Products of their era
Chris Paul, 32, has been in the league since 2005 and should end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But as the NBA’s real season begins again, he’s yet to reach the conference finals, let alone grasp a shining, golden Larry O’Brien championship trophy with his hands.
James Harden, 28, just unleashed the greatest regular season of his nine-year career, is the expected MVP, and is more of a leader and team player than ever before. He’s only been to the conference finals once with the Rockets — when Dwight Howard and Kevin McHale were in red — has been knocked out in the first round three times, and our last postseason image of The Beard was the insult to Houston a/k/a 114-75 San Antonio (without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals last season at a boofilled Toyota Center.
In some ways, the 66-yearold Mike D’Antoni has had it rougher than his mostly brilliant guards. Two conference finals with Phoenix more than a decade ago, but nothing further than the second round since. And the Rockets’ semifinals collapse against the Spurs last season brought back all the bad, old playoff memories, with D’Antoni ultimately outcoached and outmaneuvered by fivetime champ Gregg Popovich.
But for Paul, Harden and D’Antoni in the spring of 2018, all that is in the past. History can’t be changed. Their basketball stories would forever be altered, though, by capturing a championship during the era of superteams and 3s.
Fourteen-year veteran Trevor Ariza won a title in 2009 with the Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson Lakers, who won 65 regular-season games, just like the 2017-18 Rockets.
Some of the NBA’s greatest names had to fail in the fire multiple times before they could emerge victorious on the other side. Is this the path Harden has been on all these years?
“History always repeats itself, in a sense. This is (Harden’s) road. This is his story that he has to tell or to write,” said Ariza, who’s one of the few Rockets remaining from the team’s 2015 Western Conference finals loss to the Warriors. “It’s all coming together for him. This is his test. So the rest of it’s yet to be seen, but I know it’s not going to come from lack of work or lack of want. Because we, as well as he — he wants this, too. Just time will tell.”
The constant championship talk — ideal for TV sound bites and internet clicks — can be overblown. It’s a time of internationally loved mega-millionaires. The NBA’s superstars possess more branding and buying power than ever before, and Durant won it all for the first time last season by taking his talents to The Bay. How much does a ring really mean when you can win one just by joining an alreadyloaded team?
We know that titles — possessing or lacking — end all debates. LeBron James can have anything in the world, but The King still bows to Michael Jordan’s six. The annual pursuit of rings also created the league’s topheavy superteam era, which just produced a season that featured almost one-third of the league tanking, and treats an 82-game season like a soft run for a two-month postseason tournament.
Prove it in the playoffs. Prove it in the playoffs. Prove it in the playoffs.
We heard those words about Harden and his Rockets as soon as they started scorching way back in October. With 14-, 17- and 11-game winning streaks in the rearview mirror, they have everything to prove and their real test — the one we’ll remember — is just beginning.
Do the playoffs truly define individual legacies?
“I agree to a certain point, but only to a certain point,” D’Antoni said.
“There’s some great players that haven’t won a lot of championships. I was probably the biggest Jerry West fan ever and we lost like 10 Finals in a row. So I didn’t think that diminished what — he’s still The Logo. And he should be.
“So to a certain extent, I get it. But it’s also a team win. It’s not just an individual win. When the team’s better ...they win. It’s hard to say one player causes them to win.”
That’s the thing about these Rockets. A team constructed and reconstructed by general manager Daryl Morey gives Harden, Paul and D’Antoni their best shot to immediately alter all their individual stories.
Time in the spotlight
Harden, one of the game’s greatest modern scorers and the face of a franchise, could rise above Durant and Westbrook in these playoffs.
Paul, one of the best point guards of all time, can end the annual can’t-finish-inthe-playoffs reminder.
D’Antoni could win his first ring the season after winning Coach of the Year, all while preventing The King and the Warriors from claiming another title.
This two-month tournament can make and reshape legacies.
“This is where memories are made, moments are made . ... And we’ve got an opportunity to do that,” Paul said.
This is the time when world champions write their own stories.
James Harden and Chris Paul have the opportunity to wipe away past playoff failures by winning a championship.