Just four weeks ago, NBA fans wer arguing if the Houston Rockets could win an NBA championshio; but after another embarrsing second round exit, the question that now is being posed is, whats next for the Houston Rockets? The Rockets have made it to the playoffs every season since they traded for James Harden in 2012. Just eight long years later, the organization and its fans are left scratching their heads after another elimination. Despite their moderate regular-season success, they have failed to reach a single NBA Finals in this period. This is in spite of having players like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook to accompany James Harden. Have their failures been a result of bad management, poor performances by important players, or simply bad luck? With Mike D’Antoni cutting his time in Houston short, the question that must be asked is what’s next for the Houston Rockets?
Daryl Morey has been the General Manager of the Houston Rockets since 2008. Morey was the first person from a non-traditional basketball background to be hired for such a position within the NBA. Following on from the success achieved through “Moneyball” strategies in baseball, Morey planned to center his approach around statistics and numbers. The importance of statistical analysis in the NBA cannot be underestimated. Over the past decade, we have seen the use of statistics used much more prominently. From front offices and locker rooms to TV studios and indeed articles from the media. While the jury is out on its success, it cannot be denied that Morey’s leadership has changed the NBA .
The Rockets have been trailblazers, alongside the Golden State Warriors, for the creation and development of “small ball”. As players have become better at shooting three-pointers, the league has backed their players and created systems whereby the three-ball is more than just an afterthought. Players have been taught now that they should take a step back before shooting rather than taking high risk, low reward contested two-point shots. This has led to a system of basketball at Houston that is completely perpendicular to basketball twenty or more years ago.
James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2012 after winning the Sixth Man of the Year award for the 2011-12 season. It was evident that the third-year guard was moving towards bigger things. The Thunder felt that that summer was the right time to cash in on his trade value. While Houston had clearly gotten the better deal in 2012, the transaction looks like daylight robbery in hindsight. Oklahoma would use one of the picks in the trade to draft Steven Adams, but otherwise, they have nothing to show for the deal.
The starting line-ups that James Harden found himself in over his time in Houston have varied greatly. He led a team that had Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Patrick Patterson, and Carlos Delfino to a 45-37 record. The Kevin McHale-led team would get bounced by Harden’s former team Oklahoma in the first round of the playoffs. Dwight Howard signed in free agency the following summer, which improved the team greatly. The roster didn’t change much besides this acquisition, and the Rockets finished with a record of 54-28. The Rockets would lose in six games again in the first round, though this time against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Trevor Ariza joined the fray in 2014-15 while Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were shown the door. The Rockets improved their record by another two wins this campaign, and would also see further success in the playoffs. Houston comfortably tamed the Dallas Mavericks in the first round before edging their series against the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. However, the Golden State Warriors beat the Rockets in five games in the conference finals. A 4-7 start would see Head Coach Kevin McHale lose his job and the Rockets began moving in a different direction.
The D’Antoni run
After being eliminated in the first round by Golden State under J.B. Bickerstaff’s watch, Houston hired former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. Small ball was very much realized by D’Antoni. His core players at the time comprised of James Harden, Eric Gordon, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Lou Williams, Clint Capela, and Nené. Harden, despite Kevin McHale’s criticisms, was more than capable of being a facilitator from the point guard position. Harden would average 29 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds for the season. Houston’s season ended after a second-round defeat against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Rockets would reach their peak the following season after trading for Chris Paul from the Clippers. Paul brought a level of experience and leadership to the team that would take them to the next level. Their 65-17 record was the best in the NBA in the 2017-18 season and the Rockets believed in their chances of beating the defending champions Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. However, an injury to Chris Paul in Game 6 of the series would lead to one of the worst single-game choke jobs in NBA history. The Rockets went 0-27 from outside the arc to put the nails in their own coffin. This ensured yet another season without a Finals appearance.
The Rockets would never fully recover from this defeat. They likely would have trumped LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals that season but instead would get bounced in successive second rounds to Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Paul being moved for Russell Westbrook may be the beggining of the end for Houston, but the arrival of a new coach could change that trajectory.
Is it time to blow it up?
Should Tillman Fertitta and Daryl Morey decide to trade their stars away in the hopes of signing and drafting a new contingent of players? The short answer is no. The long answer is somewhat more complicated. Houston has traded away or agreed on swaps for their first-round draft picks for four of the next seven drafts. Danuel House and Austin Rivers are the only notable players on the roster under the age of 28. In spite of having seven players whose contracts have expired this summer without adding any new players, the Rockets have already committed $130,000,000 in salary for next season.
Outside of the two All-Stars on the team, the only players of note remaining are Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and PJ Tucker. Gordon turns 32 on Christmas Day and his contract is still worth $55,000,000 over the next three seasons. PJ Tucker is 35 years of age and is virtually worthless to the rest of the league. Only 29-year-old Robert Covington would represent any sort of value in the event of a trade.
So, what about James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Could the Rockets trade their marquee stars and put “micro ball” in the past? This could be an option if the Rockets were to get favorable packages for the two players. The question then is are there any teams who would trade for two 31-year-old players who are owed around $130,000,000 each over the next three seasons (should they pick up their player options for the 2022-23 season)? Well, there’s always a team desperate enough to force their way out of mediocrity, for better or for worse. The likes of the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, and New York Knicks are all in need of star players if they can offer an attractive package to Daryl Morey.
What next for the Houston Rockets?
It’s clear that the Rockets have reached an impasse. Barring a coaching miracle over the next two seasons, Houston won’t be winning a championship. Because of next summer’s star-studded free agency class, I doubt many teams will offer an exceptional package this summer. If certain sides don’t pick a star out of the mix next summer, perhaps we could see GM’s plotting moves. Realistically, the Rockets are most likely to run it back next season simply because they have no other choice. For the sake of both their fans and the league, a new coach can help improve this roster.
So what is next for the Houston Rockets? Do you see them ever winning a championship with James Harden? Who is to blame for their failures? What coach should they hire next? Let me know in the comments section below! And of course, check out my other NBA articles here.