During the 2014 NBA offseason, the Houston Rockets were desperate to make a move. Coming off a disappointing defeat in the first round thanks to Damian Lillard’s famous buzzer beater, Daryl Morey and the front office were looking to upgrade the roster. They desperately wanted a star power forward to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard, but there weren’t many available.
In those days, the best power forwards were LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, and...Dirk Nowitzki. Of those four, Nowitzki and Bosh were free agents after the 2014 season. Houston went after both of them pretty hard, offering each of them max contracts.
The “What if?” question with Bosh serves as a reminder to never predict the future. Rockets fans were devastated when Bosh used the Rockets for leverage to stay in Miami. That also meant the Rockets allowed Chandler Parsons to walk rather than matching the deal he signed with Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks. Houston fans had been dreaming of a lineup with Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Chris Bosh, and Dwight Howard for weeks. At the time, it would have given the Rockets talent to rival any other unit in the league. Less than a year later, it became clear that if Houston had put that group together, it could have crippled the team’s title hopes and probably would have caused a teardown in 2016.
The more interesting question is about Dirk. Had Houston pried Dirk away from the Mavs, how would the season have gone?
For one thing, Rockets fans who had come to hate Dirk would suddenly find themselves rooting for an ex-rival. Beyond that, Nowitzki would have brought Morey the true stretch 4 that he’d coveted for years. It’s easy to imagine Harden and Nowitzki killing teams with pick-and-pops. And when Dirk sat, Harden could still run the pick-and-roll with Dwight. When Harden was on the bench, Houston could play inside-outside with Dirk and Dwight, as both could work out of the post.
Defensively, Houston would have had to deal with a second subpar defender, but that’s where Beverley, Parsons (or Ariza), and Dwight would have come in handy. Together, that lineup could have been elite offensively and good enough defensively. While maybe not as well-rounded as a lineup with Bosh, on paper it still would have put Houston in the upper echelon of teams. The Golden State Warriors still probably would have been a bit better, but that series would have been a lot closer, and there’s a decent chance the Rockets could have won it.
The biggest issue with this scenario is that we know what eventually happened. Dirk spurned the Rockets to stay with Dallas. He actually took way less money in order to help make the Parsons deal happen. Dallas thought they had returned to relevance with Dirk, Parsons, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler. Meanwhile, the Rockets scrambled to put a solid team around Harden and Dwight. They traded Omer Asik in a deal to get Trevor Ariza back to Houston. They signed Jason Terry as a veteran backup point guard.
As the season went on, they traded for Corey Brewer for instant offense off the bench. A week later, the Rockets signed Josh Smith, who had been waived by the Detroit Pistons. Together, those two would bring Houston a lot of joy on May 14, 2015.
More relevant to the Dirk discussion is that Houston and Dallas would meet up in the first round of those playoffs, less than a year after Dirk chose the Mavs over the Rockets. By Game 2, Smith realized that he could beat Dirk or any Mav off the dribble any time he wanted, and it led to one of the most impressive second half performances in a playoff game. Smith’s heroics continued in the aforementioned Clippers series as well.
Would Houston have needed those otherworldly games from Dirk, or would the Rockets have been better and therefore in control of more games? It’s a tough question, but it’s also clear that Dirk was fading by the 2015 postseason. After a subpar (for him) season in which his shooting numbers all decreased, he shot a paltry 23.5% from deep in that first round series, effectively ending any chance Dallas had at pulling the upset. Obviously, we can’t use those stats as projections of how he would have done in a Rockets jersey, but with Harden and Howard, the Rockets would have relied heavily on Dirk to hit threes that season. And the evidence that season hints that he would not have been able to handle that responsibility.
To Dirk’s side of the argument, Houston may not have fallen into the early funk the following season that ended up getting Kevin McHale fired. Yet again, that change helped the Rockets in the long run, as it brought Mike D’Antoni and Point Guard Harden to the forefront. Also, Dirk would have still been on the books when the Rockets made the trade for Chris Paul. So either that trade never could have happened, or the Rockets would have been unable to surround those three with much talent. And by then, an aging Dirk would have only been good for 25 minutes per night at most.
I think Dirk on the Rockets would have been a good short-term play. Ignoring what actually happened that season, the idea behind bringing in a stretch power forward to pair with Houston’s other stars made a lot of sense. Harden and Dirk probably would have meshed pretty well, since Dirk knew by then that he wasn’t the alpha and that Harden was the franchise star. I think Rockets fans would have come around pretty quickly. But the deal would have crippled Houston in the long-term. The team probably would have had to do a soft rebuild like they did in MDA’s first season in Houston. It might have worked, or it might not have. But getting Dirk off the books would have been more difficult than Dwight, since Howard was a free agent and left. The Rockets might have needed to attach multiple first round picks to get rid of the big German, which would have tarnished his legacy a bit, too.
Oh, and the Rockets also dodged the potential Parsons bullet. On Opening Night that season, he missed a potential game winner against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. A month later, he was cooked by Harden in a game where Houston, missing Howard and Terrence Jones, was a huge underdog.
Sometimes, even when things seem bleak, sports can surprise you. And sometimes, the truth was sitting there all along.
What do you think about Dirk joining the 2014-15 Rockets? Would it have helped? Hurt? Somewhere in between?