A familiar ending has once again fallen upon the Houston Rockets. A season that began with the highest prospects, ends with even more disappointment. After rallying to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in game seven, the Rockets met their match in round two. Yet again, a talented roster leaves the NBA playoff picture a bit too early. So what happens now? The Houston Rockets’ future is certainly up in the air. They will have to do some deep digging to find out why such a talented squad disappointed yet again.
The Outlook on the Houston Rockets’ Future
Start With the Stars
James Harden and Russell Westbrook will both be staring at themselves in the mirror for the next few months, wondering what went wrong. Some will blame Westbrook’s inability to stop and think on the court, while others will blame Harden’s struggles in meaningful moments. It’s a dead-end street no matter which side you argue for. There are absolutely positives to both of their games. But, there are also evident negatives as well. How did each of these players portray these traits in the playoffs?
Westbrook’s will to win in game seven against the OKC Thunder should be recognized. As James Harden struggled, he helped keep Houston in that ball game without a doubt. But in a general sense, Westbrook’s performance this year was a bit underwhelming. Do the Houston Rockets get past the first round without Westbrook? No. But, did Westbrook flip his poor playoff narrative with these performances? Absolutely not. But, it isn’t all on him.
The Rockets’ system is not a friend of Russell Westbrook and I think the more D’Antoni dug his feet into the sand with his “seven-second” offense, the more Westbrook caved. Is that partially Westbrook’s fault? Sure. But he should not be shooting seven, eight, nine threes in a playoff game and D’Antoni is partially to blame as well. Not to mention, the lingering effects of Westbrook’s quad injury that kept him out for a good while.
Now comes James Harden. We know what Harden does in the regular season. That’s been documented. But the questions remain regarding his playoff abilities. Harden certainly carried the load (as he should) throughout the Rockets run. Specifically, his ability to perform without Russell Westbrook at the beginning of the first round was huge. But his clutch factor was once again checked and yet again, I don’t think he answered the bell.
Throughout the Thunder series, Harden struggled in the later parts of the game. In game seven specifically, Harden shot just 4/15 from the field and 1/9 from three-point range. In the Lakers series, he had multiple games where he never stepped up in the fourth quarter. The double teaming is a valid argument, but that doesn’t excuse shooting the ball at an atrocious rate. Doubles happen to all greats. The same standard should be applied to Harden.
I think there are some MAJOR problems that need to be addressed in Houston, and one of them has got to be Harden’s inability to step up in big games. The expression “if you have three bad roommates, maybe you are the bad roommate” is a relevant comparison.
The question is, can these two coexist? I’m not sure. We saw both of them have stretches of MVP level play before the hiatus. Harden carried at the beginning of the season, Russ carried towards the end. But we really haven’t seen both of them perform well together, outside of a few spot games. I don’t believe this is the end of the duo, however. You certainly won’t see James Harden traded. So the question becomes is Westbrook expendable? I don’t think so. The mix of his age and large contract has the makings for a very lopsided deal not in Houston’s favor.
It’s best for Houston to keep both of their all-stars and see how they can make this work because this level of talent on the same team doesn’t happen a lot.
Has D’Antoni’s Time Come to an End?
Mike D’Antoni has become conjoined with the three-pointer in the NBA. His style of play is quite literally living and dying by the three. And for the first time ever, his future in Houston has come into question. D’Antoni is set to become a “free agent” and although the Rockets have expressed interest in bringing him back, has another early playoff exit given them some second thoughts? I think so.
D’Antoni’s scheme has proven time and time again it has many flaws. Frank Vogel exposed him this series. Whether it be forcing Harden to move the ball in a panicked manner, forcing Russ to throw up low percentage threes, or forcing Houston into the middle of the court where they feel less comfortable, Vogel showed why this system is so fragile. If Westbrook is taking seven threes a game, something isn’t right and I think D’Antoni’s lack of adjustments was an enormous factor in this series.
The D’Antoni era needs to end. Lack of adjustments during this Lakers series proved why a change needs to occur and if the Rockets choose to bring him back, I think they are doing themselves a disservice. There will be a multitude of qualified candidates this offseason and Houston needs to take advantage of it.
Rebuild or Rerun?
I don’t think Houston has much of a choice. They need to go after another title next season. The Rockets have zero of their main contributors becoming free agents this offseason. Is that a good thing? That depends on who you ask. But no matter how you feel about it, that means a rebuild really shouldn’t be the move.
Eric Gordon had an extremely poor season, but his contract is far too big for there to be any trade discussion surrounding him. Other than Gordon, I’m not sure you can point to any player in particular that they need to move on from.
The Rockets have cornered themselves into their small-ball ways. Their lack of trade assets combined with their lack of cap space allows them for little to no major offseason moves or changes. But this may not be a bad thing. They ranked middle of the pack in defensive rating in the regular season, but were the highest-rated defense in the first round this year. That shows promise and it also shows determination by the players. This core group of players certainly have the talent to compete for a title, so the Houston Rockets’ future should be more about a change in scheme rather than a change in player personnel.
A Clear Gameplan
I don’t think it will be an explosive offseason for the Rockets. But what this playoff run did tell us about the Houston Rockets’ future is that some changes need to be had. Turn the focus away from player personnel and towards why this amount of talent, was embarrassed in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Turn the focus away from trade partners for Westbrook, and rather how you can open up the game and allow him to thrive. It certainly isn’t the end for the Houston Rockets, but the bell needs to be answered and it’s ringing louder than ever.
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