Houston Rockets and 5 NBA Teams That Need to Hit the Reset Button
After failing to reach the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in five seasons, the Houston Rockets must be asking themselves what more they can do in their quest for an NBA title.
Maybe the answer is nothing. Maybe this is as far as this iteration of Space City's finest can go.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook are on the wrong side of 30. Mike D'Antoni's contract is up. If there's ever a right time for an organization to reset, the Rockets might be staring it in the face.
And they aren't alone. Whether it's a full-scale demolition and Process-style restart or a more narrowly focused redirection, five other teams should consider sweeping changes today in search of a better tomorrow.
We're talking about substantial alterations, so we'll leave out clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, who arguably need to reshuffle their supporting casts but probably won't touch their core stars. For these six squads, major moves are needed to eventually improve their fortunes.
Since Harden skyrocketed to stardom his first season in Houston, 2012-13, the Rockets have been searching for his sidekick.
Dwight Howard had three seasons to prove he was up for the job, but Houston bookended first-round exits around a five-game loss in the conference finals, and the big man was allowed to walk in 2016 free agency.
Chris Paul got the next crack in 2017, and Houston immediately won 65 games and pushed the defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games in the conference finals. The Rockets weren't the same the next season and followed 53 wins with a second-round loss to the Warriors.
That meant Paul was out and Westbrook was in, a change that eventually propelled the Rockets to move Clint Capela in search of maximum spacing. But Houston was even less threatening (plus-2.7 net rating this season, plus-4.8 last year), and it couldn't muster much resistance in its five-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.
Westbrook was unreliable. Eric Gordon was never himself (that, or this is his new, declining version). Harden was left on an island, which produced some absurd statistics (third straight scoring title; this one with 34.3 points per game) but didn't put this team on a championship level.
The Rockets could opt against any boat-rocking and continue making playoff trips, but those have never been the aim. Championship dreams have driven this team's moves, but they have never felt further from reality.
"It's easy to say the Rockets need to add pieces, much harder to say how they might actually go about it," The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote. "Houston has no cap room, no 2020 draft picks, no willingness to spend into the tax and no young players that anybody wants. You might say this Rocket has run out of fuel."
Resetting probably means trading Harden, and maybe that's too dramatic for Houston to consider. But he isn't getting younger and is moving closer to his chance to enter 2022 free agency (player option). If the roster isn't salvageable around him, would the Rockets trade him to correct it?
Soon, the better question might be: What other choice do they have?
Four consecutive first-round exits cost Nate McMillan his coaching gig, but if the Indiana Pacers take a realistic look at their limitations, they won't stop at swapping skippers.
Max money might convince him to stay, but it'd be a risky investment for Indy. The 28-year-old still hasn't looked right since he suffered a ruptured quad tendon in January 2019. He has a little over one season of stardom on his resume and most of the other time he might've been closer to mediocrity than greatness.
Oh, and he's not an ideal fit with 24-year-old Domantas Sabonis, and fellow big man Myles Turner is a worse one. Why the Pacers are still adhering to the twin-towers model in 2020 is anyone's guess, but it seems even they know it's outdated. While the club has cast a wide net in its coaching search, the first name mentioned was D'Antoni, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Given D'Antoni's penchant for playing small, it's tough to imagine he'd welcome the Sabonis-Turner frontcourt with open arms.
This franchise needs a roof-raiser. It has to find more high-potential prospects. Aaron Holiday turns 24 in September and has an 11.7 career player efficiency rating. He can't be the most interesting up-and-comer on the roster.
This club is more than a coaching change away from orchestrating a deep playoff run. The roster isn't bad, but it lacks developmental opportunities. This could be about as good as it gets with this group, and the front office just showed this isn't good enough when it gave McMillan his walking papers.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the best stories in basketball this season. After losing stars Westbrook and Paul George last summer, OKC became the small-market engine that could and followed its devastatingly effective triple-point guard lineup to 44 wins and a seven-game series loss to the Rockets in the opening round.
But that chapter is finished. The Thunder seem to understand that. Rather than pursue a contract extension with Billy Donovan—this season's bronze medalist in the Coach of the Year voting—they effectively jump-started their organizational overhaul by letting him walk.
"It became apparent that we couldn't provide him the information on the future direction of the team over the next several seasons to give him the level of clarity that he understandably desires at this stage of his career," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement.
OKC must get back to business with stockpiling picks and prospects, a process that started in earnest last offseason. Through the George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant trades, the Thunder assembled a mountain of assets, but there are ways to expand the collection.
Paul has trade value even as a 35-year-old who will earn $85.6 million over the next two seasons. Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams can attract suitors for their on-court contributions and their eight-figure expiring salaries. OKC should let Danilo Gallinari walk in free agency this offseason, and if Andre Roberson commands more than a prove-it pact, the Thunder should let someone else pay him.
Their future is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley and whoever they can find with all these draft picks.
The Orlando Magic won 42 games and lost in the opening round in five games last season. Considering they snapped a six-year playoff drought, though, they saw the campaign as a cause for celebration—and a justification for splurging.
After the offseason winds had blown through Orlando, the franchise had made a $100 million commitment to Nikola Vucevic, given $54 million to Terrence Ross and brought in Al-Farouq Aminu on a $29 million deal.
For the amount of money spent, the talent seemed to fall short, but at least the franchise could convince itself it was laying a foundation for something better.
About that: Orlando's winning percentage dropped 60 points this season (from .512 to .452), and while it returned to the playoffs, it once again lost in five games. Vucevic regressed. Ross regressed. Aminu appeared an awful fit before being shelved by a torn meniscus. Aaron Gordon's scoring average dipped for the second straight season (to 14.4 points per game).
The club dropped a spot in offensive efficiency (22nd to 23rd). The defense fell two rungs (eighth to 10th). Overall, the Magic went from outscoring opponents by 0.6 points per 100 possessions (14th) to being outscored by 1.3 (19th).
The campaign wasn't a complete waste, but nearly all of the positives revolved around the youth—namely, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. That duo (along with Chuma Okeke and Mo Bamba, hopefully) should be the franchise's focus. Every effort to complement them should be made, starting with fixing this offense.
Whoever isn't named Isaac or Fultz should be put on the trade block. Whoever can bring back draft picks or prospects should probably be let go. Orlando knows how this version of the movie ends—with a 4-1 loss in the first round—so it should get busy on writing a new script.
San Antonio Spurs
The playoff streak is over, stopped at a record-tying 22 consecutive years. The Spurs didn't quite give up on keeping it alive, but when they headed to Orlando for the campaign's resumption, the postseason wasn't the priority.
"If we play well enough to get into the playoffs, that would be great. But my goal is development right now," Spurs skipper Gregg Popovich told reporters.
The main motivation wasn't necessarily a philosophical shift from the franchise. With LaMarcus Aldridge sidelined (shoulder surgery) and a cluster of teams standing between the Spurs and a playoff berth before the bubble opened, this might've been a decision based simply on the long odds of advancing past the seeding games.
But it should be the start of something more significant. Now is the time for the Silver and Black to fully lean into its youth movement, flipping any veterans that will bring assets while it still can.
Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all approaching the final year of their contracts. DeMar DeRozan will be too as soon as he makes the no-brainer call to pick up his $27.7 million player option. All of these players are in their 30s. None puts San Antonio anywhere near the championship race.
The Spurs' young players are ready to take center stage. They almost universally opened eyes in a good way at the bubble. Derrick White stuffed the stat sheet (18.9 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds). Keldon Johnson got whatever he wanted (14.1 points on 63.8 percent shooting). Lonnie Walker IV buried 40 percent of his threes. Dejounte Murray pestered opposing perimeter players.
This club has young talent; it just needs to fully feature it and continue adding to the collection.
The Wizards have been patiently waiting for the return of a (hopefully) healthy John Wall, but why? Who watched this team and thought, "You know, they might be just a John Wall away from contending?"
Not a soul.
Washington won less than 35 percent of its games. It had the Association's sixth-worst net efficiency rating (minus-4.5 points per 100 possessions) and the second-worst defense in league history (115.5 defensive rating). Wall is fixing all that as a 30-year, athleticism-dependent point guard coming back from a torn Achilles?
He and Bradley Beal booked just one All-Star appearance together. That team, the 2017-18 version, had plenty more win-now pieces, like Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Tomas Satoransky. The Wizards went 43-39 that season. While Wall missed 41 games, they only went 23-18 when he played, and he was around for all of the Wiz getting bounced out of the opening round.
Beal is better now, but Wall could easily be worse—maybe by a wide margin. The supporting cast is considerably lighter with established contributors. The third-best player is probably shooting specialist Davis Bertans, assuming Washington pays what it takes to bring him back from unrestricted free agency. The next-best is...Thomas Bryant? Troy Brown Jr.? Rui Hachimura? These names aren't keeping opponents up at night.
Washington's ultimate challenge is an uncomfortably low ceiling. This should arguably be a playoff team in the East assuming full health for Wall and Beal, but how many breaks would it need to catch just to reach the second round? Surely too many to justify the money it has tied up in this backcourt.
It will pain the Wizards to hear this, but Beal needs to go. He's the only player who can fetch the kind of assets needed facilitate a full-scale rebuild. If anyone wants to break the bank for Bertans, let them. If not, keep him around and see what he can deliver on the trade market. If anyone wants to gamble on Wall—the fanbase is free to dream, right?—that would be the easiest decision Washington has ever had to make.
The Wizards might be the least likely team on this list to reach for the reset button—if they wanted to trade Beal, they could've done it by now—but they can't dramatically improve their potential without it.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.