The Houston Rockets have missed out on NBA Finals opportunities in each of the last two seasons, with both playoff runs being derailed by the Golden State Warriors.
That isn’t anything to be ashamed of. The Warriors are in the midst of one of the most successful four-year runs in NBA history. Taking a loss to that group is par for the course.
What hurts is just how close the Rockets have gotten to knocking them off. Their seven-game series in 2017-18 was mostly decided by a poorly-timed injury to Chris Paul and one of the most improbable Game 7 shooting droughts imaginable. This past season, the Rockets caught a bit of a break with an injury to Kevin Durant, but couldn’t capitalize once Stephen Curry went supernova.
The Rockets are close. But close isn’t good enough, and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey obviously agrees.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Morey wants to raise the ceiling of his team, meaning that nobody is truly off-limits in pursuit of that goal.
Sources: In calls to front offices, Houston GM Daryl Morey is showing an aggressive desire to improve roster with all players and picks available in talks. Hard to imagine James Harden scenario, but the rest under contract – perhaps even Chris Paul – could be moved in right deal.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 29, 2019
Not only is the roster in flux, there doesn’t seem to be much security on the sidelines either.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets were having extension talks, but those have broken down as well. A slew of D’Antoni’s assistants—Roy Rogers, Jeff Bzdelik, Irv Holland and a couple video coordinators—have already been fired. There’s a pretty real chance that this is the final run with this group.
We can reasonably assume that James Harden isn’t going anywhere. Trading a top-six player in the league at the height of his powers isn’t the way you go about knocking off the Warriors.
But flipping some of the “others” for pieces that fit better? Now we’re getting somewhere.
What the rockets need
Again, the Rockets aren’t far off. Their switch-everything gameplan has slowed down the Warriors attack enough to make things tight.
Houston attacks relentlessly in isolation to control the pace and wear out Curry. It’s a formula that isn’t always pretty to watch but has worked well enough to produce optimism that it could lead to a series win with minor alterations.
What really crushed the Rockets in their series this year was wing depth and rebounding woes. A lot of that comes down to scheme.
If you’re going to switch Clint Capela out on the perimeter, it’s hard to end possessions if he forces a miss. Beyond that, replacing 6’8″ Trevor Ariza and 6’9″ Luc Mbah a Moute (though he was obviously limited) with smaller options like Austin Rivers (6’4″) made it tougher to gang-rebound when the Rockets went to PJ Tucker-at-center lineups.
Even with the Warriors shooting below their usual level for most of the series, the Rockets gave up so many second-chance opportunities that it didn’t really matter.
Adding size on the wings would help mitigate some of that issue. Honestly, having more playable wings, in general, would be a welcome change. You just can’t have Gerald Green playing key minutes for you in a high-level playoff series.
If the Rockets are going to shake it up on the trade market, it would behoove them to look at moving Paul or Capela. Their trade value is likely lower than what their talent level suggests, though for different reasons. Still, they’re objectively good two-way players that could land pieces that fit better alongside Harden while also potentially creating future cap flexibility for further moves.
Outside of his Game 6 masterpiece (27-11-6), Chris Paul mostly underwhelmed against the Warriors.
He still got to his pull-up middy out of pick-and-roll whenever the Warriors dropped their big, but the issue was that he didn’t have the same gear as an isolation attacker. With Paul unable to break down defenses on his own, the Paul-plus-bench units didn’t produce well enough to give Harden much relief.
CP3 is still a very good offensive orchestrator and savvy defender, but his contract could be an anchor. He’s owed north of $125 million over the next three seasons, and he’ll be 37 during the last season of it. Flipping him won’t give Houston close to equal value for those very reasons.
But the Rockets would have to hope there’s a team out there that wouldn’t mind weathering the storm. That could be a rebuilding squad looking to help foster development. Maybe it’s a playoff hopeful willing to swap out other “meh” contracts for a better fit.
The Phoenix Suns would fall under the first umbrella. At some point, they must find a way to take creation pressure off of Devin Booker. Adding Paul to run the show would finally allow the Suns to leverage Booker as an off-ball threat. Paul is also one of the greatest pick-and-roll passers of All-Time, so it’s easy to imagine a fruitful partnership between him and DeAndre Ayton.
However, we’d be remiss not to mention the fact that a “win-now” veteran like CP3 might chafe being exiled to the desert and one of the NBA’s most perennial also-rans. Things can go south pretty quickly (i.e. sulking, mysterious injuries, buyouts, etc.) for some players in those scenarios, and it’s impossible to tell whether Paul might also succumb.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the Suns from chasing that exact fate multiple times in recent years, and Paul is a bonafide Hall of Famer who might have enough left in the tank to help Phoenix’s return to relevancy. The contracts of TJ Warren and Tyler Johnson (assuming he accepts his player option) would likely be enough to get things done—if Houston is hell-bent on getting out from under the contract while getting usable wings back in return.
Both players can put tremendous pressure on a defense as secondary attackers. Johnson has always been a plus shooter (career 36.4 percent from three), but Warren just posted a career-best mark from three this season (42.8 percent on 4.2 attempts). The jury is out on how real that number is, but settling in around league average would make him a viable fit in Houston.
Is this the best deal out there? Is this what will happen? We’re not saying that. Rather, this is an example of the type of return one could reasonably expect. After all, rebuilding teams often have more flexibility (and time) than true contenders, who are also less likely to help a fellow rival like the Rockets.
Moving Capela would likely get the Rockets a better package than Paul while also not opening up a point guard hole and/or returning so much of the full-time creation duties to Harden—as it was before Paul’s arrival.
Capela’s struggles against the Warriors remain alarming, but it’s important to acknowledge that context. First, it’s the Warriors, and Capela is still just 25 coming off a Dwight Howard-like statistical season. He can finish, rebound, protect the rim and is fairly switchable. His contract (roughly 4/$74 million left) is pretty team-friendly, all things considered.
But the Rockets could potentially afford flipping Capela because of the big men available in this summer’s free agency or the NBA Draft. When you have Harden, all you really need is a big that can screen well and catch. Capela is very good at both, but you could conceivably find a guy that’s 80 percent as good for less than half the cost.
Capela is still good enough to clear the line between “expendable” and “valuable.” It’s just that Rockets need quality wings more than they need Capela specifically to take down the Warriors.
One potential trade partner I like here would be the Atlanta Hawks. They’re still rebuilding, but Capela is young enough to mesh with their core. He’d be a tremendous pick-and-roll partner for Trae Young, particularly in their Double Drag sets. He’s also the rim protector needed to cover for Young and his front-court partner John Collins—though frontcourt spacing questions alarm quickly for Collins and Capela.
Getting back Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, two pretty good wings that don’t appear to be part of the Hawks’ future, would be a nice return (especially if a draft pick were also coming back).
Both are good three-point shooters that can attack bent defenses. Bazemore is a solid defender against two, sometimes three positions. Prince is more of a 3-and-D guy in theory than in practice, but at least has the size and tools to hold his own.
The Rockets would have to trade into the draft or hit the bargain bin in free agency to replenish their big men depth. Nene may play forever, but he shouldn’t. Isaiah Hartenstein is an intriguing prospect, but he probably isn’t ready to start. Georgia’s Nic Claxton would be a great target to trade in for if he slips to the second round.
A guy like Dewayne Dedmon, a pick-and-pop center with some rim protection equity, would be a lovely fit for the mid-level exception. The Houston Rockets have had reasonable success reclaiming guys like that recently.
Regardless, the Rockets can’t run this team back. Even if it isn’t as drastic as trading Paul or Capela, there’s a need to reconfigure their roster. Harden is in his prime; there’s no time (or excuse) to waste it.
Changes must happen to some of the frontline talent or all across the back end of the rotation. Maybe both.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.