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The Rockets in a post-James Harden world: The trials and tribulations of losing your franchise player

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Losing one of the greatest scorers ever might just set you back a bit. Who knew?

Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

If you think that the sky is just now falling for the Houston Rockets due to their seven-game losing streak, then you are kidding yourself. The sky has been falling for months now, and we’re all just now seeing the results of it. The break-up between James Harden and the organization has forced Red Nation to go from preparing for deep playoff runs to moseying through the five stages of grief.

If you are unclear on which stage you currently reside, there is no need to worry. I have a guide for you all.

Stage 1: Denial

Denial is when you avoid accepting what is known throughout.

In this case, denial came when James Harden implied that the Rockets were not good enough to compete with a team like the Lakers, but many took it as him saying that the Rockets couldn’t be a good team. This led to the notion that the Rockets were going to go out and prove Harden wrong.

The issue with proving Harden wrong is that for the team to reach the level that the bearded one wanted them to be at, there would have had to have been a drastic change. I say this because last season, the Rockets were one of the elite teams out west, but it only took five games for LeBron and Co. to dispel them. The Rockets, on paper, came into their January 10th and 12th matchups with the Lakers with a better roster than they had in the previous season, but were pummeled in both of those games. This led to the Harden postgame interview and trade because it was clear to him that even with the roster moves, Los Angeles was still simply the better team.

So yeah, the six-game winning streak was great, the play of Christian Wood when healthy has been promising, but regardless, the Rockets were not the legit championship contender that Harden wanted them to be, and whether they make the playoffs or not without him does not change that.

Stage 2: Anger

Anger is when you are expressing frustration directed towards the person that triggered your five stages of grief.

Typically in sports, this stage is directed at a player who left a franchise. For example, LeBron leaving Cleveland the first time, Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kawhi leaving the San Antonio Spurs. But in this case, there should be more anger pointed at Tilman Fertitta than Harden.

A big reason why the Rockets vastly declined after nearly upsetting the Golden State Warriors in 2018 is due to Fertitta’s constant desire to avoid paying the luxury tax. By spending his time focusing on reducing the team’s payroll, he shortened their championship window, which eventually led to Harden becoming a Brooklyn Net.

To make matters worse, when it was time to ship out his franchise player, Fertitta decided not to make a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers because it would pair Harden with former Rockets GM Daryl Morey. In this trade, Philly would have given up defensive aces Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle along with draft picks, but instead Fertitta agreed to a deal with Brooklyn that was not nearly as sweet.

Fertitta’s cheapness smothered Houston’s potential, and his pettiness kept them from acquiring elite young talent. (It’s likely that they still would have gotten Kevin Porter Jr because of the haul of draft picks!)

Stage 3: Bargaining

Bargaining is when you find yourself revisiting the past and making statements that start with “what if” or “only if”.

This stage is commonly found throughout sports Twitter, and for Rockets fans, it’s clear where this is heading; What if Chris Paul didn’t hurt his hamstring against the Warriors in the western conference finals?

In 2018, Houston was one of the top three teams in the league and was showing it in the post-season when they defeated the Warriors in Game 5 of the WCF to take a 3-2 lead. In that game, the Rockets took control of the series, but it also was their downfall because with 52 seconds left in the 4th quarter with a one-point lead, CP3 went down holding his leg. He was one of the key pieces to their success that season and there was hope that he’d rest for Game 6 and ultimately play in Game 7 on Houston’s home floor.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Paul missed the final two games of the series, and the Warriors won Game 7 in which Houston and the referees combined for a lot of missed threes and fouls. Most fans around the league likely agree that if CP3 was healthy, the Rockets win that series and then eliminate the Cavaliers in the finals. An event that would have changed the trajectory of the franchise, but instead, we ask ‘what if’.

Stage 4: Depression

Depression is when you are searching for how to keep moving forward.

Right now, the Houston Rockets are on a seven-game losing streak. They are without the services of Wood due to injury and eventually have decisions to make as the trade deadline approaches regarding guys like Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker. It seems to be a bit cloudy for the organization right now, which became inevitable once the MVP duo of Russell Westbrook and Harden both requested to be traded.

The team now must figure out if they want to tank or make a run at the post-season which isn’t necessarily an easy decision.

If the Rockets decide to pack up and try again next season, they must hope to land a top-four pick in the draft lottery or they’ll lose it and have to pick later in the round. If they decide to make a run at the postseason, then they must reach the play-in tournament or else many will question why they didn’t just decide to tank and build towards the future. How will Christian Wood feel if the Rockets tank? What if the Rockets go for the playoffs, fail and risk missing out on landing the number one overall pick in the draft?

To tank or not to tank? The answer is unclear right now.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance is you’ve acknowledged the issue and have decided to move on from it.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final stage of grief. This probably is the most important one because this is when you realize that life does indeed go on.

Harden is gone and following him out the door were aspirations to win the upcoming NBA Finals. What’s left is a bunch of guys that are doing great things in their first year within the organization. Head Coach Stephen Silas has got a group of players to buy into his system and even was able to rattle off a winning streak that dropped jaws around the league.

General Manager Rafael Stone has navigated through a tough financial situation to reconstruct the roster. Then, of course, Wood has been as good as advertised while also garnering Most Improved Player of the Year chatter, and Jae’Sean Tate has turned heads with his defensive effort and constantly improving offensive game.

All of that went without mentioning KPJ looking like he could be a young star in the city while dominating in the G-League bubble and also the haul of draft picks that were received in the Harden deal.

It’s been a struggle during this seven-game losing streak, but there’s beauty in that struggle for the Houston Rockets. If they play their cards right, then the future could be very bright in due time.

Poll

What stage of grief are you in?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Denial
    (8 votes)
  • 8%
    Anger
    (15 votes)
  • 3%
    Bargaining
    (6 votes)
  • 12%
    Depression
    (23 votes)
  • 70%
    Acceptance
    (126 votes)
178 votes total Vote Now

I’d like to extend my thoughts to all of you in the city of Houston and throughout the state of Texas that are suffering through the winter storm.