The Houston Rockets shouldn’t blow it up just yet
The Houston Rockets appear interested in turning the page and starting over.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has an “aggressive desire” to improve their roster, but it could include trading one, or a combination of Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, or, to a much lesser extent, James Harden. Meanwhile, the Rockets and head coach Mike D’Antoni were unable to agree to a contract extension.
With all that said, giving up on their core this offseason would be an enormous mistake.
The goal of the 2018-19 NBA season for the Rockets was to take care of unfinished business. The year prior they were up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and proceeded to lose the final two games of the series. Now, Paul missed Games 6 and 7 with a hamstring injury, but the Rockets still led by double-digits at halftime in both games.
In the offseason, they lost valued two-way wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency. To fill the void created by the forwards’ departures, they took a flier on Carmelo Anthony; it didn’t work out. The Rockets offense struggled, they began the season 11-14, and made the bold decision to waive Anthony in November and later traded him in January. It wasn’t all Anthony’s fault, but it still seemed like a forced marriage.
All in all, the Rockets turned things around, claimed the four seed in the conference, and beat the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs in five games. Then they got the rematch they wanted — a round earlier. However, the Rockets came up short once again. After losing the first two games of the series, the Rockets defended home court to even up the series. Then they lost Games 5 and 6 with Kevin Durant sidelined for the final five quarters of the series due to a calf injury.
The Rockets appear interested in starting over, or at least severely retooling their roster. When a veteran team such as the Rockets hits a wall and comes up short in the postseason, it’s natural for the gut reaction to be that they should blow up their roster. But when you cast aside the emotions of their postseason disappointment, the best thing for the Rockets is to keep the band together.
In all likelihood, Harden isn’t going anywhere. He’s the best backcourt scorer in the association and the face of the Rockets. When you have a superstar like Harden, you shouldn’t be looking to give up on winning a championship. Paul is still one of the best floor generals in the NBA, Capela is a beast inside on both ends of the floor, Gordon is a savvy and alpha-dog-esque scorer, P.J. Tucker is a gritty defender, Gerald Green is a physical specimen, and Kenneth Faried gave the Rockets athleticism and reliable rebounding this season.
The Rockets have continuity, a prolific backcourt, and a team with a bevy of postseason experience. How many teams can say they have those three things?
With Durant’s departure from the Bay Area appearing increasingly likely and rumblings about Klay Thompson leaving as well, the Warriors could no longer be a threat in the West next season. Plus, it’s unknown what DeMarcus Cousins intends to do this offseason. And if you look around the rest of the conference, the Rockets have a leg up on the competition if the Warriors reign of dominance is over.
The Denver Nuggets are going to be a force to be reckoned with next season, as their core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris can only become more dangerous, as can their deep bench. But they struggle down the stretch of games offensively and can be limited in the paint; they’re still a young team.
Before getting spanked in the Western Conference Finals by the Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers had a spectacular season. Damian Lillard reiterated his star status, C.J. McCollum played big, and the Trail Blazers, as a whole, were fluent on both ends. At the same time, when one of the two guards is off their game, the Trail Blazers are vulnerable, and their roster has shown little growth in recent memory.
The Utah Jazz are a great defensive team, but struggle to find scoring outside of Donovan Mitchell and have lost to the Rockets in the playoffs in five games in back-to-back seasons. The Oklahoma City Thunder have a potent star duo in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but they’re never playing basketball in May. The San Antonio Spurs have a respectable roster, but don’t pose a championship threat. Time will tell whether the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, as well as the Sacramento Kings can pull off a franchise-altering offseason, or take the next step in becoming a contender.
Let’s not forgot what the Rockets surrendered to acquire Paul from the Clippers. Lou Williams has become one of the best scorers in the NBA, averaging 20-plus points per game in each of his two seasons with the Clippers. Montrezl Harrell seems poised to be a finalist for the Most Improved Player Award, as he has become an electric force on both ends. Patrick Beverley is a tenacious defender and vocal leader. Sam Dekker provides a reliable scoring threat. The first-round draft pick they dealt could’ve been a vital reserve.
In retrospect, the individuals they sent to Los Angeles have made the trade a win-win for both teams. If Morey deals Paul this offseason, he’ll get a nice return, but nowhere near what he surrendered to acquire the point guard. Oh, Paul (34) is also entering the second year of a four-year, $160 million deal with a well-documented injury history. Teams aren’t exactly lining up to deplete their assets for that combination.
You’re not always going to win immediately when you form a star duo, or championship contender. Heck, the Toronto Raptors have sported some great teams this decade, and they made the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history this year. The Thunder haven’t escaped the first round with Westbrook and George. It takes patience to win your respective conference, but also the will power to not give up when times are tough.
The Rockets committed themselves to this team. They can still win the NBA Finals with this team. Taking a 180 — minus Harden — would be a tragic miscalculation of the situation they’re in and make them look like an impulsive organization.