

With their loss to the Warriors, the whispers refuse to die.

When Mike D’ Antoni was hired by the Rockets, I was pumped.

On behalf of the few Suns lifers out there, let me tell you what this magnificent man has meant to us. MDA was our prophet, like Basketball Moses leading the NBA out of boring iso-basketball and 70-point final scores. D’Antoni engineered the infamous Seven Seconds or Less offense that punched the league in the mouth in 2005, revolutionizing the way teams play—and fans watch—basketball.

But a sportscar is only as good as the guy behind the wheel. Steve Nash was a thirty-something white guy from Canada who grew up on soccer. James Harden is Dominic Toretto. Pairing these two guys together was a match made in basketball heaven.

Equipped with Daryl Morey’s “Threes and Frees” basketball philosophy, they stretched the limits of basketball in ways we had never seen before. Sometimes it was breathtaking, the Beautiful Game on PEDs. Other times, it was a painful three-hour free throw shooting contest. One thing was for sure, it was working and the Rockets were breaking the league.

Like Harden, the stakes were unusually high for Mike D’ Antoni, who ironically had been left behind by the very system he had created. It had evolved without him, with coaches like Popovich and Kerr getting the best parts of what he started and integrating it with their sophisticated defenses. D’Antoni was unrepentant and resistant to change. In his mind, his offense was enough to win it all. He just never had the breaks he needed to go all the way.

“What if Joe Johnson didn’t break his face in 2005?”

“What if Amar’e and Diaw weren’t suspended when Horry hip-checked Nash into the announcer’s table?

“What if Melo never got in the way of Linsanity?”

“What if Dwight Howard…err never mind. This team was a disaster from the beginning

Like his superstar point guard, winning the Larry O’ Brien trophy would’ve been the validation D’Antoni would have needed to shush the blog boiz. That he had been right all along. That fastbreaks, three-pointers, and 7-man lineups are all you need. That offense, not defense, can win you championships.

Better luck next year, Mike.

When Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets, I lost my shit.

And not in a good way. Houston had just come off Year 1 of Harden x D’Antoni and it was promising. It was also a work-in-progress. Now here comes this whiny, ball-heavy point guard with a Napoleon Complex and the audacity to call himself ‘The Point God’, throwing a monkey wrench in what had the potential to be the greatest offensive system we’ve ever seen.

I wasn’t a fan, to say the least. And I talked myself into every argument against the trade; tHeRe iS oNLy oNE bALL; ChRiS pAuL iSnT A wiNN3R; hE cAnT sHoOt thReEs; sTepH cRosSed hIm tO thE sHadOW REaLm.

I have never been so happy to be utterly, ridiculously, and completely wrong. Chris was the rocket fuel Houston always needed. He was a bully on defense. A big shot-taker. He was dirty, but in a ‘dammit I respect that’ kinda way. Basically, everything you guys already knew. I had finally seen the Point God’s light, and I was a repentant believer.

In the dying minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 5, with his team in desperate need of a bucket, Chris Paul drove down the lane then landed awkwardly. He strained his hamstring, left the game, then watched Games 6 and 7 from the bench. It’s weird suddenly rooting for a player you used to hate—take note, Laker fans because you might be feeling this reeaaal soon. The shots you used to dread, you now adore. The pettiness you used to mock, you now applaud. And the ankle tweaks, the leg cramps, and the falls to the floor are now your burden too.

It hurt losing Chris Paul. Can you imagine how much it would’ve hurt to sit helplessly on that bench—with the amount of pent-up rage and fight inside that average-sized body? His first Western Conference Final appearance and he’s up 3-2 against the defending champs—the team your team was built specifically to defeat? It was definitely Chris Paul’s biggest ‘What If’ in a career already chock full of them.

“What if this, this, or this didn’t happen?”

“What if Blake didn’t punch the equipment manager in the face?”

“What if David Stern didn’t veto the Laker trade…”

“What if my teammates don’t miss 26 straight three-pointers? Oh, there you go. 27.”

Could you build a three-man group of guys that need the win more than these three? I don’t think you can. Each of them, hall of famers without a doubt. But not HALL OF FAMERS—never mentioned in the same breaths as MJ, Kareem, Bron, Phil, and Pop. Without a title, these three shall remain on the opposite side of history; footnotes and asterisks in storied dynasties. Our generation’s Barkley and Malone.

Do the Rockets have too much baggage to truly lift off? Or are they gonna use that baggage to ignite their thrusters?

They should. They got it by the tonnes.

Photos from Getty and AP