No more head coach Mike D’Antoni
No more general manager Daryl Morey
No more draft picks.
That seems to be what troubles the Houston Rockets as they yet again ended an unfruitful season in the Association—to borrow Pat Riley’s words “There’s winning, and then there’s misery.”
The sudden departure of the architects of small ball leaves the Rockets with a Bizarro lineup that couldn’t matchup with the LA Lakers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and the Golden State Warriors of the world, much less the Utah Jazzes, the Dallas Mavericks, the Oklahoma City Thunders, and even Portland Trail Blazers of the West.
They went all in when they traded for Russell Westbrook last offseason, jettisoning point god Chris Paul and draft picks in exchange for the 2017 regular season MVP and two-time NBA scoring leader.
The trade was alluring for Houston, as pairing triple-double threat Westbrook with former OKC teammate James Harden, another MVP and scoring leader, was expected to get the Rockets over the top in the highly competitive Western Conference. In a financial standpoint, the pairing was a huge money risk as the two are owed a total of $377 million in the next five years.
The only problem was Westbrook and Harden play similar as both need the rock in their hands all the time. Unlike The Beard, Brodie also couldn’t shoot a lick from outside and this drastically changed Houston’s offensive strategy of five-out basketball where 3-point shooters opened driving lanes for Harden to attack the basket and kick out to sharpshooters.
Westbrook’s inability to spread the floor also forced the Rockets to trade starting center Clint Capela in mid-season, opting instead to play freshly acquired 6’7” Robert Covington at the 5.
The Harden-Westbrook experiment had a rough start but seemed to be gaining steam until the NBA was forced to shut down in March to COVID-19. When the season resumed more than four months later, Brodie was injured and slowed down by the coronavirus he contacted during the lockdown. The Rockets barely made it past the first round, struggling past a spirited OKC team in seven exciting games led by—you guessed it, Chris Paul—before succumbing to the size and talent of the eventual champions LA Lakers in the second round.
Then in an instant, D’Antoni is gone and Morey followed suit a month later. So, what happens to small ball now? Will Houston trade The Beard and Brodie to the New York Knicks, who always crave megastars with bloated contracts? Will they just keep Harden and then trade Westbrook? But who in their right mind will trade for Westbrook and what’s left of his $206-million contract.
Saying that new Houston GM Rafael Jones has a lot in his plate is an understatement and we haven’t even talked about D’Antoni’s successor in the coaching chair.
So far, the candidates left are former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, longtime Houston assistant coach and former NBA player John Lucas, and Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Stephen Silas, who is the son of NBA great and former NBA coach Paul Silas.
Whoever the coaching hire is, one thing’s for sure—the Rockets need to rejig their roster one way or the other. Let’s face it, small ball won’t work without mad scientist D’Antoni and main enabler Morey.
In a way, the departure of the pair is another end of an era in Clutch City. Like how injuries derailed Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady’s championship aspirations in the 2000s, bad luck, injuries to Chris Paul, and the ill-fitting tandem of Harden and Westbrook (and before that Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony) all conspired to ground the Rockets to terra firma.
Come to think of it, Houston won’t even have the two championships during the Hakeem Olajuwon era if Michael Jordan didn’t retire.
It’s been 25 years since former Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich uttered his famous “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion” line and by the looks of it, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta overestimated the heights small ball would take the Houston Rockets. Houston, we indeed have a problem.