The Houston Rockets were bounced in embarrassing fashion by the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday in Game 5 of their second-round series, but James Harden still has faith they can be title contenders moving forward.
"It's very, very frustrating, especially with all the work individually I put in. I'm going to keep chipping away. Keep going and keep going til I can't go anymore," Harden told reporters after the Rockets' 119-96 loss. "We're a piece away. We just gotta keep figuring it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ [Westbrook]."
This will be the fourth straight offseason the Rockets go into believing they're "one piece away." The old (and valid) excuse was that the Golden State Warriors were a generational buzzsaw too strong to stop. Last summer, they seemed to believe that one piece was Westbrook, though that trade was born more out of Harden's inability to get along with Chris Paul than for basketball purposes.
Paul responded with one of the greatest seasons for a point guard age 35 or older in NBA history. Westbrook, while still having moments of brilliance, looks more like a contractual albatross hanging over the franchise.
It's hard to find any obvious fit that would boost the Rockets' chances of making a deep playoff run, especially given the fact that they're helplessly capped out because of Harden and Westbrook's contracts. They will have the taxpayer mid-level exception available, but it's unclear if they'll be allowed to use it. Team governor Tilman Fertitta may also pull back on the purse strings with his businesses struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rockets will almost certainly go into next season continuing their commitment to small ball, so their focus will be on wings who can knock down threes and play defense—a valuable commodity not often available at the mid-level. Following their worst playoff showing of the Mike D'Antoni era, there may not be anyone out there willing to give them a discount, either.