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Devil’s advocate: What happens if the Rockets miss the playoffs?

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As the one-third mark of the season passes and the Rockets still sit below .500, where does the front office go if they don’t turn it around?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

While the Rockets’ last two performances have done much to quell the endless concerns surrounding their vastly underperforming roster, it’d be far from correct to say the ship has been righted.

At 13-14, the Rockets have climbed out of the Western Conference’s cellar, but pressing questions remain about the legitimacy of the team’s rebounding, defense, and wing depth. (And that’s ignoring the arguably more alarming questions that Clint Capela’s defensive slippage and Chris Paul’s discouraging overall start to the season have created.)

So while all TDS readers (and staff) hope the day never comes, as we hit the one-third mark of the season, it’s time somebody plays devil’s advocate: what happens if the Rockets miss the playoffs?

Well, the first factor to consider is that new owner Tilman Fertitta is a complete wildcard. He spent half of his reported net worth to purchase the team, he’s already spoken out on multiple occasions against the repeater tax, and it is still largely unknown how much of Darryl Morey’s penny pinching this summer was at Fertitta’s directive.

Competent ownership remains the biggest competitive advantage in the NBA, and while the jury is still out on Fertitta, evidence points to the Rockets’ having lost some of that advantage. These simply aren’t Leslie Alexander’s Rockets anymore, and the effects of that will felt. One way or another.

The most concerning part of Fertitta being at the helm, however, is his September comments about Darryl Morey’s job security should the Rockets’ fortunes take the unexpected turn they have, telling the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen, “if we are in the luxury tax every year and barely getting in the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, I’m going to find me a new general manager.”

While it’s likely someone ends up scapegoated if no turnaround emerges, it’d be absurd to choose Morey. Despite a disastrous offseason, he’s just been too good for too long to let loose. Additionally, if the Rockets’ do end up needing to make unorthodox moves to salvage James Harden’s prime, Morey’s acumen might be their greatest asset.

So, if it’s not Morey, where does the sword fall? Well, in the wake of reports that the coaching staff is calling zero plays some games, many would point to Rockets’ head coach Mike D’Antoni. If the front office ends up apprehensive about making any monumental roster changes this summer, bringing in a “new voice” is always the easiest way to spin a positive outlook when faced with stagnation.

But is D’Antoni really the problem? The team still has an elite offense. D’Antoni’s proven his hands-off approach maximizes Harden. And high Harden-Capela pick-and-roll coached by D’Antoni is a top-five offense in and of itself if given even passable shooters. Most organizations would kill to have that trio as their foundation.

That’s why if any serious change does take place, it’s likely to get out from under Chris Paul’s 4-year, $160-million-dollar deal. With each passing game, the comparison for his approximately $40 million per year salary shifts more and more from Russell Westbrook’s loyalty overpay to John Wall’s flat-out albatross.

One can hope that Paul’s slow start to the year (career lows essentially across the board) is just that, a slow start. But at 33 years old, it’s more likely than not that his unavoidable decline has begun. As much as LeBron James’ graceful mid-30s have changed the public perception of late-career stars, he’s is far from the norm. Just look at the rest of the banana boat crew; father time may not be undefeated, but he’s damn well close.

So if this season does stay the current course, the prospect of moving Paul before his value plummets even further deserves serious consideration. An injection of promising young talent, elite perimeter shooting, or simply cap flexibility to build around the Harden (age 29) and Capela (age 24) pick-and-roll could extend Houston’s window to after Golden State’s reign inevitably comes to an end. Why let Paul’s age and contract limit the latter half of Harden’s prime?

Luckily, if there’s any GM that’s forward-thinking enough to make a move of that nature, it’s Darryl Morey. So here’s hoping Fertitta’s September comments were merely big talk that he never thought possible.

Anyways, it’s more than likely it never gets this bad and the Rockets’ end up in an uncomfortable middle ground akin to 2016 where their talent wills them to an uninspired playoff appearance. But with the team below .500 one-third of the way through the season, this thought experiment finally became worthy of addressing.

On the bright side, the last time the Rockets grossly underachieved, it birthed the greatest season in franchise history within two years. Rockets fans can only hope that history repeats itself.