By: Jacob Shindel, Columnist
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The dominoes have begun to fall in Houston for the Rockets, as it seems like the James Harden-Russell Westbrook era could be over far sooner than people thought. First, it was head coach Mike D’Antoni stepping down. Next, Daryl Morey, the Rockets General Manager (GM), announced that he would not be returning to the team next year. Both have since found new teams; D’Antoni as an assistant coach to Steve Nash with the Brooklyn Nets, and Daryl Morey in Philadelphia as the new President of Basketball Operations for the 76ers.
It would be stressful trying to find a new GM and a new head coach in a single offseason, even if it was a regular offseason. In an already shortened offseason, which is now slated to start on Dec. 22, this challenge gets even steeper. However, it now seems as if the staff vacancies should be the least of Houston’s concerns.
The franchise’s situation went from manageable to complete uncertainty in the span of a single day. The rumors started swirling when ESPN’s Tim MacMahon tweeted out that Russell Westbrook and James Harden expressed skepticism about the immediate future of the Rockets. Their feelings of discomfort make sense to me.
The Rockets traded away Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks. In a four team trade, Houston received Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves at last year’s trade deadline. The Rockets had all but announced that they would be embracing small ball, where they would have more shooters on the court, and not as much of a presence in the paint.
While small ball isn’t a new concept, it is certainly not a common strategy for teams to utilize in today’s NBA. D’Antoni was supposed to figure out how to use small ball to the Rockets advantage, but they never found that balance. With that being said, the trade that sent Capela to Atlanta occurred on Feb. 5, just over a month before the season shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a regular season, with a full 82-game schedule, D’Antoni and the Rockets would’ve had plenty of time to figure out their lineup before the start of the playoffs. Instead, they had 22 games to figure it out because of the three month hiatus, which is not a lot of time.
D’Antoni’s tenure with Houston could be considered a disappointment, as from 2016 up until this season, the Rockets did not win a championship despite having Harden, one of the best players in the league. The Rockets advanced to the Conference Semifinals each year, but only made it to the Conference Finals in one year, in the 2017-2018 season, when they lost to the Golden State Warriors in seven games.
But this article isn’t about D’Antoni, it’s about the uncertain future of the Rockets. On the same day that Westbrook and Harden expressed uncertainty about the Rockets future, Shams Charania reported that Westbrook wants out of Houston.
Westbrook shot an almost-career-low from three point range this season, shooting an abysmal 25.8%. His lack of shooting for a point guard is troubling for teams trying to trade for him but he is still a valuable piece for a team. Chris Paul, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was viewed as washed up after his time in Houston. Paul proved the doubters wrong in his first year in Oklahoma City, posting a higher points per game average this season than in both seasons in Houston, and shooting a better percentage from the field.
I believe Westbrook is still one of the league’s best players. His lack of shooting would not make him a good fit with a team like the Milwaukee Bucks or Lakers, who both lack shooting, but for a team like the Miami Heat, who have tons of shooting and lots of trade assets, Westbrook seems like a good fit. Goran Dragić is at the later stage in his career and the Heat could be looking to move on from him if they want to be competitive in the immediate future. Westbrook has a lot of teams that he could play for next season, but, for right now, Houston does not seem like one of them.