The Houston Rockets are one of those teams you want to call a title contender but deep down you don't really believe it. Maybe that's just me, but it feels like the window closed back in 2018 when they had the Warriors on the ropes with a 3-2 series lead in the conference finals before Chris Paul blew his hamstring and the team went infamously cold in Game 7.
Now Paul is out. Russell Westbrook is in. While the Rockets are a pretty solid 15-7 and James Harden is a scoring machine, Westbrook is shooting just 21 percent from 3 and Houston is 11.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Westbrook is on the court. It's not to say Westbrook is the only reason they can't be considered a true title contender, but it's a big part of it.
Paul is an overall better player that Westbrook right now, certainly for the Rockets' system as a 37 percent 3-point shooter. But Harden reportedly wanted him out, and now it's reportedly Mike D'Antoni -- who was denied an extension this past offseason and is now in the final year of his contract -- who might be out unless the Rockets pull a rabbit out of the hat and win a championship this season. Per Sam Amick and John Hollinger of The Athletic:
Barring a Rockets championship that could spark a kumbaya healing of sorts and inspire [Rockets owner] Fertitta to open his wallet to meet that sort of moment, a source with direct knowledge of these dynamics expressed serious skepticism that D'Antoni would return after this season. To be more precise, the chances – per the source – are currently seen as "slim."
So there you have it. D'Antoni is, perhaps, coaching for his job this season. And if winning a championship is indeed the only thing that can save him, well, he's in trouble. I'm not completely ruling the Rockets out of the title chase. Harden is capable, if he were to summon a truly historic playoff run, of carrying a team past any opponent, and I suppose there's always a puncher's chance that Westbrook finds a hot streak at the right time. He's certainly talented enough.
But seriously, look at the Clippers and Lakers and try to convince yourself the Rockets can beat them in a seven-game series. If you can do it, more power to you. I can't. I hope that doesn't mean the end for D'Antoni. I don't think it would be fair. He's had multiple teams throughout his career on the cusp of a title run when things beyond his control happened. The Spurs were in his way in Phoenix. The Warriors closed the Rockets' window. But the NBA is a brutal business, and everything runs its course. We shall see.