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The Rockets needed leaders, not drama

The James Harden Saga is Ugly, But Fortunately Elsewhere

James Harden China Tour In Shanghai
Who else here thinks Daryl Morey is a liar?
Photo by Tang Yanjun/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Sometimes it’s nice just to be out of the picture of Big NBA Drama, to not have any drama percolating. Sometimes it’s good to think that Dylan Brooks’ contract, and presence, and attire, is pretty much the worst problem the Houston Rockets have at present. I’m not sure it’s even a problem, to be honest. It could all be fine. Except for the vests without shirts. Those will never be fine, even if Dylan finds part time work, or more likely, volunteers, at bachelorette parties.

The Houston Rockets, with the possible exception of Kevin Porter Jr (who is for the sake of reference, about three months older than Keegan Murray) are all about five or more seasons from what are generally considered career peak years. The only real pressure right now is to improve, to see real growth. The judgments we’ve made about players are for the most part very early on the young Rockets, even on Kevin Porter Jr.

.The good news is, players who start decently, who show they belong, as teenagers often turn into very good NBA players. The question now is will the young Rockets turn the talent that got them to the NBA into the skills that lead to wins, and hopefully, one day, titles? The crop of Rockets is so big, it seems likely that one, two, maybe three of them might reach that point. If they do, that’s enough to go pretty far in the NBA.

Meanwhile the pressures of development, of seeing improvement, however, are a real one for ownership. The Rockets, despite the sentiments of some covering or punditing on the NBA are in fact a top franchise in a big market. They’ve been, the past three seasons as a notable exception, one of the most consistently good to great teams in the NBA over the past, say, 30 years. That’s valuable, as a team, as a league marquee, and as an ongoing business proposition. (Imagine for a second how much praise and adoration the Knicks would get if you swapped their fortunes over the past thirty seasons with that of the Rockets.)

As a business owner, you don’t want to lose the goodwill of the fanbase you’ve built in the city of Houston, and the Rockets are close to doing that. These sentiments take a long time to build, but can be lost quickly. Houston doesn’t tolerate lovable loser teams like the Cubs over generations, only unlovable losers like the Texans. So despite the demands of metrics, spreadsheets and game theory scenarios, sometimes a team simply needs to be decent, or good, rather than optimized. The NBA is at heart entertainment, and the Rockets have failed to entertain.

The good news is, the Rockets should be a lot better. For the player development and growth reasons above, and because under the new NBA CBA they were basically forced to spend cap space, and the team made some big moves in the free agent market.

They signed Fred Van Vleet to a very agreeable deal from the team’s perspective, and signed Dylan Brooks to a deal that surprised pretty much everyone, except I guess Dylan Brooks, The World’s Most Baflingly Confident Man.

As an aside, I very much doubt the Rockets just came up with a crazy number to pay Brooks, and that there were no other bidders. We keep hearing hints of this, but why? Why would the team do that? What’s the upside of that move? Teams rarely pay more than they have to pay, so I expect they didn’t just gratuitously overpay, just to be cool to Dylan. Much of this seems like projection - basically everyone from us to the major media saying “Well I wouldn’t pay Brooks that much!” so obviously no one else would. Except they did, and I suspect there was a competing offer with a bit less money, and fewer years that the Rockets found to be credible and had to beat.

But enough about that.

The biggest move was the one the Rockets didn’t make. They didn’t sign James Harden to a max, or near max deal. This is attributed to the emergence of Ime Udoka as a loud voice in Rockets discussions. This report, I believe. Previously the Rockets still seemed firmly committed members of The Church of Morey. That is, James Harden is their light, and lord, and he can do no wrong, even if that means doing incredibly stupid stuff to get Russell Westbrook.

Getting Jim back, after he showed up out of shape, quit, and whined his way out of Houston, was still the best possible move to a faithful Moreyite. Fortunately Udoka seems to have steered the Rockets from crashing into that particular asteroid. (Whether they hit the asteroid of “Tough Defensive Minded Offensive Disasters” remains an open question.)

This isn’t to say I don’t think Harden could be good for a team. He lead the NBA in assists. If he showed commitment to being in shape, to playing his best in whatever team system he was in, he’s a great bet to outperform expectations. But elsewhere.

The Rockets need, have needed, someone to lead the young Rockets. Someone who sets an example of hard work, professionalism, and to an extent, self-sacrifice. That person doesn’t need to be the team’s best player in four years, because the peak young Rockets are still years away. That person does need to lead, to perhaps goad, some players along. Players who have been, let’s say, coddled, such that John Wall, a man happy enough to stay home and cash checks, as much as said they were a passel of young fools.

That man, whatever your opinion of his game and legacy, is not James Harden.

The very best NBA teams over the years have had a leader off the court, in a coach, and a leader on the court, in a player who demands the best from himself, and his teammates, and won’t tolerate less than that. The Rockets had it with Hakeem and Rudy T. The Spurs with Pop and Duncan. The Bulls with Jordan and Jackson. Annoyingly, the Warriors with Kerr and Green (until recently). Team Lebron with Lebron and whomever Lebron decided would be the coach and represent Lebron from the bench (also Spoelstra).

Even if Van Vleet and Brooks don’t turn out to be the leaders the Rockets need, well, they tried. The Rockets did their best to find those guys. If Dylan Brooks is the price the Rockets pay to NOT sign James Harden, to appease Udoka, it’s still worth it.

Right now Daryl Morey has sown the wind, and is reaping the whirlwind. All those seasons of never saying “No.” to James Harden have created a situation of stunning toxicity with few good answers in Philly. (Not to say Daryl won’t wriggle out of it, he’s good at that.) I don’t hate Daryl, I don’t hate Harden, and I don’t hate the 76ers. But I absolutely adore poetic justice. Especially when it isn’t happening to my team.


Will The New Rockets Lead The Team To Competency?

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    (186 votes)
  • 7%
    (18 votes)
  • 7%
    When Brooks Gets Traded.
    (18 votes)
  • 9%
    Not Until Luka Joins The Team.
    (23 votes)
245 votes total Vote Now