It didn’t take long for the Wrecking Ball of Consequence to come swinging into the Houston Rockets’ living room. On Sunday, less than 24 hours after the club’s season-ending defeat to the Lakers, coach Mike D’Antoni announced he wouldn’t be coming back next season.
The move was widely expected, given the tone and tenor of the reports that had piled up dating back to last year, but it might be more noteworthy than a typical resignation. The 2017 Coach of the Year was perhaps more intertwined with his team’s playing style than any other coach in the league.
All of which raises two key questions in Houston: What comes next for the Rockets? And is it worth it to consider dealing away superstar James Harden?
The club had already put some massive changes in the works over the past year or so that would make a teardown or on-the-fly rebuild more challenging than it would otherwise be. Maybe sensing the need to push all its chips in, Houston dealt Clint Capela and its 2020 first-round pick to acquire stud wing Robert Covington, who allowed the Rockets to fully embrace a terrorizing small-ball lineup, with ample switchability and perimeter shooting.
But there’s a more significant element making it tough to just hit reset on everything: the guy who more or less can’t shoot from distance, who the Rockets went all in on last summer.
Yes, we’re talking about onetime MVP Russell Westbrook, for whom the Rockets surrendered two first-round picks, a pair of pick swaps and an apparently rejuvenated Chris Paul. Houston also gets to take on the next three years of the soon-to-be 32-year-old’s deal, which pays $41 million, $44 million and $47 million. (Also trouble, albeit on a smaller scale: Swingman Eric Gordon, who’s 31 and coming off an injury-hobbled season, is set to make $17 million, $18 million, $20 million and $21 million over the next four years.)
Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 just before the NBA restart, then injured his quad and missed the first chunk of his club’s first-round series. So yes, there were circumstances that hindered his ability this postseason. But let’s not pretend that there isn’t a much larger, more concerning trend at play here.
Westbrook’s playoff numbers have been troubling for a while — we wrote about them last year, too. His lack of a reliable jumper from beyond midrange allows defenses to back away from him, daring him to shoot. For a sub-30 percent shooter from three, he’s taken the bait too often. The guard’s playoff win-share production rate per 48 minutes was cut in half three years in a row and is now underwater: from .208 in 2016, to .103 in 2017, to .052 in 2018, to .026 in 2019 to -0.04 now.
Westbrook did have shining moments during the regular season, just before the pandemic hit. For almost two months, from a few weeks before the team dealt Capela to a few weeks after it had fully leaned into that short-ball style, Westbrook was fantastic. He averaged almost 33 points per game on 53 percent shooting, taking full advantage of the abundance of space with which he had to operate. During that stretch, there was an unmistakable reduction in the number of 3-point tries in his shot diet. When he takes too many, he all but kills his game.
Truthfully, much of this outcome with Westbrook, or just the team in general, was predictable. Just before the season, we wrote about how the addition of Westbrook, among other things, gave this club a bit of a now-or-never feeling. Last fall, it appeared the time could be now if Westbrook could raise the team’s ceiling more than Paul could. But if it flamed out spectacularly, in part because of Russ, the time may never come. And it very much feels like we know the answer after Year One.
The pain of the trade for Westbrook is crystal clear: It kneecapped the Rockets’ ability to piece together the draft-pick assets needed to get another star to put alongside Harden. But the aim was understandable: General manager Daryl Morey was trying to avoid getting stuck. That may feel like a strange word to describe a perennial 50-game winner — one that’s been so good, and so close — with a generational scoring talent. But with no meaningful hardware or real room for upward mobility, that characterization feels accurate, especially now, with Westbrook failing to move the needle.
You could reasonably argue the time has already come to have the discussion on Harden. Like Westbrook, Harden is also 31, though his game relies far less on his athleticism. He’s led the NBA in scoring average three straight years while averaging almost 34 points a night over that span and has been remarkably durable in his eight years as a No. 1 option. (Even his defense, which used to be criticized relentlessly, has improved considerably. He leads the league in steals this year and has been one of the best guards at defending the post.)
Oklahoma City’s impressive season after dealing Westbrook could be seen as a blueprint for the Rockets’ dealing Harden. His value likely won’t ever be higher than it is now. He would almost certainly yield a boatload of talent and first-round picks to replenish the cupboard with, while resetting the deck during a time in which the Los Angeles clubs will likely be favored out West for at least the next couple seasons. And highly leveraged team owner Tilman Fertitta may want to have less long-term money on the books given the uncertain nature of the pandemic.
The flipside, of course, is that this is James Harden — the sort of offensive talent that any coach would want the chance to build a system around if given the opportunity. When D’Antoni got his, he made Harden his primary ball-handler as opposed to playing him off the ball. Harden immediately went on to lead the NBA in dimes while scoring just as efficiently as he had before.
Any coach can come in and offer to install an offense that’s more inventive and cuts back on the number of pick and rolls and isolations. But what will be worth watching is how much buy-in the plan gets from Harden, who’s had plenty of individual success with this style but has repeatedly fallen short with it come playoff time (especially toward the end, when he appears to tire some).
And while the team’s defense has usually been overlooked because of the Rockets’ rare offensive style, whoever coaches next will lead a group that’s capable of being elite on that end.
Much like the last time this club looked worthy of a title, in 2018, this defense is versatile enough to switch its assignments to guard ball screens. While Houston finished as a merely average unit on D, the Rockets became far stingier and more aggressive after the trade to go smaller. From the trade deadline to the end of the regular season, they ranked 10th overall (up from No. 15 before) and fifth (up from 18th) following a switch, according to data from Second Spectrum.
This poor second-round showing against the Lakers highlighted a pair of looming questions for Morey. Does he need to at least invest in a passable traditional big for matchups that put too much stress on someone like P.J. Tucker? In that same vein, what, if anything, can the executive do to bolster the club’s depth so it’s not dead in the water if Danuel House gets in trouble, or Covington takes a blow to the head? For most teams, weathering those kinds of losses are a typical part of the season.
The Rockets aren’t typical, though. For years, their front office has been led by a different type of executive. The team has been led by one of the most unusual stars, in an offense that produces a most unusual shot chart. Soon, a new coach will step into that situation to try to win with it.
But a coaching change alone may not do it. And that’s the frustrating reality for the Rockets right now: Even as they prepare to make a key move, there’s still that feeling of being stuck.
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