Joel Blank: On the Rockets, who can you count on and who do you trust?
We all know by now that the Rockets are going to be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and have the best record in the NBA going into the postseason. On top of that, they also have set a record for most regular season wins by any Rockets team in franchise history. James Harden is hands down the most valuable player of the league and Chris Paul has proved his value time and time again with his leadership and execution in his first year with the team.
Mike D'Antoni once again should be up for coach of the year and the system that he has put in place and the players that he has executing it have been nothing short of fantastic. The fact that he recognized his short comings of the past and turned his defense over to Jeff Bzdelik has been huge, and the fact that the Rockets now can get stops at any given time is a underrated plus in their playoff push.
With all that said, there are still plenty of question marks heading into the playoffs and there is a large population of doubters who trust that seeing is believing and they haven't seen anything from this Houston team yet. Chris Paul has never been to a Western Conference finals let alone gotten any further. We all know the shortcomings of James Harden in the last several years when it comes to postseason excellence and for all that Mike D'Antoni has done as a coach and all the great teams that he has had, he too is without a Western Conference title, let alone an appearance in The Finals as a head man.
All eyes will be on those three when the rockets open up the most important part of their season and begin their quest for an NBA championship. With all that pressure and all that scrutiny zeroing in on those guys, the question remains who do you trust the most after you get by Paul and Harden and who are you counting on to come through in the clutch for this year's version of the Rockets to return H-town to the days of clutch city?
Let's start with the big man that has been most commonly linked with Paul and Harden to create the Rockets big 3: Clint Capela. Capela has had an outstanding season and should be the leading candidate to win the NBA's most improved player award. He is headed for a huge payday in the offseason either from Houston or another team willing to break the bank to get him, but we all know that greatness is defined best by playoff success. It's hard to say that Capela has been successful in the playoffs when all he has basically done is provide minimal support as a role player and supporting cast member of teams that have come up short in the postseason and in the process disappointed everyone that's a fan of the team. He is going to need to put up consistent numbers and double-doubles in the playoffs for this team to get to their final destination and goals. That means against teams like the Warriors, Blazers and any other team that gets in their way including the squad that comes out on top as the best in the Eastern conference.
Eric Gordon would be another logical choice for a guy that could and should step up for this team. The reigning 6th man of the year should be up for the award again but look a little deeper and realize that he isn't exactly a seasoned veteran of the postseason. Last year he was basically a non factor for the team in the playoffs when they hit crunch time and needed him most. This season has been a continuation of that performance when you look at the roller coaster shooting season he has had. During this season he has had to endure serious shooting slumps and droughts from long range. Thankfully he ended up shooting his way out of them, but it took some time and we all know that in the playoffs the team can not afford for him to go MIA. Without him and his shot, the Rockets chances to go deep and chase a title go down significantly. People tend to forget that Gordon has only been to the playoffs twice in his NBA career and once was last season with the Rockets.
I know there has been a lot of support and excitement and chatter on social media about the Rockets deep bench and many options, complete with veteran players that can step up and perform when called upon in the playoffs. Joe Johnson and Gerald Green are constantly being bantered about on social media as missing pieces and guys that need to be in the rotation come postseason. The problem is Green has never been consistent or known to make smart decisions or stay under control and play team basketball for winning teams in his career, and Johnson seems to be on the downside of his long and outstanding run, with age finally catching up to him. Ryan Anderson is also a guy that people expect to come back and be a productive shooter in the playoff rotation, but we all know and have seen his slumps have been almost as bad, if not worse than Gordon's and the trust in him stepping up has waned. He doesn't look like he wants to shoot it when he is open and the team and coaching staff don't seem to believe in him like they once did. In the playoffs it's not about how much money you make, it's about how many shots you make and Ryan hasn't made nearly enough shots to be counted on when the team needs him most.
There is one guy that seems to be in afterthought in most people's minds when it comes to scoring and leadership, as well as overall importance to the team, and that's Trevor Ariza. Ariza has always been known as one of the premier on-ball defenders in the league, and even as he gets older he still hasn't lost too much on the defensive end. Offensively he continues to be a dependable supporting cast member for this Houston band by averaging 12 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from behind the arc. He still logs over 34 minutes per game and is an undisputed leader for the roster and coaching staff, both on and off the court. He is the stabilizing and consistent voice this team needs from time to time when times get tough and decisions are rough. He has also been to the playoffs eight times in his career and has won an NBA championship, which is an extremely valuable asset to have on this roster. If the Rockets are to go far this year in the playoffs and achieve the lofty goals they have set for themselves, Trevor Ariza is who I'm looking at as the guy that has to play big on both ends of the floor and step up if this teams struggles or needs added offense in the playoff this year.