The Rockets’ 2019-20 campaign ended Saturday night not with a barrage of 3-pointers but with LeBron James and the Lakers smiling and laughing their way through the second half of an easy Game 5 win.
Los Angeles jumped out front with a 13-2 run in the first three minutes of the contest, led by as many as 22 points in the first quarter and quickly extinguished Houston’s hopes of extending the second-round series. The Lakers ultimately won by a final score of 119-96, but it never even felt that close. As ESPN’s Tim Legler told Scott Van Pelt, this one resembled a summer league game more than a do-or-die situation.
Another disappointing elimination pushes the Rockets into what will be a difficult offseason. They must confront a few key questions about their future, and there aren’t any great answers.
Is Mike D’Antoni out as head coach?
Over four years in Houston, D’Antoni has compiled a record of 217-101 in regular-season games and revolutionized how NBA teams approach offense, most notably taking isolation and small ball to the absolute extreme. One could argue he was a Chris Paul hamstring injury away from at least a trip to the NBA Finals in 2018, but there is no comfort in playing the “what if” game. The fact is the Rockets, clearly in win-now mode, haven’t captured a championship.
The 69-year-old failed to reach an agreement with the Rockets prior to the start of the season, so he is set to become a free agent. D’Antoni wants to keep coaching, and he should have multiple options. The Pacers are expected to be among the suitors for D’Antoni if Houston doesn’t offer him a new deal, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
However, both sides parting ways is far from automatic. D’Antoni would like to stay, and he’s got the full support of James Harden.
Mike D’Antoni on his future: “We’ve got a great organization, great city, great fans. Everything’s good here. We’ll see what happens but I couldn’t ask for a better situation. Everything’s good on this side, for sure.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) September 13, 2020
Does James Harden want Mike D’Antoni to return to the Rockets? “Of course. Of course. Mike has done some unbelievable stuff here.”
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 13, 2020
Perhaps conversations between D’Antoni, general manager Daryl Morey and owner Tilman Fertitta will lead to some sort of resolution, though there are already rumblings the Rockets will consider ESPN analyst and former Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy as a top replacement candidate.
Whether it’s D’Antoni or a fresh face on the sideline next season, this group’s style may not change much because making major upgrades is a seemingly impossible task.
How can the Rockets build around Russell Westbrook and James Harden?
Morey has been as creative as any GM in constructing a contender, and the Rockets went full throttle during the Warriors’ dynasty when other teams were content to let Golden State dominate. It’s understandable why Harden would be confident in the front office’s ability to tweak the roster around him and Russell Westbrook.
“I feel like we’re a piece away,” Harden said after Game 5. “But you’ve got to keep trying to figure it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ to get to where we want to go.”
Easy enough, right? Well, Houston is up against the salary cap, and it has largely avoided the luxury tax under Morey. Trying to add a difference-maker with these salaries on the books is going to take all of Morey’s accounting magic.
|Season||James Harden||Russell Westbrook||Eric Gordon|
|2020-21||$ 41.3M||$ 41.4M||$ 16.9M|
|2021-22||$ 44.3M||$ 44.2M||$ 18.2M|
|2022-23||$ 47.4M*||$ 47.1M*||$ 19.6M|
We’re talking about paying $ 114 million in 2022-23 for three players who will have aged out of their primes. Oh, boy.
The Rockets also don’t hold a pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and they owe future first-round selections (2024 and 2026) to the Thunder as part of the Westbrook trade in addition to future pick swaps (2021 and 2025). They can move either their 2021 or 2022 first-round pick, but not both.
On top of that — yes, there’s more — Houston can’t entice other teams with promising prospects because, uh, it doesn’t have any. Morey could throw Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker into trade talks, but it doesn’t make much sense to include them in any deal if the Rockets will continue with its small-ball methods.
So . . .
What is the future of this franchise?
Winning a title remains the goal, but as yet another playoff run showed, the Rockets are not built to roll through multiple rounds in the rugged Western Conference. It feels as if Houston is locked into being a No. 3-6 seed that gives an elite opponent a slight challenge but ultimately leaves empty-handed.
If Morey and Fertitta reach that conclusion, then would they eventually discuss changing course? Harden and Westbrook are both 31. Harden hasn’t looked like an MVP in big moments. Westbrook’s performance against the Lakers highlighted what happens when he can’t overcome his shooting woes with athleticism and rage. That championship window is already closing.
Westbrook is almost untradeable — almost, because, well, it’s the NBA — but Harden still holds value as one of the best offensive weapons in the league. As wild as it may sound, there could be Harden trade rumors coming down the road. A Harden deal might be the only escape hatch for the front office. If you’re always “a piece away,” then you’re never actually “a piece away.”
Hey, we told you there aren’t any great answers.
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