Through two-thirds of the NBA season, the Trailblazers stay clear as the most surprising team in the league. In one off-season, the 1977 Champions lost four members of the starting line-up that beat the Houston Rockets thanks to a major clutch shot from Damian Lillard to progress to the Western Conference second round in the 2013-2014 season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews moved as free agents to San Antonio, New York and Dallas respectively. Nicholas Batum’s uninspiring form got him shipped out to Charlotte for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson and Arron Afflalo, signed as a replacement after Matthews got injured, signed for New York.
The cabinet, stripped bare had just one legitimate star-Damian Lillard to build upon and build upon they have. With a rag-tag combination of so-so players, the Blazers currently sit pretty at seven on the Western Conference standings with 32 wins. It so happens that the team many expected to be ranked even higher than the current Blazers is the same outfit Portland piped to a series win two seasons ago.
This piece isn’t an extension of Kenny Smith’s assertion the Spurs will replicate the 1996 Rockets second championship run where the Houston beat all expectations after finishing the season as the sixth seed. For the record, the Spurs lost out to Chris Paul’s shot in the final seconds of the Los Angeles Clippers-San Antonio Spurs series last season. That Rockets team forms the main basis for my strong belief a James Harden and Dwight Howard-led Houston team can do the impossible by making say a second round playoff appearance.
The Rockets sit eight, right on cue for a playoff spot, months after making a Western Conference Finals appearance including the remarkable rally from a 1-3 series deficit to qualify ahead of the Clippers. The playoffs are within reach just as history repeating itself is even in a disappointing year, looks likely. After all, the Philadelphia Sixers overcame Chicago Bulls right after former MVP Derrick Rose exited with an anterior cruciate Ligament injury that has come to define his career.
In the history of the NBA, only one player who didn’t feature for the Boston Celtics dynasty in the 50’s and 60’s has won more than six championships. Robert Horry won seven championships during stints at the Los Angeles Lakers , San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Curious to say, the man responsible for eclipsing the storied mark chalked by the likes of Michael Jordan had a Donatas Motiejunas-esque moment during his stay in Houston. In 1994, Horry and Matt Bullard were traded to Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliot but Elliot’s failed physical meant the deal had to be scuppered. Fast forward 12 years and the same teams were involved in sending Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton out to the Motor City for Joel Anthony and a first round pick.
However, D-Mo’s surgically operated back prevented the deal from holding through. On the brink of getting axed from the team, Horry played a major role in Houston annexing back to back titles by hitting big shots in crucial moments to earn the nickname “Big Shot Rob”. Horry didn’t score a lot in his career-averaged seven points per game-but was always available just as Sam Cassell to deliver big shots like any complementary piece of a title contending team should do. Since his return from Detroit, Motiejunas has featured in two games, scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds in 28 minutes overall; not bad for a guy with a creaky back. In the age of stretch front court players, Motiejunas’ combination of height-listed 7 feet and outside shot-converted 8 of 20 shots from three-point for the season- will do the Rockets a lot of good down the stretch where he will be a serviceable big should Dwight Howard go down injured.
Speaking of Dwight, his covertly rocky relationship with Shooting guard James Harden was highlighted by a report claiming both requested for either man to be traded in the midseason trade period. General Manager Daryl Morey dismissed the report and that of Houston wanting to cut ties with embattled Point guard Ty Lawson. Dwight is having less influence on both sides of the court due to Harden.
The Beard leads the league in isolation plays which deprives Howard the touches he needs around the basket to be a factor on offense. On defence, many have slammed Howard for Houston’s largely defensive woes mainly citing aging and injuries to be taking a toll on his game. During his Orlando days where he won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year titles, Dwight was surrounded by defensive studs like Courtney Lee and Rashard Lewis.
Harden’s ability to score particularly when working in one on one situations is as legendary as his porous defensive effort on the perimeter. Coupled with an old Jason Terry and liable Lawson Howard is constantly under pressure to clean up his colleagues mess and there is so much a man can do particularly one with back issues. The Howard-Harden combination sounds very unlikely to lead Houston deep into the playoffs but sounds same for Houston’s original Center-Shooting Guard dilemma. Houston’s first championship run had Hakeem Olajuwon and Vernon Maxwell go at each other for the greater part of the season to a point where the normally placid Olajuwon slapped Maxwell for spitting on the court. Olajuwon and Maxwell sorted out their differences and the duo anchored the Oil City’s rise to the NBA’s summit just as Howard and Harden can do.
History repeats itself and in the 2015-2016 Rockets roster, history is sprinkled everywhere.