The Rockets lost. What's next?
It's been four days since the Houston Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and every take that can be said about the team has been said. From "fire the coach" to "trade everyone" or "player x can't win at the highest levels," every cliche trope ever given to a team after they've been eliminated from the playoffs has been said. There truly isn't anything new under the sun. However in a situation like this, it's best to take a step back, gain some perspective, and assess where to go from here.
After a devastating playoff loss, there's a temptation to tear apart the foundation that got you there in the first place and start from scratch. It's an understandable instinct. This is the second consecutive season the Rockets have been eliminated by the Warriors in the postseason and this time, the final game was without Kevin Durant. Last season, it was easy for Houston to hang their hat on "What if Chris Paul hadn't got hurt?" because it was a perfectly reasonable hypothetical.
This season, it's hard to look past dropping a Game 6 on your home floor without the other team's best player. It's obviously more complicated when discussing a Warriors team without Durant as the core four of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala still remain. Golden State generally plays with more pace, ball movement, and less isolation when Durant doesn't play. This doesn't mean they're a better basketball team, but it's hard to sell that core as an underdog given they've won without Durant before.
The fact remains that Houston was favored to win Game 6 by seven points and several opportunities to win the game were given to them, but ultimately squandered. The demons of this season, particularly defense and rebounding, poetically caused their postseason demise. The Rockets were an average defense (18th in the regular season) and porous defensive rebounding team all year and it came back to haunt them in Game 6 in the forms of Kevon Looney, Klay Thompson, and of course, Stephen Curry.
So the Rockets challenged the Warriors in a competitive series for the second year in a row and came up short. Where do they go from here as an organization?
It's tough, because even if Kevin Durant leaves Golden State in free agency this summer, the Warriors could still conceivably be a giant road block in Houston's pathway to a championship. With James Harden turning 30 years old this August and Chris Paul turning 34 years old earlier this month, Houston's title window feels like it's dwindling.
Although the Rockets have reportedly been given the green light to spend into the luxury tax this summer, the amount of flexibility Houston will have to upgrade the roster is limited. Houston will have their taxpayer mid-level exception to spend along with minimum contracts. Outside of that, the strongest pathway to upgrade the roster is via trade.
Again, the temptation is to be completely reactionary to the last series or game played. However, basing your decision making off of recency bias is imprudent and very unlike this front office. Starting with reigning MVP James Harden, the Rockets still have a ton of awesome salvageable pieces worth retaining and bringing into next season. A tear-down is a bit drastic just because a team fell short of defeating the reigning champions who also happen to be the greatest collection of talent ever amassed in NBA history.
Starting with coaching, Mike D'Antoni has helped establish a strong offensive identity that's been the bedrock for most of Houston's success over the last few seasons. Under D'Antoni, the Rockets have won 55, 52, and 65 games respectively in the regular season and forced the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets have also been a top-two offense the entire time D'Antoni has been in Houston. It may be tempting to move away from D'Antoni in favor of a fresh face, but making a coaching change just for the sake of making a coaching change is not logical. It's improbable the Rockets find a coach worthy of being called an upgrade over D'Antoni. D'Antoni has also developed strong trust with the core players in the locker room including Harden and Paul, so making a change could be detrimental to team chemistry.
However you feel about him, James Harden is indisputably one of the best players in basketball today and it's unlikely that the Rockets find a player as good for a couple of decades. Harden's also locked under contract to Houston until 2021-22 with 2022-23 being a player option worth $46.8 million and has strong backing from the front office and ownership so it's unlikely he's headed anywhere anytime soon.
With Chris Paul, it's tricky. Is he going anywhere? No, Paul is under a 4-year, $159.7 million contract with Houston that expires in 2021-23. Paul's still an excellent player, but at age 34, he started to show his first signs of decline this season.
2017-18: 18.6 PPG, 7.9 APG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.7 SPG on 60.4% true shooting, 24.4 PER
2018-19: 15.6 PPG, 8.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, and 2.0 SPG on 56.0% true shooting, 19.7 PER
The Rockets can still probably squeeze one or two more good years out of Paul before he really starts to decline, but after that, his contract could look bleak really quickly.
There's probably an overreaction happening with Clint Capela right now. Capela came into this season slightly bulkier than he was last year causing a noticeable drop off in mobility and a dip in his numbers across the board. Capela, once the ultimate Swiss army knife (no pun intended) as a switch defender was now being targeted on switches by guards during the regular season. It forced Houston to completely change their defensive system from "switch everything" to "keep Capela near the basket".
This, along with Draymond Green's unbelievable defense, led to Capela being largely unplayable for large stretches during the playoffs this season.
Clint Capela playoffs per 36 minutes:
2017-18: 15.0 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 2.5 BPG, and 1.0 SPG on 64.2% true shooting, 24.1 PER
2018-19: 11.6 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.3 BPG, and 0.3 SPG on 54.9% true shooting, 15.7 PER
Capela underperformed this season as a whole, but his importance as a release valve for James Harden on offense is probably being overlooked. Harden thrives when he has a big man setting hard screens, rolling to the basket, leaking out on fast breaks, and finishing at the high clip Capela does. The Warriors may have taken him out of the series, but that's one series. Capela is due for a bounce-back season and while he may be interesting trade fodder, his importance to Houston's offense is understated.
Capela is also Houston's only young core piece, important when your core is comprised of 30+ year-old veterans who may struggle for energy at times.
James Harden, Chris Paul & Clint Capela 70 Pts 2018.02.23 Houston Rockets vs TWolves | FreeDawkins youtu.be
Fans rushing to drive Capela to the airport may want to slow it down like five notches. Capela is still really good and vital to Houston's success on both ends. James Harden's never had a better pick and roll partner and it will be very difficult to find a big man who can replace his production with the same willingness to fit into that role should Houston trade Capela.
Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are also also players thought of as being interesting trade fodder going into the summer of 2019. Both were stellar in the postseason for their own unique ways.
Gordon provided Houston with solid floor spacing and efficient scoring (17.8 points per game on 60.4% true shooting). Tucker was incredible at hustling to grab key offensive rebounds and was tasked with guarding Kevin Durant for most of the series.
While both should provide good trade assets considering the values of their contract. There's also a strong possibility Houston brings both of them back. The Rockets have been rumored to want to extend Gordon the past couple years and this summer may provide a good opportunity for that. Both help Houston maintain a strong baseline of excellence.
The Rockets will not have their first round pick this year, but will be able to trade their next one after the draft should they choose to make a significant trade.
It's also worth noting that nobody can predict the future. The reasoning behind keeping the 'Lob City' Clippers together was because you never know when an injury or suspension breaks in your favor and allows you to sneak a championship like the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers. Daryl Morey and the Rockets have always been an aggressive, yet prudent front office group so it'll be interesting to see what kind of approach they take this summer.
However, you do get the vibe that there might be noticeable changes or attempts at upgrading the roster this summer after Game 6. Even James Harden alluded to some kind of foundational change during his post-game presser.
For fans of the team who feel like the sky is falling - there's no shame in bringing back most of the core players and taking another stab at competing again next year. Winning a championship in the NBA is really hard, and the Rockets are faced with the unique challenge of trying to do it at the same time as this Warriors dynasty.