This is not up for debate. The summer has been disastrous for the Rockets. That's a fact.
General manager Daryl Morey bet big in free agency and lost. The Rockets unloaded Omer Asik on the New Orleans Pelicans for minimal compensation and shipped Jeremy Lin and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for a substantial trade exception.
These Rockets, so sure their series of ploys would pay off, also told Chandler Parsons to ink a big-money offer sheet knowing full well they would match, per The Dallas Morning News.
Well, he did. And they didn't.
The same bravado that led the Rockets to Harden and Howard—and even the poison-pill contracts given to Lin and Asik in 2012—came back to haunt them. They whiffed on Carmelo Anthony and then watched helplessly as Chris Bosh remained with the Miami Heat after his relocation to Houston was deemed a formality.
Whatever damage control the Rockets have since done—signing Trevor Ariza, Jeff Adrien, etc.—is inconsequential. It's them re-gifting fans with a roster they were supposed to drastically improve. And the Rockets did not improve. They got worse. Make no mistake about it.
Understanding that is important, because Harden and Howard don't.
"It won't affect us at all," Howard said of Parsons' departure, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Nonsensical. That's what that was.
Only it wasn't unspeakable ignorance. Perhaps it was a little ignorant, but Howard and Parsons are friends. Parsons, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, played a pivotal part of the Rockets' sales pitch to Howard last summer.
Of course his departure meant something to Howard. It had to. His sentiments bear no truth. It was him being protective of and waxing confidence about his team. There's nothing terribly wrong about that.
"We have myself and James," Howard went on to say. "We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team. It's on us."
Again, nothing incredibly wrong here. It's just excessive, reiterating what we already know and deeply understand: The Rockets have some work to do, and Howard isn't about to display humility that could be construed as weakness or displeasure.
But there's also what Harden told Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," he said. "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We've lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we'll be fine next season."
Welcome to the Realm of Not OK.
What Howard said toed the line of ridiculous and insulting. Harden crossed it. He's so far past the line, he can't even see the line. The line is a—well, Joey Tribbiani can explain the rest:
No amount of backtracking is going to change that. Not even one-syllable Twitter responses portrayed as a subtle apology can change what he said.
See, it's not about whether Harden and Howard meant what they said; it's that they said it at all. It's that they have complicated an already fragile situation. Worse, this could not have come at a more inopportune time.
Never mind how the general public perceives their comments. Think about what this could do to players within the locker room. Off-court chemistry has been a big part of Houston's success these last few years, as Parsons himself has never hesitated to admit.
"These guys - we genuinely like each other," he told CSN Houston's Howard Chen in 2013. "We're not just playing with each other because we have to. We're all friends."
Three rotation players, three friends—all of whom started at one point—are gone. This, like NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff argues, is not a time for artificial self-glorification:
Howard continues to take an unrealistic view about just how much he and Harden can do for the rest of the roster.
A better approach would have been the one taken by Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, who knows the team got worse this offseason, at least on paper. Displaying false bravado in essentially saying, ‘Nah, we’re good’ when losing a player who contributed as much as Parsons without getting anyone to replace him is not only ridiculous, but shows the level of delusion Howard has when it comes to the game of basketball.
Two stars, however super, aren't enough. The Rockets are coming off of a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the rising Portland Trail Blazers, who, like many other teams, improved.
This Howard- and Harden-led squad wasn't fine a few months ago, and it's certainly not fine now. The pressure was on from the moment last season ended and grew exponentially in light of the team's offseason failures.
After seeing the worst-case scenario go down, the Rockets had to do something. They have to do something.
People are looking for them to use that trade exception, to make a splash of some kind. Fans, like the Rockets themselves, are looking for answers.
Like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal notes, not even the most optimistic parties can assume the Rockets are better off now than they were last season:
Bear with the Rockets.
Things didn't go according to the primary plan during the 2014 offseason, and this season isn't going to be as successful as the 2013-14 campaign, playoff loss and all accounted for. However, there's still plenty of reason for optimism in Houston.
All hope may not be lost, but immediately, the Rockets are stranded somewhere between legitimate title contenders and fringe-playoff teams. That fans must "bear with them" tells us all we need to know.
Put simply, the Rockets were on the cusp of promising Bosh and Parsons, then delivered Ariza and fillers instead. Nothing about that is fine.
And the Rockets will have to answer for their transgressions.
How will Harden and Howard's post-Parsons behavior reflect upon the Rockets if they get bounced in the first round again or, worse, miss the playoffs altogether? Laugh if you must, but this is reality.
The San Antonio Spurs are still the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are still dangerous. The Los Angeles Clippers are better after adding Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes—ripple effects of the Donald Sterling soap opera notwithstanding.
The Memphis Grizzlies are still their scrappy selves, less Ed Davis, plus scorers Vince Carter and Jordan Adams. The Golden State Warriors still have a formidable core, regardless of whether it includes Kevin Love or Klay Thompson and David Lee.
The Pelicans—at the expense of the Rockets, mind you—are more dangerous up front with Asik and Anthony Davis than they've ever been. Dipping into Houston and New York's asset pool has assured Dallas of another playoff campaign. The Phoenix Suns aren't going anywhere.
Point being, the Western Conference is still dangerous. It's stronger, while the Rockets are weaker.
Next year, then, was never about taking a step forward. It was about survival, about navigating the regular-season gauntlet without losing sight of their ultimate goal.
Now, in the wake of Harden and Howard's bombastry, it's about proving there's a hint of truth to what they're saying, lest the Rockets be looked down upon more than they already are. It's about digging deeper into the Rockets' seemingly upside-down culture and figuring out whether this is all for show or a costly problem.
It's about Harden and Howard putting pressure on a Rockets team facing plenty already and successfully creating one more failure for it to lament and survive.