It Feels Like the Rockets’ Championship Window Has Closed

The Rockets looked like they could make a serious run down in the bubble, but another disappointing playoff performance proves Houston's future is very murky.

James Harden Russell Westbrook Bench Bubble Warmup 2020
USA Today Sports

Sep 6, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (left) and Houston Rockets guard David Nwaba (right) watch warmups before game two of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden Russell Westbrook Bench Bubble Warmup 2020

Russell Westbrook couldn't have picked a more appropriate t-shirt to rock after the Rockets were waxed out of the playoffs. 

Following a miserable Game 5 that saw him embarrassingly talk trash to Rajon Rondo’s brother while managing to score just 10 points in an elimination game, Westbrook’s unfortunate choice of fashion—a trendy tee that read "The Sky Is Falling"—hammered home the brutal reality that the future in Houston ain’t all that bright right now.

Another season, another failed experiment by the franchise known from trying to crack the modern championship code means the Rockets have to go back to the drawing board. Briefly, it looked like Houston was poised for a serious run in the bubble. The quirkiness of small ball was working better than anyone could have imagined, Houston was playing better defense than even the NBA’s best defensive teams, and the neutral setting meant their lack of home-court advantage after the first-round would be irrelevant.   

Then the playoffs started. Westbrook was injured and a hard seven-game series with Oklahoma City was followed by a five-game beatdown from the Lakers, abruptly ending any and all ill-conceived notion that Houston was a serious title contender. Now it’s fair to wonder if their time passed?

With a roster that will be difficult to upgrade, a new coach who could entirely switch things up, and the conundrum that is Westbrook, it just might take a miracle for general manager Daryl Morey to revamp the Rockets and have them remain championship contenders. The Athletic reported that an individual with knowledge of Houston’s off-season plans said it could “blow the whole thing up” if it endured another rough exit from the playoffs. What we saw go down against Los Angeles certainly qualifies.

So Westbrook was right. The sky is falling in Houston because it feels like the franchise’s window to reach a Finals, and win its first title since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, has closed.

That might sound harsh to Houston sycophants considering the Rockets still feature arguably the best offensive player in the game in James Harden and an All-Star running mate in Westbrook who enjoyed a fine first season in Houston. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pinpoint why the Rockets should not be considered championship material.

Where’s the Help For Harden and Westbrook?

While Mike D’Antoni’s small ball worked like a charm in February and March and during the eight seeding games in Orlando, proving it can have sustained success when the stakes aren’t high, going seven games against the Thunder in the first-round before getting shellacked by the Lakers in the semifinals showed us the Rockets did not figure out the right formula. 

Yes, the combo of Harden and Westbrook is one of the better offensive duos in the game and championship teams almost always feature two certified stars—Harden and Westbrook meet the criteria given their impressive resumes—but they’re both flawed and need a lot more help.   

But it’s going to be incredibly difficult for the Rockets to land another gamebreaker on the wing this off-season since it already has $123 million committed to six players, projects to have up to eight free agents, and possesses two troublesome contracts (Westbrook’s supermax deal and Eric Gordon’s four-year, $75 extension signed last summer) that will hinder it for the next few seasons.

As of now, the Rockets will likely only be able to use a roughly $9 million non-tax payer mid-level exception and a $3.6 million bi-annual exception in free agency. Whoever they sign via those avenues isn’t turning them into championship material. Houston’s likely going to be right near the projected luxury tax threshold or over it when their roster is finalized and what kind of appetite owner Tillman Fertitta has to pay above and beyond that threshold—when all his businesses are suffering because of the pandemic—remains an intriguing question. The Rockets also lack the kind of draft picks that can be packaged in mega deals since they used so many in the Westbrook trade so Morey will need to be at his creative genius best to get Harden and Westbrook desperately needed help.

We all know he’s finessed crazy transactions in the past—like Westbrook last summer and shipping Clint Capela before the trade deadline this past winter. We all know Harden, the franchise, isn’t going anywhere and Westbrook’s astronomical contract means he’s almost assuredly staying. That combo worked better than anticipated, but finding the right cast to support those two unique offensive players isn’t easy.

Morey must address the Rockets physicality issues that were glaring against the Lakers. If they’re sticking with small ball, they’ll need to bring in rangier, taller, and more skilled big men (think Serge Ibaka types). They can’t really afford it, but another All-Star caliber wing feels wholly necessary (wouldn’t they love to have Jimmy Butler right now). Regardless, a significant roster revamp feels inevitable and teams with wide-open championship windows rarely retool to the level it looks like the Rockets will this off-season. But first, they need to figure out their identity on the court. 

New Coach, New System?  

Four years of D’Antoni produced a ton of regular-season wins, too many 3-point attempts to count, and nearly a trip to the NBA Finals in 2018. But the organization is moving on from him and it’ll be extremely interesting to see what direction they go.

There are plenty of good candidates with NBA head coaching experience for the Rockets to choose from. The name you’ll hear most attached to the job is ESPN NBA analyst and former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy who still lives in the Houston area. Clippers assistants Ty Lue and Sam Cassell are two names to keep an eye on and other candidates will surely emerge in the coming weeks.

Whoever Houston hires to be its new coach, we’re all anxious to see what kind of offensive philosophy they install. Does small ball return? If so, is it tweaked? Or do the Rockets completely switch things up and go in a different direction? There are positives and negatives to both sides of the coin. And which direction they choose will obviously impact the players they try to retain and/or attract. 

But dramatic strategic pivots from one season to the next rarely portends to serious contention. Continuity is almost always king when you’re talking about successful teams and the Rockets will undergo a second dramatic makeover in two seasons. Sure, rookie head coaches have had a helluva run winning three NBA titles recently, but they each led balanced squads and are exceptions rather than the norm. 

The Westbrook Conundrum

The Westbrook we saw in the bubble wasn’t the Westbrook we saw during the regular-season. The 2017 NBA MVP had a stellar regular-season in Houston, but catching COVID-19 before he got to Orlando messed up his conditioning and then he injured his quad and the Westbrook the Rockets needed in order to advance was nowhere to be found. Can he be counted on to be the right Robin to Harden’s Batman going forward?

That’s highly debatable. At age 32, with gradually diminishing athleticism, an increasing injury history, suspect shooting from beyond the arc, and a whopping amount of money ($132 million) owed to him through the 2022-2023 season, Westbrook’s a conundrum. He proved he can play alongside Harden in ways Chris Paul couldn’t, but the Rockets were better with CP3. Houston can’t trade Westbrook since nobody wants to take on that contract, plus they gave up so much for him last summer and basically revamped their entire team this season to capitalize on what he does best—driving to the basket. And it didn’t get them close to a title.

Russell Westbrook James Harden Rockets Lakers Bubble 2020

Obviously, Russ gets numbers from game-to-game, he’s the fiercest competitor in the NBA, and still breathtaking to watch rise up for a vicious, rim-rattling dunk. But as teams continue to trap Harden, like the Lakers did in their series, and Westbrook shoots well under 30 percent on his threes, increasingly struggles from the free-throw line, and continues to turn the ball over, he’s becoming as much of a liability as he is a threat.

If Paul and Harden could coexist, there’s no way the Rockets would’ve moved CP3 for Westbrook. Harden and CP3 came a half away from reaching the 2018 NBA Finals. Paul, despite being 35, remains the superior player over Westbrook. But here the Rockets are: handcuffed to a proud, gifted, yet flawed star that his teammates love yet will make the same amount of money as Harden ($41 million) without similar production and continues to author up awful performances in the playoffs.    

How can the Rockets maximize Westbrook just might be their most important off-season question since they’re riding the duo of Harden and Westbrook for the next few seasons (both are signed through 2023). And unless Morey and his minions can work some serious magic and crack yet another NBA cheat code, envisioning the Rockets as legitimate title contenders next season—if it’s more of the same we just saw—is about as far-fetched as Westbrook rocking a Men’s Warehouse suit the next time he walks into the Toyota Center.

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