NBA Playoffs 2019: Warriors-Rockets series presents potential paradigm shift, from free agency to the next face of the NBA
The dominoes that will fall depending on how this series plays out are fascinating
This is a rarity: We may be in line for a second-round playoff matchup that is far more interesting -- and far more important -- than any conference finals matchup you could possibly think of.
A potential paradigm shift in the NBA -- in a second-round series. When's the last time you heard that?
But that's what we might get in a rematch from last season's Western Conference Finals between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors.
It's a shame this isn't our Western Conference Finals -- or, hell, the NBA Finals, because these might be the best two teams in the NBA, though I think the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors might have something to say about that. But the Rockets dug themselves a hole early on -- they were three games below .500 on Dec. 8 -- and it took them a while to find their way out. What happened the final two days of the NBA's regular season -- the Rockets losing at Oklahoma City on the same night the Blazers beat the Lakers, then the Blazers beating the Kings the next night -- meant that Houston's rematch with the Warriors would come one round earlier than a year ago. It's a shame, I suppose, but it only adds juice to what could end up being one of the most exciting second rounds in NBA playoff history.
So that's where we are. There are tons of paradigm-shifting questions that could be answered during this series. Let's address them one by one.
Is this the Warriors' last dance? Win or lose this series, we still might be looking at the last dance for these Warriors. They are not getting any younger. Their cap situation is not getting any easier. Three stars -- DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, and maybe even Klay Thompson -- could be heading elsewhere in free agency this offseason. Plenty of the Warriors will still be around next year. But this team will almost certainly undergo more offseason changes in the next several months than any time during the Warriors' five-year run. A second-round out could end not just the Warriors' dynasty, but also an entire NBA era that's been Warriors-centric.
Will the outcome of this series augur the Golden State future of Kevin Durant? If the Warriors beat the Rockets, one can assume they will have a clear path to the NBA Finals, where they will be favored against whichever team wins the Eastern Conference. Even if the Warriors win their third straight title, the tea leaves tell us that Kevin Durant could still be heading elsewhere (*cough* MadisonSquareGarden *cough*). But if the Warriors lose in the second round … it feels like the chance of Durant staying for another run is close to zero.
Is James Harden not just the MVP, but also a player who will be -- for a short time -- the best player in the NBA? We are nearing the end of the LeBron James era (we may have already reached it and just not yet realized it). Remember when the Michael Jordan era came to an end? The NBA entered an abbreviated wilderness, where it needed a single face of the league. Eventually, that face became LeBron. But for a short while, it was Kobe Bryant who was the best player in the NBA, and who was the face of the league. Harden would not be there for long -- Giannis waits in the wings, Steph Curry could reassert himself even more for a post-Durant Warriors squad, Durant would want a shot at the crown wherever he ends up, and so would Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard -- but being the guy who topples one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history would prove Harden's all-time greatness. Doing it after a historic regular season in which he averaged more points per game (36.1) than any player over the past 55 years other than Michael Jordan in 1986-87 would solidify his spot on top.
Could a Rockets series win put the NBA's 3-point-obsessed era into overdrive? Anyone who thinks the NBA's 3-point era is a fad or a gimmick is dead wrong. How quaint does it seem that it was only four years ago that, when the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets were trailing in their respective second-round playoff series, Phil Jackson tweeted this: "NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs…seriously, how's it goink?" Jackson was dismissing the 3-pointer as a regular season tool that didn't need to be used in the playoffs. That season, NBA teams averaged 22.4 3-point attempts per game, and the Rockets led the NBA with 32.7 3-point attempts per game. This season, NBA teams averaged 32.0 3-point attempts per game -- 12 teams took more 3s than that record-setting Rockets team from four years ago -- and the Rockets attempted a record 45.4 3s per game (the Warriors ranked eighth in 3-point attempts). The Rockets ending the Warriors' dynasty with the most 3-point-centric team in history could mean the NBA will head even further in that direction. It's hard to imagine, but the 3-point revolution has even more room to grow.
Just like the two second-round series in the East -- which I argued will help shape the next five years of the NBA -- this Warriors-Rockets series isn't just must-watch basketball. And it's not just infused with a narrative about this season. This could be a paradigm-shifting series for the history of the NBA.
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