What’s Next For James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the Houston Rockets?

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Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (R) shoots a free throw as teammate James Harden looks on during the National Basketball Association (NBA) Japan Games 2019 pre-season basketball match between the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Saitama, a northern suburb of Tokyo on October 10, 2019. (Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP) (Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets have been stuck in limbo since the James Harden era began. They have been a team that was a force to be reckoned with in the regular season, but can’t create a championship-contending environment. They’ve made a few tweaks along the way to bolster the lineup throughout the years, but none have been as drastic as the two they have made since being eliminated by the NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni announced he would not return to the team the day after being eliminated from the playoffs, and two weeks ago, the team parted ways with general manager Daryl Morey after 14 years of service. These moves signal massive changes to the foundation of the Rockets. There may be many more moves on the horizon, and it will dictate the next direction that Houston takes. Are these moves the hint of a looming rebuild and the end of the Harden era as we know it, or is a reload as we’ve never seen before on the horizon?

What’s Next For James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the Houston Rockets?

The Case For A Rebuild

The Rockets are in desperation mode if they wish to run it back and compete. All five of their starters, as is, will be over the age of 30 years old, and the window of James Harden and Russell Westbrook‘s championship aspirations in Houston is slowly closing.

With ten players currently signed under contract for next season, the team sits at $131.3 in active salary on the roster, already dipping into the luxury tax as is. The team’s future assets are not plentiful either, as they only possess two protected first-round picks over the next seven years. The team, as is, does not have a future. It is win-now or blow it up.

Houston has been rumored to have made former MVP Russell Westbrook available for trade, which that move alone could signal either a rebuild or reload. Could Houston swap Russ with another franchise superstar to pair with Harden and go for another crack at a title, or is it a move to seek out an abundance of assets in return?

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are still in their primes, despite the latter experiencing a steady drop-off in this year’s playoffs. While they are each on the wrong side of 30, they still have plenty to give to the league. Both should be trying to put themselves in the best possible situation to win a ring before they retire, whether that is in Houston or elsewhere.

The Case To Reload

Despite constantly coming up just short season after season, Houston will still always be a contender with James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the roster. They are a very strong regular-season team, but they just need to find that next gear to kick into come postseason. Parting with D’Antoni and Morey doesn’t have to signal the end of the Rockets’ culture as we know it, it may be the start of a revamped Rockets team.

First things first, there is only one ball. Once Harden and Russ come to that realization and decide which one needs the ball in their hand the most in order for the team to succeed, that immediately pushes this team up a pedestal.

What does a roster reload look like for Houston? They can run it back with much of the same core that they had this year, but it was all for not. They can still make seismic changes that can improve the roster for next season’s run. That would include likely shopping Russ for some extra help.

Harden played the best ball of his career as the team’s primary ball handler, and the offense often grew stagnant with Russ on the floor as well. The team could try to do away with D’Antoni’s small-ball play style and try to reel in an All-Star big man on the trade market to give Harden some insurance around the rim.

The most obvious candidate that fits this bill would be Nikola Vucevic, who is coming off one the best seasons of his career. The Rockets would be able to bring him in along with another asset or two in exchange for Russ, creating one of the best one-two punches in the league in Harden and Vucevic.

What Can We Expect From Houston?

Houston has been stuck in limbo for years now, and time is running out to compete at the top of the West. This might be one of the last opportunities for Houston to make a few moves to put them in a prime position to contend. The West is only going to get more tough next season, as the Golden State Warriors will return to the playoff picture and are an immediate favorite to contend.

The Houston Rockets have a very busy offseason ahead of them. They’re in a similar position to many teams around the league, stuck in the mud and trying to make that next move to kick them into the next gear. The only question is, which direction is that next gear going?

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