The Houston Rockets aren’t rebuilding, they’re retooling. After their recent 1-4 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, Houston didn’t push to renew head coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract. The organization also moved on from longtime general manager Daryl Morey, who spent 13 seasons with the team.
During his four seasons with the Rockets, D’Antoni went 217-101. That 68.2 winning percentage is the highest mark he’s recorded with any team, even more than with the Phoenix Suns. However, D’Antoni’s coaching style never produced a ring, and the Rockets peaked in the 2017 season, when they finished first in the Western Conference with a 65-17 record and pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Conference Finals.
D’Antoni became famous for his small-ball lineups, which pushed the team to trade Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks earlier this season in a deal that brought Robert Covington to Houston. D’Antoni began running even smaller “micro-ball” lineups, which blew up in Houston’s face when they ran into the Lakers. Los Angeles, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James finished their series against the Rockets with 227 rebounds to Houston’s 163.
Houston sacrificed size to play in D’Antoni’s modern offense, emphasizing three-and-d players over natural centers and power forwards. The Rockets shot more three-pointers than Los Angeles (204 to 162), but the Lakers converted on a higher percentage of those attempts and finished the series with 207 total field goals to Houston’s 173.
The Rockets failed on offense while the Lakers played well-rounded basketball, averaging 111 points, 45.4 rebounds, 25.6 assists, and 6.2 blocks per game in the series. In comparison, Houston only averaged 103.8 points, 32.6 rebounds, 21.2 assists, and three blocks. James Harden was the only Rocket to make 50.0% of his shots, while the Lakers had seven players accomplish the feat.
After four years, D’Antoni’s teams weren’t getting any better. The Rockers made the right decision to clean house and go in another direction as they cling to the hope of winning a title with Harden before the future Hall of Fame shooting guard’s prime ends.
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Rockets are hiring Dallas Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas as their new head coach. Silas is the son of former NBA All-Star and head coach Paul Silas, who most recently coached the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011. The younger Silas inherits a roster led by one of the league’s best scorers but lacks diverse playing styles and depth.
Silas is one of the best offensive minds in the NBA. He has two decades of experience as an assistant and has worked with multiple All-NBA guards over those years, including Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic. Silas and new general manager Rafael Stone hope to get the Rockets over the playoff hump early in the coach’s four-year deal.
Houston believes Silas can succeed where D’Antoni failed as they continue pressing forward with Harden. The Rockets have no plans on moving on from their franchise superstar. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon believes the team is fully committed to the 31-year-old.
On an episode of the Woj Pod, MacMahon said, “The Rockets are 100 percent committed to trying to cash in on James Harden’s prime. They consider him the best player in the league.”
The Rockets already know their current roster isn’t good enough to capitalize on Harden’s value in the playoffs and produce a championship. Assuming Silas abandons micro-ball for a more conventional and proven offensive approach, Houston will seriously shake up its roster. Free agency can help the Rockets offload some of their older players.
Veteran contributors DeMarre Carroll, Tyson Chandler, Jeff Green, and Thabo Sefolosha are on expiring contracts. The Rockets can easily replace all four of those players before next season.
Austin Rivers, who has a player option for the 2020-21 season, is a significant potential loss because of the versatility he offers offensively. He’d also fit right in on other competitive teams around the NBA, including Lakers, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers.
Rivers will make roughly $2.369 million if he opts in for the 2020 season, but he could make much more elsewhere as a free agent, assuming the market isn’t shot because of revenue loss.
With those five players all potentially departing in free agency, the Rockets have some holes to fill in their rotation. The team also needs a new starting center since Capela is gone, and Houston could benefit from making serious roster adjustments. Unfortunately, salary cap limitations will make this retooling process difficult.
In an official release before the 2019 season, the NBA set the salary cap at $109.14 million, with the tax level set at $132,627 million. Any team that exceeds the cap must pay the luxury tax, which is put in place to prevent wealthy owners from signing all of the league’s top players to one or two specific franchises. Some easily attainable exceptions allow teams to go over the cap.
Spotrac projects the Rockets to go way over the salary cap in 2020, leaving them very few options for acquiring free agents. Trades could become the optimal form of roster reconstruction for Silas and Stone. However, team owner Tillman Fertitta didn’t sound optimistic or supportive of any major trades getting done this offseason.
Fertitta told CNBC, “You have James Harden and Russell Westbrook and you have almost 90 percent of your salaries tied up in them and Eric Gordon. But anytime you have players like Eric, P.J., James, and Russell, there’s no reason to blow up your roster.”
As Fertitta alludes to, most of Houston’s money is tied up in their two All-Stars. Harden is playing the best basketball of his life while Westbrook is also a former MVP and a two-time assist and scoring champion. Neither of these 31-year-olds having a championship to their names, which is startling and hints at roster concerns that the Rockets don’t seem open to addressing.
Fertitta seemed confident in his interview, saying, “This is still our window, the next couple years. James and Russell are in their early 30s. We’re not blowing up anything. We plan on contending. I always said you want to set yourself up to be one of the top four teams in your conference each year and then it takes a little luck to win. You look at every year, it always takes a little luck.”
Publicly, Fertitta and Houston’s new leadership seem somewhat complacent with the roster’s current makeup. It’s highly unlikely that the Rockets win with their current lineup, considering this unit is even older and weaker than the one that challenged Golden State two and a half years ago.
Harden and Westbrook have burned through their fair share of superstar teammates over the years. They both played alongside Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City before Harden went to Houston, eventually pairing with Dwight Howard and then Chris Paul. Meanwhile, Westbrook played alongside Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Victor Oladipo.
Now, the aging All-Stars are entering their second season together in Houston on massive contracts worth over $41 million per year. It doesn’t sound likely, but if the Rockets want to make a superstar move for Joel Embiid or Blake Griffin, that means trading away Harden or Westbrook.
Possible trade packages exist where the Rockets could pair Gordon with a smaller contract for low-level All-Stars like Andre Drummond, Jrue Holiday, Victor Oladipo, or Nikola Vucevic. None of those deals seem particularly advantageous, which means the Rockets are unlikely to bring a third star to Houston.
Instead, the organization could move on from Gordon or P.J. Tucker to land some quality role players and replace the veterans departing in free agency. Apart from a home run trade for Embiid, which the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem interested in, there isn’t an obvious deal that immediately makes Houston better.
As Silas and Stone settle into their new roles with the Rockets, they should take a long look at Houston’s current talent pool. The roster is designed for D’Antoni’s micro-ball, which proved horribly ineffective against one of the NBA’s biggest teams. Whether it’s through trades or crafty cap management, Houston must begin retooling this roster to capitalize on Harden’s remaining prime.