Keeping the core 4 together is critical
Open letter to Rockets fans: Don't blow it up
Dear frustrated Rockets fan:
I sit here at the airport coming back from vacation in Orlando, Florida reflecting on my great experience at the Harry Potter Park. A place where kids run around and wave their fake magic wands and everything that they want appears before them at their command. A place where money can buy anything that is available, and you get exactly what you want out of the thing that you buy. Whether it be a wizards robe, the thrill of a roller coaster, or the fantastic taste of butterbeer. I had a great time, even when the Woj bomb dropped on my phone explaining the Rockets possible plan this offseason. Trade Chris Paul? Trade Clint Capela? Possibly trade James Harden? Honestly it didn't surprise me in the slightest when I saw it because failure and disappointment in life consistently bring out two characteristic traits. Overreaction and overthinking. Trust me, I can tell you personally I have experienced both to the max myself recently.
Here is what I will tell you. I am a Wizards fan, a frustrated Wizards fan. And no, I am not trying to make a bad pun by comparing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to me being a Washington Wizards fan. I actually am a Washington Wizards fan, so allow me to tell you about being a Wizards fan and how it is so similar to being a Rockets fan right now.
I grew up going to Wizards games when Michael Jordan came to DC for the end of his career. My dad split a season ticket package with people because he wanted to see the greatest player ever perform at the end of his career. Right after Jordan left there was a down period for Washington. They were horrible. However they did slowly start to rebuild with the acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Believe it or not, this was actually the first "Big 3" that I can remember. I truly believe the Wizards set the model for teams moving forward to have a "Big 3." The Celtics said they had a "Big 3" with Pierce, Allen and Garnett (Rondo always felt slighted). After that, the "Bigger 3" emerged in Miami with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Nowadays every team strives to have a "Big 3." Golden State has "The Biggest 3" with Curry, Klay and Durant. Draymond is a fantastic role player, just like Rondo was for the Celtics.
The Wizards Big 3 could not get through LeBron. EVER. It was SO FRUSTRATING. 2004 - Swept by the Heat. 2005 - Loss in 6 to the Cavs. 2006 - Swept by the Cavs. 2007 - Loss in 6 to the Cavs. Four awful years of losing to LeBron in the playoffs. Wizards fans kept saying the same phrases over and over again. "This isn't fair." "Fire the General Manager." "Fire the coach." "We have to blow it up." "When will LeBron leave the East?" "We're just not good enough." After year two of losing to LeBron I was reciting these phrases along with every other Wizards fan. It just was not working because every year this dooming sense of a loss to LeBron was imminent.
Eventually the Wizards blew it all up after 2007, and then you know what happened? Five straight years of not making the playoffs. Five awful years which in today's NBA are known as "The Process." Those years were the worst because you accelerate slowly into the unknown. Do I trust the coach? Not really. Do I trust the general manager? Nope. "The Process" years are sports purgatory where you just don't know what the other side is going to look like. Sometimes, it will end up like the the 76ers, where you will get a team that kind of works but still isn't quite there. Other times, you will end up like the Wizards did again: mismanaged, mis-coached, and floating in mediocrity. Rarely does it work with a total rebuild. What DOES work is adding on or improving a good team. Just look at the Toronto Raptors this year and the Warriors last year. The two teams in the finals this season.
Why do I tell this Wizards story? Because completely rebuilding the Rockets would be a BIG MISTAKE.
What makes a successful team? Let's look at the Warriors as our model: A stable front office, quality drafting, and proper free agent acquisitions. You hate the Warriors because they win, and because of that you would like to say "It isn't fun watching them". "It's boring, I'm done with this dynasty". "This is bad for basketball." I disagree, I actually think this team is extremely fun to watch, and I can't wait to tell my son that I was alive to watch the greatest basketball team ever. They built through the draft and took advantage of other teams failing in the draft for them to rise to success.
However like every "super-team" they will go away. Super-teams are like Houston thunderstorms in the summer: They are intense, but they are quick. Eventually this will pass, and it might pass this summer when Durant goes to New York. So lets REALLY look at the Rockets, while keeping in mind the fundamental principles for a successful team.
1) James Harden is a superstar -
This was a tremendous front office move that should not be erased. There are guards in this league that will never win a title and deservedly never win a title. Russell Westbrook is Exhibit A because we have seen a pattern of failing behavior from him. End of games, driving the lane going 200 miles an hour and not giving the ball to a SHOOTER. It doomed the Thunder this year and it will continue to be their downfall because Westbrook's decision making continues to be questionable. Harden is different. When I first moved to Houston and went to see the Rockets live for the first time, I knew he was a dynamic playmaker. What I did not know is that he seemed to have the vision and accuracy of a dynamic point guard. I thought he looked like Steve Nash the first time I saw him play, he had 15 assists. It blew me away. More importantly, Harden is actually a pioneer for a skill in the game of basketball - How to draw a foul on a three point shot. It was never even thought about or attempted by anybody in basketball history to try and perfect that skill and James has done it. You don't get rid of pioneers or transcendent talents. You figure out a way to make it work with them because they are VALUABLE. In this case, MOST VALUABLE. Harden has struggled in the playoffs because he is a pioneer and referees want to fundamentally referee his game differently in the playoffs. This year in particular, the stamina bug hit him again because of all the injuries early on in the season. Getting rid of James is not an option because he is EVERYTHING you want in your super star. It is more about the pieces around James, which leads me to.....
2) Chris Paul is a capable supporting act
Jordan had Pippen. Steph has Klay / Durant. LeBron had Wade. The list goes on and on.. You need a quality 1B or 2A to your superstar leading act. Paul is 2A. What he brings to this team is organization, intensity on the defensive side, and the mid range jump shot. All three of those things are vital to a championship team, and I don't see his skills declining at a rapid rate. If you asked me who would I rather have on the Rockets, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook right now, I would take Paul. He knows his role, he will defer to Harden without argument, and he will be stingy defensively while directing traffic offensively. However him bringing a mid range game is his most important asset. My biggest criticism of the Rockets is that they are too much of a one trick pony. They think way too often "Why step in for a higher percentage shot when we can attempt our 38th three pointer of the game?" Chris Paul brings them back to reality with his decision making because I always see him go for the higher percentage basket, whether it's an open jump shot or an alley-oop pass to Cappella. Getting rid of Paul would be a massive mistake and overreaction. Without his injury two years ago, THEY MAKE THE FINALS. It stinks that it happened, but you should not re-invent the wheel because of it.
3) Gordon and Capela are necessary
Let's start with Gordon. In today's NBA, you need three point shooters. We know this, and Gordon provides that for the Rockets. He is the centerpiece role player on this team, and his play is super important especially in the playoffs. We have seen over and over again, the Rockets playoff success rides on him knocking down open jump shots which come often due to the attention required by defenses on Harden. Many teams will look at their role players and say "he is a poor man's Eric Gordon." When that happens, you do not give up THE Eric Gordon. Capela is more interesting to me because his game has got to develop. Most players come into the league and excel in certain areas but lack in others. Capela when healthy is an A player in the half court game. He is tremendous in the pick and roll and a fantastic offensive rebounder while defending the rim well. His problem is against the Warriors, which obviously is horrible because that's the hump Houston cannot get over. I truly believe he needs to develop a mid range jump shot. Ben Simmons needs to as well. If you look at the recent history of basketball, necessary skills have been developed by big men over time. Chris Bosh was called upon to shoot three pointers for the Heat to make more room for LeBron and Wade around the rim back in the day where Miami was winning. Brook Lopez this season made more three pointers this year than Kobe Bryant did at any point in an individual season in his career. I'm not saying Capela needs the three ball like those guys, but players can adapt and change their style. Clint needs to do this and is still young enough where he can do it, so he can work against the Warriors. You do not trade him for subpar value.
Those four core players should be untouchable with Kevin Durant out the door in Golden State most likely at the end of the year. You can advance out of the West with those four players, I truly believe that.If you are not in that camp, I want to go back to speaking to you as a Wizards fan again.
Even though Washington was knocked out by LeBron four straight years in the playoffs, I wouldn't trade those fan experiences for bad years. I went to some of those playoff games and the building was electric. Riding the subway down to the stadium, up the escalator past the trombone's playing on the corner while you approach the building. Scalpers yelling out prices for tickets as you stand in line with every other anxious fan wondering "Will we win this game and put ourselves in good position to win the series?" "Can we finally get past LeBron?" It never happened, and it was disappointment over and over again, but I'm glad the Wizards did not "blow it up" prematurely. I got four great years as a fan before the five horrible years of rebuilding. If you think the Rockets choosing to rebuild is like waving a magic wand and every decision they make will be a good one, you are probably mistaken. Magic isn't real. What is real is the cornerstone of this team and I believe in them moving forward.
4) So what do they do?
So what is the Rockets priority this offseason? Get a defensive stopper. To me, having a Tony Allen or Trevor Ariza type player is extremely important against the Warriors. That player, when on the floor, is responsible for using his energy on stopping the other team's best player. It is not really relevant what they do offensively, because on that side of the floor they should just participate in ball movement. Defense is the reason the Rockets almost beat the Warriors two years ago. Everybody criticizes Ariza for game 7 because he struggled shooting so much, however I say, why was he shooting so much? He was chasing Durant around, that takes so much energy and he should never have been given double digit shot attempts from three. Having a defensive stopper is the equivalent of having a left handed specialist in baseball. You have one job.
I look at the Rockets just like I look at the Bucks. Both teams have game-changing superstars. Just because a loss happens (even if it's happened over and over again) you do not erase the progress you've made. Keep plugging along and adding to what you have, and eventually the puzzle will be complete and a trophy will be won. Overreaction and overthinking does nothing but keep you looking at the past when it's most important to let go of the past and keep plugging along. Keep plugging, Rockets.