Losing on your home court is always a tough way to end a season. It’s even worse when your opponent is missing their best player and is the team you’re designed to beat when they’re at full strength. There’s no “what-if’s” to hide behind after a loss like that.
Fortunately, the Rockets – and more importantly, Daryl Morey-- have been here before. In 2017, after a Game 6 blow out in Houston at the hands of the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs, Morey had no choice but to make a frank assessment of his roster. The successful pairing of Mike D’Antoni and a then-27-year-old James Harden had the makings of a title competitor, but the supporting cast clearly wasn’t enough. Put simply, the Beard needed help.
As I’m sure readers remember, the bleakness that followed that crushing defeat in 2017 led to a bizarre offseason that netted the Rockets a 32-year-old Chris Paul out of thin air. Suddenly, Houston had vaulted back into the Western Conference’s elite. And Morey had created the best Rockets team in 20+ years. The Rockets’ brass is more-than equipped and experienced enough to handle a defeat of this magnitude.
So where can the Rockets go from here? Well, that’s a loaded question that requires some unpacking.
First, the main challenge facing Morey this summer is the Rockets’ limited flexibility. As of present, the Rockets are only slotted to have $8.7 million under the luxury tax line ($132 million) to fill at least seven roster spots. This is predominantly because they are paying a combined $90 million a year just to Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela until the 2021-22 season. Next season alone, they’ll be paying that trio, plus Eric Gordon a combined $107 million—that’s a ton for a one-All-Star core.
What this means is if Morey intends on “running it back” again, the Rockets’ depth will quickly begin to resemble the skeleton crew of G-League guys, buy-lows, and buyouts that’s comprised Golden State’s bench in recent years. It’s hard to see this Rockets core making it any farther than they have in past years if they’re entirely dependent on star talent going forward.
In some way, shape, or form, the Warriors will be worse next year. That may give some Rockets’ fans hope. But if Golden State’s core breaks up in any meaningful way, all the Western Conference teams that have been “waiting them out” will push hard to contend immediately, making the path to any potential finals harder than ever. And that’s ignoring the fact that “what’s left” of the Warriors just proved they’re superior to this Rockets roster.
So if running it back isn’t viable, what options does Morey have?
Well, the easy way out is to fire Mike D’Antoni. When a team that has no flexibility needs to “shake things up”, the coach is oft the scapegoat. However, as Darren outlined in his piece yesterday, that’d be the wrong call. D’Antoni’s won 70 percent of his games with the Rockets, he’s maximized Harden, and he’s led Houston to three straight first round wins after only two in the 20 years prior. He’s not the problem.
The other option being floated by many is trading Clint Capela. Capela is significantly younger than the Rockets’ other main pieces, and the Harden-Capela pick-and-roll with shooters is a proven top-five regular season offense in itself, so moving him would be bold, to say the least. However, for the second straight postseason, Capela was borderline unplayable against the Warriors, posting a net rating below -10.0. If the Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite going forward, Capela isn’t in the Rockets’ blueprint to win it all.
That hard truth raises two questions: 1) what could Houston get for him? And 2) how much of his production could be replaced by a lower-level rim-running center?
Unfortunately, the answer to Q1 is tricky since Capela’s value in the league isn’t all that clear. His per-minute production took a step back this year in essentially every area. The market for him dried up last summer. And questions remain about how productive he’d be in any other system. His value could vary wildly from team to team.
For Q2, Kenneth Faried’s encouraging play in Capela’s stead for stretches this year suggests perhaps Harden is more responsible for Capela’s success than Rockets’ brass would like to admit. And honestly, paying $20 million per year for a rim-running center might just be overkill. How much of Capela’s impact do you think Nerlens Noel or DeAndre Jordan could replace for a fraction of the cost? You’d be a fool to think Morey isn’t asking his staff this same question.
Lastly, the ever-present question is whether or not it’s time to pull the plug on Paul. Per Synergy Sports, compared to last season’s playoffs and regular season, Paul’s efficiency relative to the rest of the league in pick-and-rolls, isolations, post ups, and handoffs went from elite to around average this year. Additionally, Paul posted career lows in points per game, field goal percentage, and just about every advanced stat imaginable (PER, VORP, Win Shares, you name it..). Its undeniable at this point that his decline has begun. If the Rockets aren’t realistic about Paul’s future, this could be Lakers’ Steve Nash on a $45 million salary before they know it.
The unfortunate part about possibly moving Paul is whether or not the Rockets’ could get anything close to value in return. At 34, with the second most minutes of any active rotation player in the NBA, $120-ish million over three years is a tough pill for any owner to swallow. If Paul were moved, it’d likely only be to clear cap space for a 1-yard-line star free agent signing.
Speaking of free agents, some have proposed the possibility of the Rockets pivoting to acquire a star forward to pair with Harden. This could be anyone from A-listers such as Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard, to B-listers such as Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton, all the way down to C-listers like Marcus Morris or Harrison Barnes. Shot creation from the forward spot is undoubtedly the Harden-era Rockets’ achilles heel, so expect this possibility to gain momentum as the draft nears.
To acquire any A-lister, the Rockets would have to use assets to dump either Paul and one of Tucker, Capela, or Eric Gordon onto another team, or move all three of the latter, and then fill out the rest of the roster with minimum-salary players. This would be a radical change to the Rockets’ identity, to say the least. But with only 3-4 years left in Harden’s prime (and contract), retreading this roster to similar results could ultimately push him out the door come 2022.
What I believe is most likely, however, is some middle ground that nets them a B, C, or D-level forward, while also keeping much of the core intact. This would allow them to remain top-heavy, without sacrificing all their depth.
Putting all that aside, however, the Rockets boasted only the 9th-highest payroll in the league this season, despite having arguably the second-biggest championship expectation. The whole team-building equation— and the Rockets’ path to title— becomes much, much easier if owner Tilman Fertitta is willing spend into the tax.
-Austin Rivers likely stays around, using what remains of the Rockets’ mid-level exception. Given his proficiency as an isolation player and secondary creator, he’s a natural fit alongside Harden—especially if Paul is somehow moved.
-Despite a horrific postseason, Danuel House is probably gone. As I touched on back in March, since the Rockets converted House’s two-way contract to an NBA deal rather than signing him to a three-year deal from what was left in their mid-level exception (which would’ve put them into the luxury tax), the Rockets only have House’s non-Bird Rights. That means that this summer, the Rockets can’t go above the salary cap to sign House and can’t match any offer sheet above the minimum unless they use their mid-level exception— which they’d also certainly like to use on Austin Rivers and/or possibly Kenneth Faried.
-Although he fell out of the rotation in the playoffs, Faried’s impressive run upon joining the Rockets likely prices him out of Houston’s plans. With Rivers’ value surging since joining Houston, the MLE likely only brings him back.
-Iman Shumpert finally showed some value in the Warriors series, hitting 8 threes, but he’s too redundant with Rivers to justify keeping for anything above the minimum.
-Gerald Green is probably back on the minimum again because, why not?
It’s also important to note that the Rockets have no draft picks in this year’s draft. Their first-round pick was sent in the Iman Shumpert three-team deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Sacramento Kings, while their second-round pick was dealt to the Knicks back in 2015 for Pablo Prigioni.
All in all, despite how dreary things may feel after Friday night, if anyone’s equipped to pull a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat and ensure the rest of Harden’s prime doesn’t go to waste, it’s Daryl Morey. Keep the faith.