The Rockets probably haven’t gone out to the crossroads at midnight to barter their soul for impeccable blues guitar skills, and a mesmerizing presence.
They’re at a franchise crossroads all the same, and they have to make decisions, they have to choose a road to the future.
Like most crossroads, one can head off in one of four directions. For the sake of fun, clarity, or lack of clarity, let’s label these directions:
- North - Do the Rockets continue, more or less as they’ve been, down a road of trying to develop the young talent they’ve drafted, while adding more in the upcoming draft?
- South - Do the Rockets attempt to bring in a big name free agent, and sign him (James Harden, namely) into their cap space, while more or less keeping their young core intact?
- East - Do the Rockets attempt to trade some of their young talent, and picks, for a more established star, or presumed star, player?
- West - Do the Rockets more or less do number one, but add some lower priced, high character “mentor” type free agents to shore up weaknesses, and show the younger guys how its actually done at the highest level?
If the Rockets choose option one, they’re betting on something like an OKC situation, where a combination of good coaching, and player development will take the Rockets to the next level. That level, to my mind, is the play in game. There’s no evidence so far that’s in play, but then, the Rockets lineup, post trade deadline, was younger than many NCAA starting lineups, such as Tillman Fertitta’s beloved UofH Cougars, and the Texas Longhorns.
When you think about that, it makes playing many more games in an NBA season at a younger age, against real pros, seem like a pretty big ask. Yet, the Thunder basically did the same, and didn’t look as awful. Were their players just better humans? Better NBA players? Or were they better lead, and coached? Better developed as a team? Was more simply expected of them? Or did having one young, but not nearly as young as the Rockets, star, make all the difference?
In any case, The Pray For Wemby Ploy failed pretty sadly, brutally beaten by The Narrative.
If at midnight, the Rockets head north, it might mean they’re confident of the talent on hand, and less enamored of the free agents available, and trade candidates on offer. Maybe they want to see what year of a different sort of voice will bring, with Ime Udoka.
I’ve chosen this option as South, as it’s the opposite of North, and I think it’s almost an opposite path. If you bring in James Harden, you’re committing to play James Harden basketball. You’re assigning every other player to a supporting role on offense, and to carry an extra 5% of the load on defense, in addition to the 20% you’d ideally expect a player to handle. Because Harden generally isn’t going to do much besides spectate, except in the playoffs, and maybe not much then.
We can talk about him moving without the ball, playing off ball, playing more defense, and so forth. But we all know it’s pissing in the wind. No one talking about “his game”, and “freedom of expression” is planning to do much of that. If Westbrook, Wall and Carmelo didn’t teach Rockets fans that lesson, I’m not sure what will.
Certain players are team accelerators, and Harden is most likely one. Likely not in the same sense that Chris Paul was for both OKC and Phoenix, however. Maybe, though, if it’s just a three year deal, he gets you to where all the young Rockets are now early peak Rockets, and you wave goodbye, while having gotten those same young Rockets some playoff experience.
That’s certainly the ideal version. There’s another version where those young players feel like they’re in jail, and openly want out, and don’t wish to be the NBA equivalent of cycling domestiques for James Harden. Maybe the team doesn’t much care what some of the young players think, until those young Rockets perform more as expected for their draft position?
This path might have seemed more open before the Eastern Conference Finals, with Brown of the Celtics being the target. I certainly hope he isn’t. I’m just not sure how you can have a team’s feature player, getting $50 million per season, unable to hold his dribble in a playoff game. He’s good, but I don’t know if he’s good enough to be a lead star, and that’s pretty much what he has to be under the new CBA and that contract.
There might be other targets, but honestly, I think you’re trading low. I think this is the low ebb of Rockets player valuation. If Udoka can get a tune out of the Rockets chorus of young players, then guys who are afterthoughts now, and part of a very real, and mounting, development minutes crunch, could be considered top trade targets in a year. It’s hard to see how they’d be valued lower.
This sort of compromise path, and possibly a shrewd one. The team signs veteran “plays the right way” sort of guys on reasonable deals. They’re there to put out fires in games, and to be a good influence. They might even have good seasons, and bring future assets in trades to contenders who need help. This doesn’t stop the Rockets for signing star-ish players later, as packages of such veteran guys are generally easy to move, as no deal is too big, or lasts too long, and such players tend to round out good team benches, if chosen wisely.
As much as I liked Eric Gordon, he probably wasn’t the sort of voice in the locker room the team needed, as he always seemed quiet and reticent to me. The Rockets need to find, or really, create, their own Udonis Haslem, to embody whatever New Rockets Culture is supposed to be. Whatever it was has been lost by three years of driving a clown car around the NBA, and it’s time to re-set to something.
I suspect the Rockets will land on something like North by Northwest.
This poll is closed