Will the Nets or Rockets make a Finals splash?
Flash back to April 26, 2012.
The Nets closed the season with their six straight loss, missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. The Rockets picked up a meaningless win that day, but they had just lost seven of their previous eight games to ensure they’d miss their third straight postseason.
Both teams had plenty of reason for despair, but there were faint signs of hope.
The Nets were moving to Brooklyn that offseason, a figurative fresh start if not a literal one. And the Rockets had their sixth straight winning record, an impressive accomplishment if it could be viewed without the sting of repeatedly barely missing the playoffs.Then-Nets coach Avery Johnson was hopeful:
“This is our farewell, for good,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “Now we embark on a new opportunity, and it starts when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Even though we lost this game this is a new era in Nets basketball, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Johnson said Brooklyn fans will see a better team next year than this season’s 22-44 squad that finished by losing six straight.
“We like a lot of our guys,” Johnson said. “We definitely need to upgrade in some areas and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale, not so much:
Both teams were stuck in different places, but both could see cracks to break through into the next level.
And, boy, did they break through.
A year-and-a-half later, both have followed solid steps into the playoffs with monster offseasons that have them holding legitimate NBA Finals aspirations.
Just 15 players have appeared in most of the last 10 All-Star games. Among that select group, only three changed teams this offseason, and all three now play for the Rockets or Nets: Dwight Howard (Houston) and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (Brooklyn).
Though neither team even won a playoff series last season, that type of talent infusion changes the goals considerably.
Yet, as much as the teams seem linked by their stellar summers, Brooklyn and Houston face different challenges now.
The Nets’ aging core – Garnett (37), Pierce (36), Jason Terry (36), Reggie Evans (33), Joe Johnson (32), Andrei Kirilenko (32) and Deron Williams (29) – and their ridiculously high payroll point to a team that has a very short, but very open, championship window. The Lakers’ struggles last season after they splurged to build around old players should give Brooklyn pause, but the Nets are deeper than that Los Angeles team ever hoped to be. If Brooklyn uses that depth to limit minutes and save players for the playoffs, the results could be tremendous.
On the other hand, the Rockets are not quite as deeply talented. When the Heat dipped far below the cap to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh, it took them a couple years to re-stock the roster by using their cap exceptions. The Rockets probably faces a similar timeline, and thankfully for them, they seem young enough to wait. James Harden (24), Chandler Parsons (25), Jeremy Lin (25), Patrick Beverley (25), Omer Asik (27) and Howard (27) should give Houston a chance to add pieces and tinker.
The Rockets need time. The Nets are probably already running out of it.
But the fact that we can even reasonably discuss both teams’ championship windows is astounding considering where they were just 18 months ago.