The Battle for the One Seed, a Look at a Potential Series between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors
With just about 20 games left in the 2017-18 NBA season, the playoff brackets are beginning to take shape, and while most of the Western Conference is within one to two games of each other in the two through eight seeds, two teams stand alone at the top of the conference. On Saturday, March 3, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are tied for the one seed. The Rockets currently sit at 48-13, while the Warriors sit at 49-14. While the Houston Rockets have made it clear that they are gunning for that one seed, the Warriors don’t appear as concerned, and this article will show you why the one seed does not really matter in terms of who will make it to the NBA Finals.
Now, before I really dig into the numbers and explain why it doesn’t matter who has the number one seed in the West, I think it is important to preface this by reminding you that I am a Warriors fan, from the Bay Area. While you may be able to find sprinkles of bias throughout the piece, I will try to be as impartial and unbiased as possible, at least until close to the end of this piece.
If the season ended today, with both the Warriors and Rockets in a tie for the one seed, the Rockets would get it because they won the season series 2-1. Now, the real advantage that comes with the one seed is that when two teams face in the postseason, the team with the better seeding gets to have home-court advantage in the series. Now, I am here to inform you that regardless of who has home court, it will not play that big a factor in terms of these two teams. The Rockets and Warriors both have nearly identical records at home and away. When home, the Rockets are 24-6, and the Warriors are 24-7. When playing on the road, the Warriors are 25-7, while the Rockets are 24-7. Now, obviously the atmosphere in each arena changes in the playoffs, so their records are home and on the road won’t necessarily be the same as it is during the regular season. During the playoffs and in big games, there is no arena that gets as loud and rowdy as Oracle Arena. It has been home to some of the biggest games in the NBA over the last five years, and they have seen it all, from a Finals clinching win in game five last year, to a shocking game seven defeat in 2016. Now, Houston’s home arena, the Toyota Center, is not known to be particularly loud or draw as big a crowd as other elite teams. So far this season, the Warriors draw the biggest crowd, wherever they play, according to ESPN.com. According to the same statistics, the Rockets are ranked in a tie for seventh when it comes to crowd size in all arenas, but are 16th in terms of average crowd size at home. Though, the size of the crowd will not necessarily matter when it comes to the playoffs, because with a matchup between two juggernauts like these, the building is guaranteed to sell out every night. The crowd will be electric regardless of who is home, and both teams are just as good in opposing arenas as they are at home. So, while the argument has been made that in order for the Rockets to have a serious chance against the Warriors, they need to have home court advantage, that simply isn’t true.
A deeper dive into the numbers show that while both teams have nearly identical records at home and on the road, their statistics are slightly different. Now, while most of the stats are similar, there are a few that stand out and are significant. While the argument has been made that in order to have a chance against the Warriors, the Rockets need home court advantage. Having the number one seed might not actually make much of a difference at all. The Rockets do have a better offense when they are home, averaging nearly a full five points more per game at home than on the road, but the issue is that when they are home, they are also giving up nearly five more points per game. The difference might be negligible on the defensive end against most teams, because most teams can’t go shot for shot with the Rockets unless they are having an unreal night. The Warriors can go shot-for-shot with the Houston Rockets, and when they play on the road, they average 116.6 points per game. In order to beat the Warriors on the road, you need to be able to slow them down offensively, while also playing good enough defense to force turnovers.
Now, when it comes down to defense, the Rockets are much improved, credit given where credit is due. Their defensive rating is very similar between the two teams. According to NBA.com, the Warriors currently sit in fifth place with a defensive rating of 103.4, while the Rockets are 104.3. The difference between the two at this point in the season is negligible on defense, but the Warriors have given out a blueprint on how to beat them this year. In order to win against the Warriors as often as you need to in order to win a playoff series, you need to force them to turn the ball over. Now, when I say that you need to force them to turn the ball over, I mean that you have to force a lot of turnovers. When the Warriors win, they turn the ball over 15.1 times per game, but when they lose, they turn the ball over 18.4 times per game. In order for the Rockets to have a shot at beating the Warriors four times in those seven games they will play, they will need to force more than the 14.1 turnovers per game than they already do. The thing is though, turnovers might not be as big of an issue for the Warriors in the playoffs. Last year, the Warriors also had issues with turnovers, but by the time the playoffs rolled around, they managed to turn the ball over a lot less, especially when they had just one day of rest between each game. While the Rockets have been a lot better on defense this season, there is still the question of how that will translate to the playoffs, and this question has to be asked because the Rockets have collapsed in the playoffs several times in the last five years.
While there is the question of how their defense will translate to the playoffs, I can’t really expect it to translate much, at all, simply because Mike D’Antoni is the head coach, and he is well known for having his teams play little to no defense, while emphasizing offense. That strategy has proved itself to be effective in the regular season many times, but in the playoffs, it has yet to really work. His teams have never made it to the NBA finals, and the closest he got was with the Phoenix Suns back when they were revolutionizing the game. Now, there is the argument that if a couple suspensions did not happen on that Suns team, then they would have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, but they didn’t, and the point still stands. The real question that still flies around this iteration of the Houston Rockets is how will their offense translate to the playoffs? And will James Harden and Chris Paul manage to have a breakthrough in the postseason? Only time will tell when it comes to answering the second question, but we can look at the numbers when it comes to the first question. First of all, the Rockets offense relies primarily on the three point shot, they take 42.5 threes per game, which is an astronomically high amount of threes, and has never been done before. As a team, they shoot the three ball at a 36.4% clip, which is 11th in the league. Now, the fact that they are 11th in the league in percentage is not a big deal because of the sheer number of threes that they attempt, but the team that leads the NBA in three point percentage is...the Golden State Warriors at 39.7%. So, when/if the two teams meet in the playoffs, the Rockets will have to either shoot a higher percentage from three than the Warriors, or find another reliable way to score the basketball. Shooting a higher percentage than the Warriors will be tough, as they hold their opponents to just 35.6% shooting from beyond the arc. So far this season, when they aren’t shooting threes, their other forms of scoring have come from James Harden’s isolation scoring, as well as the strong mid range game of Chris Paul and the interior presence of Clint Capela.
Relying on James Harden as much as the Rockets do can be concerning in the playoffs, as he has a history of disappearing in the biggest moments in the postseason. Harden is one of the best isolation scorers in the NBA, there is no question about it, but the that is, a big amount of that scoring comes from his ability to draw fouls. He scores more than 25% of his points from the free throw line, which is great in the regular season, regardless of how agonizing it is to watch. In the playoffs though, Referees call less ticky-tack fouls and let the players play more often than not. Chris Paul’s midrange game is great, and it has been very reliable in the playoffs, but he has always been his team’s first option in the playoffs, and he is not the best scoring option for Houston. When it comes to the playoffs, he becomes very ball dominant, and puts the entire offensive load on his own shoulders, so it will be interesting to see if he continues to do this with the Rockets, if he will play more like he has this this year. If I had to take an educated guess, I would imagine that he would go back to the ball dominant play he has always done in the past, simply because this year is an outlier for him, and everyone regresses to the mean at some point. Now, I assume Clint Capela will be the same in the playoffs, because his job is really to just grab rebounds and put up second-chance shots as well as layups and dunks on feeds from Harden and Paul, and there is no reason to think that he won’t do that in the playoffs.
Another issue with the Rockets is that their stars play a lot of minutes. James Harden plays 35 minutes per game, which is a lot. He has a history of injuries, and also has a history of running out of gas in the playoffs, so continuing to play him as much as D’Antoni does will only hurt the Rockets in the playoffs. Chris Paul also plays approximately 32 minutes per game, which isn’t nearly as much as Harden, but Paul has an even longer history of injury, and has already missed extended time this year. In order for the Rockets to have a real shot in the playoffs, they need to be healthy, and with as much minutes as their stars play, it is less likely that they will be at 100% by the time the playoffs come around, or when they face the Warriors. The Rockets don’t have the type of firepower necessary to keep up with the Warriors in a playoff series without either Paul or Harden. They do have really nice pieces around their two point guards, but the Warriors still have a proven roster with experience on their side. Now, while I already showed you why having home court won’t really be a factor for the potential Rockets-Warriors series, because the two teams are just as good at home and on the road. What the series will really come down to is coaching, talent, and most importantly, experience.
While the Rockets have compiled a nice collection of players around Harden and Paul, the Warriors still have four first-ballot Hall of Famers in their starting lineup, as well as several veterans with championship experience off of the bench. Now, the Warriors bench isn’t as good as shooting from beyond the arc as the Rockets bench is, but the Warriors bench is incredible on the defensive end. David West is among the league leaders in blocks per 36 minutes with three, and he is also shooting 60.8%. Andre Iguodala is a Finals MVP, and looks like he has shaken off his first-half struggles, and is shooting 68% overall and 44.4% from three after the All Star break. The rest of the bench is littered with veterans who know what it takes to win, whereas the Rockets don’t have any championship experience on their roster of any kind.
Coach Steve Kerr is also objectively a better coach than Mike D’Antoni. Now it is true that Kerr has never had to run a team without superstars like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, but Kerr still manages his team’s minutes incredibly, and tries his absolute best to run his team like Coach Popovich runs the Spurs. Mike D’Antoni has never been a great defensive coach, his teams are often very undisciplined, and he has had no real success in the playoffs. Now, both coaches have the luxury of having players who can run a team extremely well from the bench or on the court. Houston just has less of these players than the Warriors have. Houston has Harden and Chris Paul, but again, neither of these players has championship experience. The Warriors have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and David West who are capable of being a legitimate floor general when they need to be, as was seen in the game against the Suns earlier this season, when Kerr literally let his players coach themselves to a 46-point win.
Now, I think all the points previously listed were pretty objective, and if my bias showed, I don’t think I was too transparent. At this point though, I feel like it is my duty to remind you that the Houston Rockets have absolutely no chance against the Golden State Warriors in a seven game series.
James Harden had one of the most embarrassing choke jobs in NBA playoff history last year against the Spurs, and has never been truly great in the playoffs. He is the leader of the Rockets, and there is no real reason for me to expect him to be different this year. Chris Paul drives his teammates mad with his ball dominance and intensity, and has never even made it to the Western Conference Finals, even though he has been on good teams in the past. The rest of the Houston Rockets have absolutely no NBA championship experience, and they are being coached by a man who famously neglects defense. Houston relies primarily on the three point shot, and the Warriors defend against that as well as anyone. Rockets fans will make sure to point out the fact that they have only lost three games when James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all start, but that does not make me even the slightest bit worried because it is the regular season, and they have had an objectively easier schedule than the Warriors have had. The Rockets are also the first team to have multiple 13-game winning streaks in a single season in a long time, which again, means nothing to me. The Warriors won 24 straight games to open up the 2016 season, and lost the title, so...sorry, winning streaks in the NBA regular season don’t really mean all that much in terms of playoff success.
I also feel it is my duty to remind you all that while the Rockets have been great with their two Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, the Warriors literally have double the amount of Hall of Famers in their starting lineup. Stephen Curry is a two-time NBA MVP, and is the first, and only, unanimous MVP in league history. Curry is also the only player in NBA history to have more than 200 made threes in six consecutive seasons, and is undisputedly the greatest three point shooter in the history of the league. Kevin Durant is an MVP, a Finals MVP, a four time scoring champ, and the youngest scoring champion in league history. Klay Thompson is one of the best shooters to have ever walked the Earth, and Draymond Green is a Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being on of the most versatile players in the entire NBA. All four of those guys are first ballot Hall of Famers, and they are all in the starting lineup every night for the Warriors. Now, the Warriors also have Andre Iguodala coming off the bench, who is a Finals MVP, and is going to be in the Hall of Fame. So, while you can argue that the Rockets have two first ballot Hall of Famers in their starting lineup playing point guard and that is why they will win it all, you are being neglectful of the fact that the Warriors still have more than double the Hall of Famers.
The Warriors have the best offensive rating in basketball this year, have the fifth-best defensive rating, lead the league in net rating, make the most shots per game, have the highest fg%, highest 3pt%, highest ft%, and lead the league in blocked shots. The Houston Rockets lead the league in three point attempts, three point makes, and made free throws. The Rockets have had a significantly easier schedule than the Warriors to this point, and have a much harder schedule down the stretch. The Rockets will end up with the two seed, and will not have home court advantage against the Warriors, not that it would really matter, as the outcome would be the same regardless.
So, here it is, my prediction for this series, if it happens. I am not scared of this Houston Rockets team, the two times the Rockets won were on a replay-reviewed last-second buzzer beater that would have won the game for the Warriors, and another game in which the Warriors looked disinterested for the whole first half, and were without Andre Iguodala. At full strength, in the playoffs, if these two teams meet, the Warriors will beat them in four games. That’s right, the Golden State Warriors will sweep the Houston Rockets. If the Rockets are lucky and the Warriors have an off night, they will be able to win one game. In all honesty, the only reason that the Rockets get as much hype as they have, is because everyone knows that once the playoffs roll around, Golden State is going to cut through the competition like a hot knife through butter. The media needs to hype up a team to try and give some reason for fans to think that this year did not have a foregone conclusion.
James Harden recently sat down and said that “this is our year”, which is funny, because that kind of confidence when displayed publicly doesn’t generally work out well for the team that displays it, just ask the Washington Wizards. This Rockets team was “built to beat the Warriors”, and in response to that way of thinking Draymond Green had an interesting response. He said: “Noted...great...see you soon.” I echo his sentiments, and I truly believe that the Houston Rockets will not beat the Golden State Warriors, regardless of whether or not they snag the number one seed.