WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

A position-by-position breakdown of Rockets-Warriors

The Chris Paul-James Harden duo has been terrific. Tim Warren/Getty Images

"We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve."

--Daryl Morey, June 13, 2017

Eleven months ago, Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey smugly hinted at what would turn out to be the biggest blockbuster trade in franchise history since Houston dealt for Tracy McGrady in 2004.

Fifteen days later, the Rockets were completing a trade for presumptive Hall of Fame point guard, Chris Paul. Critics claimed that Houston was desperate. They were reaching.

Fast forward now, and the Rockets sit atop the regular season standings ready to host the defending world champion Golden State Warriors on Monday. Houston took the season series against Golden State, but it would be foolish to assume that the Rockets are a lock based on that alone.

This Houston team has been specifically crafted to take down the Warriors and now it’s time to see if all of the analytics finally push the Rockets back into a Finals series for the first time in 23 years. Let’s take a look at how each team stacks up by position.

Point Guard: Chris Paul vs Stephen Curry

Advantage: Curry

In years past Curry wins the point guard matchup against the Rockets running away, but this a different story. Paul is edged by Curry but only slightly. Paul is more valuable on the defensive end and creates less turnovers, but the offensive edge remains in Curry’s favor. Paul’s pull up mid range shot will be instrumental in keeping Golden State’s defense honest. Limiting Curry’s open looks will be imperative to Houston’s success

Shooting Guard: James Harden vs Klay Thompson

Advantage: Harden

Thompson is one of the deadlier shooters in the league, but in a straight one-for-one comparison Harden is clearly superior. These two probably won't match up on one another very often throughout the series, as I expect Andre Iguodala to be tasked with the chore of containing Harden. Thompson has the tools to score from all over the court, however, and sleeping on him would be costly. Both players are star talents, but Harden will be the bigger challenge to contain.

Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs Kevin Durant

Advantage: Durant

It can be argued that Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league. He’s simply too big at his position to be guarded by an average sized wing. Trevor Ariza, while regarded by most as an above average defender, will not be able to guard him on his own. The Rockets switch player assignments on defense a ton, so it will likely come down to how well center Clint Capela can stay in front of him when they’re inevitably matched up on certain plays. The best you can hope for is that Ariza plays an efficient game and possibly surprises everyone with one or two hot nights from three point range, but no one is realistically leaning on him to carry us to the next round.

Power Forward: PJ Tucker vs Draymond Green

Advantage: Green

This is going to be my favorite match up to watch. Both players are their teams respective enforcers, and both are absolute bulldogs. Tucker is Houston’s version of Green; a fierce defender with range and the ability to bang down low in the paint. But Tucker isn’t quite as good as Green. Tucker may be more reliable from range, but Green’s inside game, passing ability, and rebounding are far better. I expect a few dustups between these two, but if Tucker isn’t hitting from range, Green runs away with this match up.

Center: Clint Capela vs JaVale McGee

Advantage: Capela

Capela is going to be the X-factor in this series. As he performs defensively, so too will the Rockets. I understand that Harden and Paul are integral to the Rockets success this round, but the deciding factor outside of them has been Capela’s versatility. JaVale McGee is really the only starter on the Warriors that is simply a role player. The Warriors have been playing small ball as well, so he hasn’t even been starting in the playoffs. It will be up to Capela to keep up with their smaller lineup and force them to go bigger if the Rockets plan on evening the field. If Capela struggles, Houston could get shot out of the gym in a hurry.

Bench Advantage: Push

In past seasons, this is where the Warriors would unveil their embarrassment of riches. Golden State has plenty of firepower off the bench, but this season so does Houston. Before, the Rockets’ bench was full of young players with potential and a few role players. Now, it houses a group of hungry veterans in Luc Mbah a Moute, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, and Nene. Houston’s bench will need to produce offensively to maintain the tempo while the starters rest in order to have a shot. Eric Gordon will need to be dialed in as well, as he’s struggled in the past two series to get going.

Houston has played some great basketball lately, but there have also been moments where they’ve loosened up with big leads and allowed inferior teams to remain competitive. The time for that has passed, and the Rockets will need to play four quarters of the the best basketball they have to offer in order to pull out this series. I’m personally of the opinion that this matchup is the “de facto” championship because I see these two teams as the best in basketball. But I view Golden State as the better team in these Western Conference Finals. I do see the possibility of a Rockets series victory, don’t get me wrong. If I’m forced to make a pick, however, I can’t go against the champs until I see someone dethrone them. I believe, however, that the Rockets have the best chance to take them down out of any other team remaining. Either way, I anticipate this series to go down as one of the best in recent history.


 

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Baseball is right around the corner. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

The Texans and Rockets are disasters, so bring on the Astros! Even if they weren't disasters, bring on the Astros! Their spring training opener is Sunday, their regular season opener one month from Monday. Alexander Pope wrote "hope springs eternal." I hear he played a pretty decent shortstop. All 30 Major League Baseball teams can be hopeful in March. The Astros have plenty to be hopeful about and plenty about which to be wary. A couple of early storylines: 1. Yuli Gurriel admitted he was unacceptably overweight last season. It would be great for the Astros if that explains most of Gurriel's pathetic performance as opposed to age catching up with him. 2. Jose Altuve is in great spirits and health. His MVP level days of 2016 and 2017 are likely gone for good, but getting the Altuve of 2018 or 2019 would be a tremendous boost. The Altuve of 2020 was one of the worst players in MLB.

And now to the dueling debacles…

Rough stretch for the Rockets

The Rockets are awful. They sit with 11 wins and 19 losses. Just three seasons ago they lost 17 games the entire season. They are routinely non-competitive. They lug a nine game losing streak to the court Friday night in Tampa against the Toronto Raptors. Among the losses are blowouts by 20, 22, 25, and 29 points. All of those routs came against teams with losing records. By NBA standards the Rockets' roster stinks. The injured Christian Wood is the only player they have who is or projects to be an average or better starter. John Wall's contract is an anvil.

That they are this bad is actually one of the few silver linings to the Rockets' near term future. The Rockets only retain their first round pick this summer if it falls in the top four of the draft. The Rockets currently have the fourth worst record in the NBA, just one half game ahead of third worst! Where the pick falls comes down to which draft lottery ping pong ball combination is drawn, but the worse their record the better shot the Rockets have of being in the top four. If not in the top four, the Rockets settle for the lowest of their own, Oklahoma City's, or Miami's first rounder. That's probably the Heat pick, and probably not in the top 15.

The longest losing streak in Rockets' franchise history is 17. During their expansion season the San Diego Rockets lost 17 straight. The longest losing streak in Houston Rockets' history is 15 games during the 2001-02 season. They finished the season 28-54. How many of their five most frequent 2001-02 starters can you name? Answer below.

The worst team in Rockets' history was the tanking and awful 1982-83 club that finished 14-68. Longest losing streak that season? 10. The first 10 games of the season.

Releasing JJ Watt might have been a mistake

The Texans are poised to add yet another feather to their dunce cap if J.J. Watt signs with the Packers, Bills, Titans, Roughnecks, Inmates (The Longest Yard) or anybody else for 15-plus million dollars per season. Such a deal would indicate at least one team would have been willing to give up a decent draft pick (say a third rounder) for Watt and the one year 17.5 million that was left on his contract. If the Texans think they score points for doing Watt "a solid" in setting him free they are absurdly mistaken. The Texans need all the draft capital they can get. J.J. Watt will always have a hallowed place in Texans' lore but they owed Watt nothing. Over the last five seasons he played just three seasons worth of football and was paid 82.5 million dollars for them.

More Deshaun Watson drama

Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson reportedly directly told new Texans Head Coach Edward Smith that Watson has no interest in playing for him. It's nothing personal against David Culley (Edward Smith captained the Titanic) but Watson wants the Texans' organization permanently in his rearview mirror. We'll see if Cal McNair and new General Manager Nick Caserio have the stomach to not trade Watson through the draft. If the Dolphins offer Tua Tagavailoa, the third and eighteenth picks in the first round, the fourth pick in the second round, and their first round pick in 2022, the Texans should make the trade and move on.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Rockets' starters by most starts in 2001-02: Cuttino Mobley (74) Kelvin Cato (73) Kenny Thomas (71) Steve Francis (56) Moochie Norris (26).

2. It can't soothe Rocket fan nerves that the best bet for the Eastern Conference Final matchup is James Harden's Nets vs. Daryl Morey's 76ers.

3. Most frustrating 2021 Houston-visiting player appearances: Bronze-Harden the Net Wednesday Silver-George Springer the Blue Jay in May Gold-Watt the Titan this fall? Would he really sign with the Titans?

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