The Rockets lost. What's next?

Composite photo by Jack Brame

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.

Chris Paul:

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.

The NBA season is 48 days away and the Houston Rockets are among the handful of teams that figure to be a part of the national conversation this year. Not only did swapping out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook dramatically shake up Houston's on-court dynamics, it also ensured that the Rockets would be a big story this year. This was all but confirmed when the NBA released their schedule in August, revealing that the Rockets had been given 38 nationally televised games.

While there's no doubt that Houston will have a lot of eyeballs on them this season, how they perform with this shaken up team is really all anyone cares about.

Play Style

The Rockets with Chris Paul were slowly starting to form in James Harden's image as he took on more and more usage. This means Houston played at a slow, but deliberate pace that involved an unusually high amount of isolation. The fast-paced early Rockets teams with Mike D'Antoni were no longer and ushered in was this methodical, but effective play style that involved little ball or player movement.

For a Harden and Westbrook pairing to be successful, Houston can no longer play to these extremes. The reason those Rockets teams were so effective was because there were usually three or more shooters surrounding Harden at all times. They will no longer have this luxury, and will therefore have to tweak the offense.

To truly utilize Westbrook, the Rockets will have to up their pace a decent amount and run on every missed shot. They won't be as fast as the Warriors, but they should be at least middle of the pack as compared to dead last. They also have to do at least some player movement to create artificial floor spacing when there aren't multiple capable three-point shooters on the floor - which will happen.

It'll be interesting if Houston decides to change up their defense too, as half of the coaching staff was completely overhauled this summer. Former Rockets coach Elston Turner was brought in as an associate head coach and will now be taking over the defense. Although they tweaked their scheme when things got rough, the Rockets still did a ton of switching defensively last season. It led them to the 17th ranked defense after finishing 7th the year before and one of the poorer defensive rebounding teams.

Houston did a lot of their switching because the Warriors were their chief opponent in the Western Conference for the last several years. There's a possibility they adopt a more conservative defensive scheme under Turner and the Warriors potentially being a shell of themselves next season.

Westbrook should help clean things up for Houston on the rebounding side of the ball, but that will only go so far. The Rockets will have to recommit to whatever style they choose to adopt next season, because the West got better. Houston won't make it past the second round in this revamped conference playing the kind of defense they did last season.

Continuity

Despite the major shakeup at starting point guard, the Rockets will be bringing back 77.1% of their total minutes from last season. Houston re-signed Danuel House, Austin Rivers, and Gerald Green in the first few days of free agency on nice value deals. Nene Hilario was also recently brought back. For some context, the Rockets won at a 60-win rate once Danuel House returned to the team from his contract dispute. Aside from obviously Chris Paul, Houston's roster at that point of the season is nearly identical to the one the one they will play next season.

This familiarity should serve them very well in the regular season as they get acclimated to Westbrook.

Load management

'Load management' became a popular (and mocked) term in the NBA last season, but for the Rockets, the concept of a system to keep players healthy and rested has a lot of value. Houston will have one of the NBA's oldest rosters going into training camp. For some context, aside from Clint Capela and Danuel House, every significant Rockets rotation player next year will be over the age of 30. To compound the matter, both James Harden and Russell Westbrook have logged significant minutes in their career as the lead horse on their respective teams.

In a recent interview on the Rich Eisen show, Daryl Morey brought up the idea of a flexible rest program for Houston's key players.


Resting Harden and Westbrook sporadically throughout the season makes a ton of sense and it's something the Rockets can do since they each have a counterpart that can shoulder some of the burden for a game or two. Seeding is obviously important and Houston has made it clear that it values homecourt advantage in the playoffs, but the long game has to be played if they want to reach their desired heights.

Possible midseason additions

The possibility for midseason improvement is always on the table for a team like the Rockets. GM Daryl Morey has shown time and time again that he's willing to put future assets on the table even if it means given the team a slightly better edge over the field. However, this year, it seems more likely that the Rockets add someone via the buyout market than the trade deadline.

With Houston leveraged several years out for draft picks because of the Westbrook trade, giving up even more picks doesn't sound like something they would do right now. The Rockets are also on the very edge of the luxury tax, so taking on any additional salary in a trade seems unlikely.

A name to watch on the buyout market is Andre Iguodala. Given his championship pedigree, several teams will be competing for Iguodala's services. However, the Rockets have tried to sign Iguodala in the past and should be considered as good a destination as any. For what it's worth, Iguodala was reportedly impressed with Houston's presentation in 2017 and nearly left the Warriors to sign with Houston.

How will they perform?

Record prediction: 54-28

James Harden sets the floor of this Rockets team so high year after year. Under Harden, the Rockets have had a top seven offense in 6 out of the 7 years he's been in Houston. With Harden and a decent amount of floor spacing, the Rockets are a virtual lock for a top five offense, which should be enough to guarantee 50 wins. Defensively, the Rockets should be a slight step better than they were last year (17th in the NBA) given that they have better personal to start the season than they did last year.

Where they finish defensively is what will ultimately dictate how accurate this prediction is. It's hard to see Houston being elite, but anywhere from a fifteenth to tenth place finish on that end of the floor is very much in play. If they exceed that, this number is admittedly too low. However, given how they performed last year and how much the rest of the Western Conference got better, this feels like a reasonable number for now.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome