The Rockets and Warriors are in new territory, and it's not good
It wasn't long ago that Stephen Curry and James Harden had their teams at the Western Conference. Now they're just trying to make the playoffs. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)
James Harden repeated the words as if he could change the result if he said it further. Just two quarters after a work season is the difference between happiness and this one.
"Half a basketball," he said. "… It is frustrating."
His team was close - curse-the-basketball-gods close, blame-the-referees close.
The Houston Rockets had just lost Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Final to the Golden State Warriors. The two teams were so much better than anyone else in the NBA at the time that most basketball players viewed the series as the de facto NBA final.
In two seasons, injuries, trades, distrust and defects have hit both teams in serious confrontation and the Rockets are on the verge of total annihilation. The Lakers are the conference class, the Clippers and Stalwarts like Denver and Utah not far behind.
Harden's hands are on the detonation button, and he must have made it look like he'd pushed it repeatedly.
He asked for a deal (it didn't happen) didn't show the start of training camp to celebrate in Atlanta and Las Vegas where he was photographed en masse without a mask. He finally made his preseason debut on Tuesday, and made no effort to address concerns at his first press conference of the season on Wednesday.
Houston empowered him and placed the offense almost entirely in his hands with coach Mike D'Antoni. General Manager Daryl Morey surrounded him with role-players who waited patiently for Harden to make his move.
They paired him up with Dwight Howard and when that didn't work they took care of Chris Paul. And when Paul got tired of Harden and vice versa, they acted for Russell Westbrook. And when it was clear that those two wouldn't work, Houston sent Westbrook to Washington for John Wall.
D'Antoni and Morey are gone, now in Brooklyn and Philadelphia respectively, and Harden has the Rockets stare at rebuilding despite signing him for three more seasons, including a $ 47 million player option in 2022-23 .
"At the moment I'm just focusing on being here," said Harden on Wednesday.
That focus didn't include in-depth conversations with new Rockets trainer Stephen Silas and new general manager Rafael Stone, however, Harden said.
It set the stage for a massive cloud to hang in Houston during the season pending disintegration, and the rockets have given no signals that they are ready to move Harden for inferior value.
“The best thing for me is to really focus on how to maximize your talents on the floor. How can I get him to a place where he can be great and help everyone else be great? “Said Silas. “That makes it easier for me. If I do other things it will be different from what is important, and that's how this team plays. If we knew exactly where his head is, it would be good for everyone. But we are dealing with reality. "
The reality in Houston is as follows: Another upgrade is being carried out with a separate duty roster. Former star veterans like Wall and DeMarcus Cousins battle it out for their careers while aspiring players like Christian Wood try to make a name for themselves. In the middle is Harden, a player who says his focus is in Houston but who clearly wants to get out.
No team at the conference could possibly have a wider range of results.
The Warriors' reality has changed dramatically since the 2019 NBA final when Kevin Durant broke an Achilles tendon before moving to Brooklyn and Klay Thompson tore a knee ligament. The following season became even more apparent when Stephen Curry suffered a broken hand four games in the season.
Armed with the number 2, the Warriors were in the best place to try and join the Lakers and Clippers at the top of the west, but in the moments before the draft, Thompson tore an Achilles tendon and tossed it back into a spiral.
Unlike Houston, their culture is not under attack. It's more about workforce and aging. NBA evaluators ask questions about Draymond Green's effectiveness after a memorable 2019-20 season.
Optimists believe Green is more at stake with more, although Thompson's injury lowers the upper limit the Warriors can reach. Even so, the Warriors are much more than Houston put together and give them hope as they try to regain their status at the head of the conference.
"We've seen pretty much everything, so I don't think anything will worry us," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. "That's good. I think this is going to be a very interesting season. I think we'll be a lot better in two or three months than next Tuesday. Given our potential, our growth curve which is pretty steep, there is a lot of room for some hard nights.
"There will be an ascent and there will be a few nights that we will slide back. It will certainly take some resilience."
As the Western Conference grapples with teams like Phoenix, New Orleans, and Memphis knocking on the postseason door, some teams are pushed out of the way.
It wasn't that long ago that Houston and Golden State were at the top of the NBA, arguably the best in the west.
Now, in a season full of uncertainties, their places in the overall standings are the shakiest.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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