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.

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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