The times they are a-changin’ in Houston. Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff are in the rearview mirror, leaving a new coach to take the wheel of the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni is the future but by the time free agency comes around, the Rockets will be stripped almost bare. Dwight Howard will walk away from his toxic partnership with James Harden and we will be left wondering what might have been.
When Howard joined Harden in Houston, the NBA was swept by a wave of excitement with a new contender formed in the blink of an eye and a new big three just a move away. Fans thought they could win. Pundits thought they could win. Players thought they could win. The basketball world teemed with expectation and success seemed only a matter of time.
Now, with it all falling apart, you can’t help but wonder whether the Rockets’ window has closed?
What has gone wrong?
So much has gone wrong for Houston that it’s difficult to find where to start. There are many places in which the Rockets have just been unlucky. Howard has been riddled with injuries. Chandler Parsons moved across Texas.
Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, has done all he can and made all the right moves. He shipped out Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in the 2014 offseason to add that third superstar. First, they pushed for Carmelo Anthony but to no avail. Then they looked to Chris Bosh, who had just watched LeBron James swap Miami for Cleveland.
This was it. Bosh was close to signing and Houston were on the verge of having their own big three ready to contend for titles. Morey’s vision was so close he could taste it but then it fell away. Bosh re-upped with the Heat and the Rockets were scorned. That season, Harden was superhuman and led Houston to a second seed but could go no further than the Conference Finals.
With success so close, Morey was active again. All of their pieces were kept tight for another push and then were joined by the troubled Ty Lawson, who was acquired by trade. Morey knew it was a risk but his vision, his goal was there.
“When you're trying to be the best team out of 30 you've got to risk all over the place," he said to Kristie Rieken for NBA.com.
Houston finally had the playmaker they were pining for. It seemed like it could be a brilliant move by Morey but, like the pushes for Melo and Bosh, it was not to be. Zach Harper of CBS Sports called the pairing of Lawson and Harden “a disaster” and, despite putting his off-court troubles behind him, Lawson’s terrible season saw him bought out less than a year after being acquired.
Morey made moves but the partnership of his two current stars was perhaps his biggest problem. The poor relationship between Howard and Harden was so well documented that it barely needs explaining. Both players reportedly pushed for the Rockets’ brass to trade the other and Howard was apparently upset by a lack of respect from Harden. It’s been a mess.
“They have tried to be friends…” Calvin Watkins of ESPN said, “But ultimately, the chemistry between the two hasn’t been there.”
And to make matters worse, the Beard has hardly improved things with his leadership. Aside from supposedly plotting against his teammate, Harden has struggled to lead his unit at all, other than with his own contribution on offence.
"The problem with James Harden is he has no leadership skills." That is how Shaq analysed it, via Kerouac Smith of Fox Sports. And his defence is so bad that this comment from DJ Jazzy Jeff isn’t completely ridiculous.
With an atmosphere like that, they were never going to succeed, coming closest in a season where Howard was mostly out through injuries.
Can they still succeed?
As long as Houston has Harden, there is a chance for them to find success. He is a true superstar, an MVP candidate and that standard of player will always push their team to the upper echelons.
Having said that, although D12 might not have had the desired impact in Texas, he still needs to be replaced. Clint Capela looks promising but the Rockets need to fill the void of Dwight’s stature somewhere on the roster.
Donatas Montiejunas has seemingly been on the way out of Houston for a while since his botched trade to Detroit and will probably leave in the summer. After a hard season, Terrence Jones may well follow suit. Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza are solid players but they’re not enough. Houston may well be little more than a skeleton of an NBA roster by the time free agency starts.
To compete in the stacked Western Conference, Houston needs something special. In free agency, the Rockets will reportedly throw everything they have at underrated center Al Horford. He has led the Hawks for his whole career and would be a worthy addition to a Rockets team trying to climb back up after a dismal season. Whether he will join is another story.
The Hawks can offer more money and Al ‘Boss’ Horford loves the city of Atlanta. Can Houston offer him a better chance of success? It’s arguable but unless Atlanta lets Horford walk, he probably won't be a Rocket anytime soon.
Houston, then, will need to be a new team for the start of next season and to lead them on this path Morey has selected former Suns, Knicks and Lakers head coach, Mike D’Antoni. He might be suited to the Rockets’ offence, with both favouring a fast-paced style of play, but it’s hard to imagine that he will be the man to take them to the top. On the defensive end, for example, D'Antoni might not be a good fit.
“Houston was atrocious on defence last season, and he's arguably the last coach capable of fixing those problems,” Michael Pina of Fox Sports said about D’Antoni.
On top of that, D’Antoni’s record is hardly promising. His winning percentage since leaving the Suns is only 42% and in that time, he has never won a playoff game. Despite the exciting play of his Phoenix team, they never found success for a reason.
“Those excellent, revolutionary Suns teams didn't even play for a title. That's because no matter how offensively brilliant and progressive they were, they couldn't play defence well enough to make the NBA Finals," Dieter Kurtenbach explained for Fox Sports, "What separates the average teams from the great ones is the ability to defend.”
Unless D’Antoni can change his style, Harden can improve his leadership or lure in some free agents, Houston’s future seems mired in uncertainty and doubt. The fans should brace themselves for a few years of mediocrity, not bad enough to rebuild but not good enough to contend.
Has Houston’s opportunity passed them by?
Their championship-calibre unit is falling apart. Morey had all the right intentions but nothing came off for him. Bosh spurned the Rockets. Lawson imploded. It is fair to say that their window of opportunity has passed them by.
For a few years, at least, Houston will probably be mediocre and, if he cannot please the fans with success, Morey will please them with fast, exciting basketball.
“D'Antoni would make Houston a much less sad version of its current self,” Pina explained.
Still, they have to face reality and accept that they might never enjoy the success that so many expected. The Houston Rockets won’t be contenders next year and perhaps they never were.