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Is This How It Ends for James Harden-Era Houston Rockets?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2020

Houston Rockets' James Harden, left and Russell Westbrook walks together during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Every Houston Rockets playoff loss has come to feel like a referendum on basketball philosophy.

Over the past decade, general manager Daryl Morey has become synonymous in basketball circles with the word "analytics," which is now a meaningless term. It often just means "shooting a lot of three-pointers." But as the co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and the chief purveyor of a threes-and-layups-only ethos, Morey is the canvas onto which basketball observers of all stripes project their own feelings, good or bad.

This has made all discussions about the Rockets, and in particular about James Harden, exhausting. They and he have disappointed in the playoffs every year for various reasons. This year was no different, as the "small ball" version of the Rockets fell in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, losing 119-96 Saturday. This will lead to plenty of debate in the coming days about whether Morey's school of thought is the right one for building a winner. You've heard all the talking points on both sides many times before.

The Rockets and Morey have always managed to retool and bounce back after their early exits. This one, though, feels different. It feels like the end of the line. Morey pushed all his chips to the center of the table last summer with his controversial trade for Russell Westbrook, his boldest move in a career full of them. Now that it fell short, there's nowhere left to turn and all kinds of questions about what the future holds.

One expected change happened quickly. Head coach Mike D'Antoni entered the season on a lame-duck contract after extension talks stalled, and on Sunday morning, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported what had been widely thought around the league for months: D'Antoni will not be back in Houston.

Beyond finding a new coach, there are questions everywhere in Houston. Will Morey be back? Will Westbrook or even Harden be dangled in trade talks? Will small ball still win the day, or will next season see the return of a more traditional lineup? No one knows.

Mike D'Antoni
Mike D'AntoniMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Shortly after the Rockets were eliminated Saturday, ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon reported that Morey plans to run this team back and that Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta plans to keep his general manager.

We'll see about that.

Between yet another disappointing playoff exit and Fertitta's precarious financial situation, Morey's future is worth keeping an eye on, whatever the messaging is right now.

It's well-documented that Fertitta, who made his fortune in the casino and restaurant industries, was hit as hard as any team governor by the COVID-19 pandemic. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported in July that he took out a high-interest loan for $300 million to cover his expenses this spring. Morey is one of the longest-tenured and highest-paid executives in the NBA; if Fertitta is looking to cut costs, he could be a place to start.

There's also the matter of Morey's October tweet in support of protestors in Hong Kong, which, as politically in-the-right as it was, was bad for Fertitta's bottom line. Fertitta lamented to President Donald Trump in a televised conversation in May that Morey's tweet cost him money from Chinese business partnerships.

If Fertitta had wanted to fire Morey then, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was adamant that the GM's freedom of expression would be supported. A year later, following a second-round playoff elimination for a team that was supposed to contend for a championship, the optics of letting Morey go would be slightly more defensible. Just file that away.

(In that same conversation with the president, Fertitta also quipped about the high salaries he's paying Harden and Westbrook. File that away too.)

However you feel about his basketball worldview, give Morey credit for going all-in all the time. At every turn since his out-of-nowhere trade for Harden before the start of the 2012-13 season, Morey has been willing to take big swings in pursuit of superstars and championships. He's also been willing to adapt and pivot as the landscape of the league shifted.

Harden, who had been coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, quickly developed into an unstoppable scoring machine in Houston, which gave Morey the credibility to land Dwight Howard in free agency in 2013. When the Harden-Howard partnership ran its course after three seasons, Morey was able to swing a trade for Chris Paul.

The Harden-Paul iteration of the Rockets was built, by Morey's own admission, to specifically beat the Warriors, and they came as close to doing that as anyone else in the West in 2017-18, the year Harden won MVP. That team won 65 games and took Golden State the full seven games in the Western Conference Finals, falling apart when they missed an astonishing 27 three-pointers in a row in the second half.

The team that came back the next year wasn't the same, as Fertitta's desire to duck the luxury tax resulted in a few valuable role players leaving in free agency—Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, in particular—even as the club re-signed Paul to a four-year, $160 million extension.

Tilman Fertitta
Tilman FertittaEvan Vucci/Associated Press

Morey's trade of Paul and several draft picks for Westbrook last summer was his biggest all-in move yet, and he doubled down at February's trade deadline by trading away starting center Clint Capela, the only conventional big man in the rotation, to move the 6'5" PJ Tucker to center.

It was a boom-or-bust gambit. Some nights, they overwhelmed with their mismatches. Other nights, their three-pointers weren't falling and they didn't have the bodies to compete with bigger teams. They survived the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games in the first round, but the Lakers beat them at their own game by moving Anthony Davis to center. Between that and a dialed-in LeBron James, they were too much for Houston to handle.

Now, the Rockets are boxed in. Whether it's Morey or someone else ultimately making these calls, if they want to run it back with this team, the returns will be diminished. Harden (31) and Westbrook (31) are a year older. Westbrook in particular appeared during the playoffs to be in decline, and he's someone for whom questions about his ability to age gracefully have persisted for years.

Beyond the two All-Stars, the Rockets have no up-and-coming young prospects worth writing home about and no cap space to add talent with Harden, Westbrook and Eric Gordon set to make a combined $99.4 million next season. They burned many of their future draft picks in the trade for Westbrook. Tucker, their third-most important player, turned 35 in May.

Harden said Saturday night after the loss the Rockets are "one piece away," but it's difficult to figure out what that piece might be or how they might go about acquiring it. Morey has always been able to make moves to add talent around Harden; now, there might be no next pivot to make.

If this really is the end of the road, the Rockets have to think seriously about tearing the whole thing down and trading everyone. Yes, even Harden.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook
James Harden and Russell WestbrookMike Ehrmann/Associated Press/Associated Press

Harden can become a free agent after the 2021-22 season ($47.4 million player option the following year). That means the Rockets have two seasons left to build a title team around him before they could lose him. If they keep him, it's hard to see how they'll be able to build a team better than this one, which was already not good enough.

Despite his shortcomings in the playoffs, Harden is still an MVP-caliber player, having led the league in scoring the past three seasons. If they make him available, they'll have plenty of teams lining up to offer picks and prospects for one of the most dominant scorers in NBA history—certainly enough to get a jump on a full rebuild.

Westbrook will be harder to move, but one axiom that is always true in the NBA is that there's no such thing as an untradeable contract. The Minnesota Timberwolves found a taker for Andrew Wiggins at the deadline. If the Washington Wizards wanted to move John Wall, even coming off a ruptured Achilles and owed the same money as Westbrook, they'd find a way to do it. For that matter, Westbrook and Paul were traded for each other last July when both of their deals were considered unmovable. Westbrook is past his peak, but he's still a huge name and still just productive enough for a team to talk itself into him.

This might be the Rockets' reality. They haven't won a championship, but they've had one of the most memorable 10-year runs of any franchise in recent memory. They've taken chances, made league-changing trades and tried all kinds of weird things on the court. Morey has never been afraid to aim high, and if a few things had broken differently—Paul's hamstring injury in the memorable Warriors series, for one—he might have a ring to show for his adventurousness.

The Rockets as we know them have gone as far as they can. Saturday's loss feels like the logical end of a run that in many ways defined the decade in basketball.

        

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.

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