On Saturday, the Houston Rockets will host the Golden State Warriors in a possible preview of the NBA Western Conference finals. In Los Angeles on the same day an hour earlier, the two teams will wage war on a different field of battle: Summoner's Rift.
Clutch Gaming, owned by the Rockets, and the Golden Guardians, the Warriors' team, will compete in League of Legends for the debut of the newly franchised 2018 North American League Championship Series. Both the Rockets and Warriors were accepted into the 10-team league during its franchising application period this past year, with Houston creating Clutch Gaming in the traditional red and white colors of the Rockets and the Warriors doing the same by giving the Golden Guardians gold-and-blue jerseys that tie the squad to its hoops counterpart.
While one game will take place on the hardwood in Houston and the other inside a virtual world on the West Coast, similarities abound between the two competitions. Five players on each side, attacking players, defending players, and in both games it often comes down to the one or two star players -- or, in the Warriors' case, four star players -- being the difference between victory and defeat.
If you've never watched basketball before (or League of Legends, in the case of some curious NBA fans), here is what -- or more importantly, who -- you need to know about regarding Houston's Clutch Gaming and the aptly named Golden Guardians from the Bay Area.
The Dutch James Harden
When you talk about the Rockets, the first name that comes to mind is the leading NBA MVP candidate and runner-up to the award last year, James Harden. One of the most dynamic players in basketball on the offensive end, Harden is the centerpiece of the Rockets for the present and future.
Clutch Gaming was put together just this offseason, and its version of Harden will come in the form of a 21-year-old superstar out of the Netherlands by the name of Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten. Febiven, a former semifinalist at the League of Legends World Championship, is the mid laner on Clutch; that role is often the make-or-break position in League of Legends, and Febiven will need to be at his best for Clutch to succeed. Last season on H2K Gaming in Europe's version of the LCS, he led all mid laners when it came to KDA (kills, deaths, assists) and was third in assists and kills at his position in the league while also dying the least amount of times. Harden, a maestro of the stat line in his own right, began the day leading all players in the NBA in points and was third in assists.
If Clutch wants to match the Rockets in record this season, Febiven will need to put on his best Harden impression for the fans in Los Angeles.
Looking for playoff success
Nowadays, if you bring up Harden, you have to bring up Chris Paul, his partner in the vaunted Rockets backcourt. Luckily for Clutch Gaming and its Dutch playmaker in the mid lane, this team, too, has a secondary punch: South Korean jungler Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo. LirA, like Paul, is still seeking success when the regular season ends. After playing his first few seasons in his home country of South Korea without any luck in the playoffs, the respected jungler took his talents to the U.S. last year in an attempt to add some hardware to his collection, similar to Paul leaving the L.A. Clippers for the Rockets. Although LirA stood out as an individual, he failed to make any waves in the playoffs, and his team was bounced from the most recent NA LCS playoffs in the first round in a heartbreaking loss in the final game of the series -- his counterpart, Paul, knows what that kind of early departure feels like all too well.
Paul joined the Rockets this season in hopes of making his first real deep run in the NBA playoffs with the help of Harden. LirA, a player many teams in the NA LCS attempted to sign in the offseason, joined Clutch Gaming, and nothing less than playoff success by year's end will be a positive result for the South Korean star.
The leader of the Guardians
Where the Rockets and Clutch Gaming have some strong similarities in terms of roster and possible expectations, it's a bit tougher for Golden Guardians and its basketball equivalent. The Warriors are the defending NBA champions and have won two out of the past three titles and appeared in each of the previous three NBA Finals. Golden Guardians, assembled in the offseason like Clutch Gaming, isn't expected to be gunning for a title in 2018 like the Warriors. It's actually quite the opposite, as Golden Guardians enters the season as the only club in the NA LCS without any import slots used, meaning it's the only starting lineup in the league with an entirely all-North American roster. In the heavily international-flavored NA LCS, the lack of a proven international star is seen as a major weakness when compared to other heavy hitters and big-name signings in the league.
So, trying to find a Steph Curry equivalent on the Guardians takes some work. Curry or not, the player expected to have the most responsibility on his shoulders will be team captain and shot caller Hai "Hai" Du Lam, who, like Curry, has two league titles to his name. Hai, one of the best-known mid laners in the world, earned those championships back in 2013 while part of the Cloud9 organization, a team that he helped shape into what it is today. What Hai might lack in firepower is more than made up in leadership qualities, intangibles and a veteran mindset that has seen him take two fledgling esports teams (C9 and FlyQuest) and mold them into top-four finishers in the NA LCS in their inaugural seasons in the league.
If Hai can take the Golden Guardians to near the top this year in the NA LCS, he might be handed a Steph Curry-sized contract extension.
Finding the stars of tomorrow
The Golden State Warriors didn't become what they are today overnight. It took time, and it took a lot of patience, careful planning and smart development by the staff upstairs in the Warriors offices. It's going to be the same for the Guardians. The starting five might not even make the playoffs in the organization's first year, but it doesn't mean that a Klay Thompson or Draymond Green isn't somewhere already on this roster, in the main squad or in the team's academy system.
The player that stands out with the best chance of asserting himself as one of the stars of tomorrow is the team's jungler, Juan "Contractz" Garcia. Also a former member of C9, Contractz had a deal in place to return to his former team, decided to explore free agency, and then was traded to the Guardians following C9's acquisition of former Team SoloMid jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen.
Contractz is exactly the type of player who could ascend into a Thompson-like role on the team with some seasoning under him. He was one game away last year from advancing to the semifinals of the World Championship on C9, and although he's gone from a team battling the best in the world to one expected to be fighting to stay out of last place, the added control and possibility of stepping into more of a leadership role is what could take him to the next level as a player.
That's what this team needs, and Contractz, only 18, is a player who we could be looking at a year from now as someone irreplaceable on the Golden Guardians roster.