The NBA season is a week old, and it's been refreshing so far for the Rockets. The team and its fans would like nothing more than to erase the bad memories of last season and replace them with more wins.
As November kicks off, let's take the opportunity to tackle a subject near and dear to my heart - NBA rivalries. The NBA as a whole is in a great place right now, but one area that could use improvement is the lack of heated on-court rivalries. We will likely never see a prolonged grudge match like the Celtics-Lakers in the 1980s, or even mid-1990s Bulls-Knicks. But there's enough bad blood and intriguing regional matchups in the League for the Rockets to gin up some new heated rivalries.
Right now, Cavaliers-Warriors would be most people's response if asked to name a current rivalry. But that's the obvious answer and sort of boring, given they've obviously shared the biggest stage the past two years. Let's dig a little deeper and look at the teams Houston currently beefs with, as well as potential rivals-in-the-making.
Any Texan knows this rivalry transcends basketball. The endless debate between which gargantuan Texan city is better - Dallas or Houston - will rage on until Austin gets big enough to render the argument moot. At the last meeting between these two that I attended, things got more heated in the stands than on the court. But from a basketball perspective there's a lot to like. First of all, D'Antoni gets to re-enact his old rivalry with Dirk Nowitzki from his Suns coaching days. Back in 2005 a D'Antoni-led Phoenix team beat the Mavs in the playoffs, only to have Dirk & Co. return the favor in the 2006 Western Conference Finals. It was the last time D'Antoni made it within a round of the NBA Finals. The coach and the opposing player have grown older and a mustache has disappeared, but the intensity will still be there.
The rivalry loses a little bit of steam this season now that ex-Rocket Chandler Parsons is no longer a member of the Mavs. But new Mavs addition Andrew Bogut is sure to add some scorn to the I-45 Rivalry. Both the Rockets and Mavs figure to be in the playoff mix late in the season, either jockeying for the higher seed or scraping to get in. Unfortunately, the two teams won't meet in the regular season after December 27 but they'll get two early cracks at one another in a home-and-home (Houston's second and third games).
San Antonio Spurs
The Rockets' other in-state rival is closer geographically and creatively named after another interstate (I-10 Rivalry). It's not quite as heated due to a lack of recent playoff meetings. The most memorable moment in this rivalry came in a December regular season game in 2004. December 9, 2004, to be exact. That fateful night saw Tracy McGrady morph into a one-man comeback, scoring 13 points in 35 seconds to steal a win from the Spurs.
The Spurs may have five rings and 50-win seasons on a continuous loop, but the Rockets will always have the T-Mac Game.
Los Angeles Clippers
Houston has the upper hand in this bout, thanks to the nearly-inexplicable comeback in the 2015 playoffs that sent a stunned Clippers team home before the Conference Finals yet again. It was a thrilling series, dominated by L.A. for 5 and 3/4 games before a furious Rockets 4th quarter comeback in Game 6. The Rockets, led somehow by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, outscored the Clips 40-15 in that final frame of Game 6. Houston went on to win the series in seven games, and the Clippers were so befuddled after the collapse that they signed Smith in free agency, hoping he could recreate that Game 6 magic while wearing their jersey.
Spoiler: he didn't.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The team that drafted Harden and then dealt him rather than paying him what he's worth. It must be painful for OKC fans any time the Rockets come to town, as Harden serves as a bearded reminder of what almost was (2012 Finals) and what could have been. Expect plenty of offensive fireworks in this matchup this season with Russell Westbrook and Harden going at it in a point guard battle royale. Both guys have a lot of pride, oodles of offensive game and neither will play a lick of defense on the other.
I give the early edge to Harden's Rockets, as OKC lacks the shooters needed to keep up with Houston's potent spread pick-and-roll.
I'll just leave this here:
"I've always believed that analytics was crap." Let's just move on.
Potential Future Rivals
New Orleans Pelicans
They share a division, which doesn't really matter except for the increased number of meetings they'll have during the season. But they now share players, it seems. Both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon joined the Rockets after toiling the last few years in New Orleans. Gordon never wanted to be a Pelican and it got awfully awkward toward the end. Anderson, on the other hand had some moments for the Pels, but injuries and poor roster construction derailed his momentum there. I'd argue that the Pelicans never deployed Gordon or Anderson in a way that maximized their talent. Now in Houston, they find themselves in an offensive system that seems almost tailor-made for them. D'Antoni can do a lot of damage with a slashing, sharp-shooting 2-guard and a pure stretch-4. Could there be hell to pay when New Orleans sees these two for the first time on December 16 in Houston?
OK, let's slow down. It's not like LeBron going back to Miami for the first time, not by a long stretch. But you can be sure these two players who left New Orleans in free agency will relish the chance to take down their old team. The Pelicans may be one of the few teams that was even more disappointing than the Rockets last season. Both squads feel they've made strides to get better by both addition and subtraction in the offseason. And, before we forget, Terrence Jones is now a Pelican! Remember him, the once-promising Rockets draftee who disappeared from the rotation last season due to injury and poor play? If he can rejuvenate his career in Nola, he will have extra incentive to take it to the Rockets.
Golden State Warriors
You can't really call it a rivalry if one side always pounds the other. The Rockets figure to struggle with Golden State again this season, but so will the rest of the league. Great NBA rivalries are forged in the playoffs, when two teams keep running into each other for best-of-seven series. The last two seasons the Warriors have sent the Rockets into the offseason with playoff smackdowns. Last season was particularly gross, as the Rockets basically gave up and bowed out in five games. The only Rocket that did any damage was Donatas Motiejunas, or rather, D-Mo's sweat puddle, which took out Steph Curry and hobbled him for the rest of the postseason.
Los Angeles Lakers
D'Antoni's tenure with the Lakers was acrimonious, tenuous and wholly unsuccessful. Now back at the helm of a Western Conference team, the coach will get a chance for some sweet revenge. He's sure to hear boos when Houston plays at Staples Center on ESPN next Wednesday. We'll see if that fires up the team and helps them get off to a better start than last year. The Lakers are still two years away from being close to a contender, so this potential rivalry will need to simmer a while.
One word: Dwight! After the Rockets center went on TNT's 'Inside the NBA' and joined Barkley in some Harden-hate, you knew he was out the door sooner than later. Factor in the D'Antoni hire, whom Dwight famously clashed with in L.A., and the Rockets had almost no choice but to move on from the Harden-Howard era this summer.
It remains to be seen whether Dwight can resurrect his old dominant form back home in Georgia, but one thing's for sure. The two Rockets-Hawks meetings this season, especially Feb. 2 in Houston (on TNT!), will be much-hyped and must-watch television.