• Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Houston Rockets

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

Trades, signings and hirings have been rampant in Houston. Since acquiring James Harden, the Rockets have been arguably the most aggressive team in the league, flipping through big names from Dwight Howard to Montrezl Harrell to Chris Paul in pursuit of a championship.

If nothing else, Houston's front office is fearless. The superpower Golden State Warriors didn't discourage the Rox from making blockbuster moves, nor has constant playoff shortcomings dissuaded them from their path. They've been all-in for as long as any team in the league, constantly pushing the boundaries of what an NBA team can do.

On this quest, the Rockets have tried everything under the sun to gain an edge. First they mathematized basketball, empowering Harden to isolate, hunt for fouls and pull up from 3 as much as humanly possible. Then they empowered him to be the alpha and the omega, both the primary initiator and first scoring option simultaneously.

Next was a maximization of offensive spacing around Harden, which required wings and forwards to shift down the positional scale. When that wasn't enough they consolidated even more by trading for Chris Paul, which both alleviated Harden's workload and gave them another weapon.

All these tactics combined to make Houston one hell of a team. The 2017-18 version nearly beat the Warriors - it took a Chris Paul injury and an inconceivable 27 straight missed 3-pointers in the final contest. A year later, and the Rockets ran right back into the immovable Warriors, this time in the second round.

These defeats strengthened the tension between Harden and Paul. Losing can put salt in any wound, but these two were not without their past conflicts. To some, it wasn't a shock that Harden, who clashed with Dwight Howard, and Paul, who has his own strong leadership style, would ultimately butt heads. Something had to give. Enter Russell Westbrook.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were looking to pivot from the Westbrook era, which basically had been the franchise's entire time in that city. After churning through Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Harden himself, and many other NBA mainstays, OKC had decided that it was taking a new direction.

Houston chomped at the bit to reunite Harden and Westbrook. The latter's ceiling was perhaps higher than an aging CP3, especially with improved locker room chemistry. Westbrook in a more radical offense, with as high usage as possible and shooters around him, could be a juggernaut.

The price was steep though; even though Houston was sending out a comparably albatross contract in Paul, the Rockets still had to give OKC an unprotected first round pick, a lightly protected first, and the right to swap two more. General Manager Daryl Morey was really going for it now.

The results

Morey and the Rox had bigger problems once the season started. A simple tweet acknowledging the strife in Hong Kong, Morey caused an immense conflict with the Chinese government and the entire NBA. As a result, the Houston Rockets - long one of the most influential teams internationally - were blacklisted from Chinese television all year long. Even their recent playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers was blocked from Chinese airwaves.

While the organization might have set the world on fire politically, the basketball team failed to in the metaphorical sense. Westbrook got off to a slow start and Harden's missed more time than usual, leaving Houston even shorter of its goals than expected.

The organization made the ultimate "eff it" move and went even more win-now, trading Clint Capela—the club's only playable center—and a first round pick—the last it could legally trade for a while—for Robert Covington.

Covington was a familiar face to the Rockets, but he was a far different player than the one they let go in 2014. He had played an important role for the Philadelphia 76ers as a two-way wing, hounding passing lanes while also hitting threes at an above-average rate. He was not a perfect role player, but he was a damn good one, especially as a center.

The 6'8" Covington became the Rockets' starting center after the trade. His length and nose for the ball would help him survive—no, thrive—on defense, and his spacing on the other end would stretch defenses thin. The benefits would outweigh the costs enough to give the Rockets a chance on the biggest stage.

The move was especially helpful for Westbrook, who at one point during this winter was by far the worst shooter on the floor at all times. Now with a small-ball center, Westbrook could drive and kick at his leisure, forcing double-teams and creating open shots for very willing shooters around him. In the 22 games he played from the trade until the season shut down, he averaged a scorched-earth 32.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists on 58.0% true shooting. Westbrook had been unlocked.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the NBA, and the season had to shut down for four months. Harden and Westbrook both reportedly got the virus too, delaying their arrival at the Orlando Bubble and arguably hindering their play once there.

The Rockets went 4-4 in The Bubble, but the teams below them beat each other up enough to keep them in 4th place in the West. At times their offense looked elite enough to hang with the best, but at others it looked predictable enough to be shut down by the supreme teams. They were the most volatile team in the West.

That's a big part of why their first-round playoff series against the Thunder went the distance. Two teams who signaled completely different directions before the year ended up in the same spot, and they got there on polar opposite means too.

Houston avoided the mid-range at all costs while OKC thrived there; Houston forced all kinds of turnovers, something OKC seldom did. All of Houston's offensive production stemmed from two sources, while OKC was much more dynamic. The clashes in style, outlook and ethos were well on display.

The collisions made for a hell of a series too. Westbrook made boneheaded decisions late in games, Harden had a few stinkers of his own, and OKC ran with those opportunities as the balance of the series vacillated from night to night. It culminated in a Game 7 where Luguentz Dort was the best player, a fact that served as a synopsis for the whole series. Everything was weird, exciting and unexpected. Houston advanced.

The next round was a bit closer to chalk. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers awaited in round two, a squad that would either dismantle the Rockets' model or be dismantled by it.

The result was the former. LA was forced out of its conventional starting lineup, but its new quintet was even more dangerous with Davis at the 5. Houston's main punch, its best punch, was countered by one the Lakers barely had to use before. James and Davis made quick work of the radical Rockets, 4-1.

The outlook

What more can the Rockets do? They traded everything of value, turned over every stone, dotted every I and crossed every T. Harden is 30, Westbrook is 31, and everyone around them is exactly who you'd want to go to war with. This is the team, and it makes more sense to ride it out than to tear it down just yet

Then again, this team has been "stuck" on several occasions and managed to dig itself out. This feels different though: this is the muddiest their forecast has looked in the Harden era. Now what?

Mike D'Antoni, for better or worse, has been relieved of his duties as head coach. Knowing what we know about Rockets' governor and owner, Tilman Fertitta, this could be more about money than basketball, but either way it gives them a chance to see a new head at the helm.

Any other kinds of improvements will have to be hidden gems. Houston cannot add anyone for more than the minimum, as they are very close to a luxury tax line that Fertitta does not want to cross. Morey is especially good at finding diamonds in the rough, but at least five guys—one third of their entire roster—will be just minimum additions from this year. It will take some real luck to get even one of those to hit as a rotation player; witchcraft will be needed for another.

One of those hits has to be a center. Even if Covington and PJ Tucker are mostly healthy next season, and even if Jeff Green is retained for cheap (like, basically the minimum), the Rockets can't do play strictly centerless basketball for an entire season. It is effective overall, but the ebbs and flows of a regular season require different looks. They need some facsimile of a "traditional" 5.

Speaking of Tucker, he is not a free agent this offseason, but he is next, meaning he is eligible for an extension now. Whatever happens in those contract negotiations will signal Houston's future plans; if he's not back after 2021, this generation of Rockets basketball is over as we know it.

As for next season they're cemented.