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Did the 2020 Rockets have to implode?

What could have gone differently?

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets
Should Harden and Westbrook have stayed together?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If a plan is so crazy that it just might work, be weary of it.

It’s probably not going to work. Sane plans are better. You’d rather be saying “this plan is so logical that it will probably work”.

Micro ball...that was crazy, right? All six feet and five inches of P.J. Tucker holding down the five. It felt like a Hail Mary. It was a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable.

Wasn’t it? Was the collapse of the Harden-era Rockets inevitable?

The Rockets hit a Wall

So this is a thought experiment. It’s likely that the collapse of the Harden-era Rockets was inevitable because Harden insisted on leaving, and wouldn't be talked out of it.

Dare to dream. Imagine that the front office told Harden “sorry, but no”. Now, imagine that they told Russell Westbrook the same.

I know, I know. Westbrook is a deeply flawed player. Still, he did average 22.2 points, 11.7 assists, and 11.2 rebounds per game for the Washington Wizards in 2020-21. By contrast, John Wall gave the Rockets 20.6 points and 6.9 assists. Westbrook was actually marginally more efficient as well.

Moreover, Wall’s volume was a consequence of a depleted 2020-2021 Rockets roster. He wasn’t really a 20-point scorer that season. He was just getting his on a team full of G-Leaguers. Westbrook was still slinging triple-doubles alongside Bradley Beal.

None of which is intended to be overly critical. I was happy about the Wall trade. Subjectively, he’s actually one of my favorite players in NBA history. I’ve always held that athleticism and floor vision are the two traits most effectively combined in an NBA player.

(Manifesting Scoot Henderson).

Still, Wall was damaged goods from the moment he touched down in Houston. We see that now. Ironically enough, the Clippers cut him to make room for Westbrook.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, keeping Westbrook would have given the Rockets a better chance of contending in 2020-2021.

What else should they have done?

Could have, should have, Wood have

The Clint Capela for Robert Covington trade was lucid. It was the recognition of a simple fact:

Westbrook requires four-out spacing to be maximized.

It never followed that Westbrook needed micro ball in order to be maximized. The roster construction that followed was probably a byproduct of limited flexibility rather than a deliberate choice. It was less “we need a 6’5 “ enter to make this work” and more “it would be better to have a 6’5” center who can shoot than a 6’10” center who can’t, and we’re out of options”.

With that in mind, the decision to eventually flip Covington for Christian Wood and a first-round pick made enough sense. It still wasn’t the optimal move.

Why was Wood so readily available on the open market? The Pistons were rebuilding. Why not retain a 25-year-old big man who stretches the floor and gives you a consistent 20 and 10?

Maturity issues and defensive effort. Wood looks to have improved on that end of the floor in Dallas. In the summer of 2020, he was a liability and everyone knew it.

This isn’t a relitigation of the Wood trade. It netted the Rockets a first-round pick that they'd eventually use to land Alperen Sengun. Rafael Stone also flipped Wood for the first-round pick that he’d use to select TyTy Washington. Given the team’s current condition, having flipped Covington and Wood for Sengun and Washington is only evidence of Stone’s competence.

Still, in a universe where the plan was to give it another go with Harden and Westbrook, it would not have been the right decision. What would have been?

Well, keeping Covington would have been vital. Had they done so, the Rockets would have been a little cap strapped. Still, if they'd let all of their free agents (nobody significant) walk, they would have had the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception available. That would have been a roster spot in the vicinity of $9 million.

With that, the Rockets should have targeted someone who could play the five, space the floor and offer some defensive value. Who was available that fit that description and could have been available at that price?

Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap, and Markieff Morris stand out as the best options. Marc Gasol was available too, but running opponents off the floor wouldn’t have exactly been an option if the Rockets had gone that route.

Since this whole exercise is a fantasy, let's go with Millsap. He had the best 2020-2021 season of this bunch and would have been the best fit with the Rockets’ small-ball ethos. We’re also going to assume the Rockets found a traditional big man at the cost of a veteran’s minimum for situations when size was an absolute must.

Does a starting lineup of Millsap, Tucker, Covington, Harden and Westbrook (with Eric Gordon reprising his role as sixth man) win the 2020-21 championship? It’s doubtful - that was Milwaukee’s season, and their combination of size and spacing would have been difficult to deal with.

I do think that group is hyper-competitive. Millsap would have added to the team’s switch-and-swarm defensive philosophy. He also would have provided a little more rim protection. The Rockets would still have been small, but with a traditional big on the bench, it wouldn’t have been as radical of an experiment as 2019-2020 was.

I think the Rockets could have made the Finals. There’s one more big reason why.

The field

It is a cruel twist of fate that as soon as the Rockets collapsed, the Western Conference imploded.

This was Golden State’s first random year off. The Utah Jazz were the conference’s first seed, but in hindsight, they were always paper tigers.

Sure, the Nuggets could have overwhelmed the Rockets with size. Millsap would struggle to guard Jokic. On the other hand, the Rockets could have run the lumbering big man off the floor. Remember, the Lakers were a tough matchup for Houston in the bubble because Anthony Davis was big and mobile.

They could have ran Deandre Ayton off the floor too. I truly believe this hypothetical version of the Rockets could have beaten the Suns. This version of Westbrook with four-out spacing alongside Harden would have provided an overwhelming amount of firepower.

Leave it in the past

At the end of the day — who cares, right?

It just felt prudent to write something about the recent past at the moment. The present is a foxhole in a war that’s taking place in Satan’s backyard. Some of us are more optimistic about the future than others: but the recent past?

The recent past was good. It could have been even better. Even if Harden really does return like the prodigal son, we’ll never know:

Let’s not do the micro ball thing again, agreed?