Houston, We Might Have a Problem…
Houston, we might have a problem....
The postponing of the NBA season denied us so many interesting stories from one of the most compelling seasons in recent memory. Among these great arcs, buried beneath the battle for Los Angeles, the rise of Giannis Antetokoumpo as the league's best player, and the ascension of Luka Doncic, was the resurgence of the Houston Rockets. After multiple seasons falling short against the Warriors dynasty, Houston shook things up, trading point god Chris Paul for the angry ninja turtle himself, Russell Westbrook.
After a decidedly “meh” start to the season, Houston rebranded yet again, trading Clint Capela and adding in the consummate 3 & D glue guy in Robert Covington. Houston morphed into the “Pocket Rockets”, an analytics induced fever dream featuring a starting-five all clocking in at 6 '7 or below. Now in the ideal Mike D’antoni offense, a revitalized Russell Westbrook started playing some of his best basketball and the Pocket Rockets ripped off wins in seven of their nine games to close out February. While they trailed off to start March, this pint-sized rebrand clearly injected energy into a team that was struggling to stay sharp during the doldrums of the regular season.
I was in attendance at the TD Garden as they gutted out a huge overtime win against my beloved Celtics, and it was a fascinating experience. Westbrook in particular was remarkable; the Rockets elite spacing allowed Russ to work one on one against whoever he pleased, and he went at the Celtics best perimeter defenders all night long. Since that game I was really looking forward to seeing what this bizarre team was capable of in the postseason.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic robbed us of that at least for now. But more than that, I have to wonder if at least for Rockets fans, the pandemic robbed them of something more?
Burning up fuel:
While it is admirable that Morey and company went all in on building for right now while James Harden is still at the peak of his powers, these various wheelings and dealings along with Harden’s mammoth $228 Million dollar extension in 2017 & Westbrook’s supermax deal have left Houston well over the cap and inching closer to the luxury tax. Especially with the NBA’s league wide salary cap almost certain to take a massive hit this offseason, free agency is not a viable option for this team. While veteran stalwarts like PJ Tucker and Robert Covington have admirably stepped up, it’s hard to envision that the Rockets current depth will be enough to handle the star studded Lakers or a deep, loaded Clippers squad in a best of seven series.
With limited options in free agency, most franchises turn to the draft for an injection of talent. However, as a result of the Russell Westbrook trade, Houston has limited draft capital for the foreseeable future, giving up first rounders in 2024 and 2026 along with pick swaps in 2021 and 2025 (this in addition to sending their pick in this years draft to Denver in the mega-trade that netted them Covington.) Unless they hit gold on picks that will presumably be towards the end of the draft in 2021, 2022, and 2023, any young talent Houston can add with picks will likely be marginal at best.
Daryl over the barrel?
These trades were not made in the vacuum of space. The Rockets clearly needed a shake-up; at the trade deadline. They were 5th in the Western Conference standings, a virtual death sentence for their postseason prospects. But even before that, GM Daryl Morey and owner Tillman Fertitta were….not on the best of terms after Morey’s twitter escapades in the summer.
Speaking of Tillman, while the hospitality magnate has reportedly never considered selling the team, much has been made of his financial struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the entire hospitality industry is bleeding cash.
Finally, with Coach Mike D’antoni’s contract status completely up in the air for the coming year, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that change is coming for the Rockets one way or another. With no verified insider information whatsoever, even a lowly blog boy like myself can speculate that this season might have been the last stand for a number of high profile members of one of the league’s three or four most successful franchises in the past five years.
The final frontier?:
With little cap room, meager draft assets, and two of the heftiest contracts in the league, the 2019-2020 Rockets were the definition of a win-now team. To their credit, they were doing that, with Westbrook and Harden performing at elite levels, and the Rockets weird roster presenting matchup problems for a number of squads. But despite this, the future for this funky team couldn’t be murkier. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that short of winning the title this year, major changes from the launchpad up could be afoot for this team. Unfortunately, the best chance for them to meet that goal might have just gone up in a ball of fire and smoke, with the league’s shutdown. So unless the season comes back and the Rockets blast off into titletown, where does that leave Morey, Mike, Harden and company? Unfortunately for everyone involved, I fear going forward they might be lost in space.