Houston Rockets, NBA

Making the case for the Houston Rockets to run it back

It appears as though the Houston Rockets’ second-round playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors could inspire major changes in Space City.

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Rockets general manager Daryl Morey “has made his entire roster and future draft picks available in trade talks, a dramatic initiative with hopes of reshaping the team into a championship contender.” Woj deemed a trade involving reigning MVP James Harden to be unlikely, but he mentioned nine-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul and center Clint Capela as “more realistic trade targets.”

While the inclination to make significant alterations is understandable in the wake of another soul-crushing loss to the Warriors, the Rockets would be better off bringing back their core for one more go-round.

Woj’s report shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. An “individual with knowledge of the Rockets’ thinking” recently told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: “‘Run it back’ is not what [the Rockets] do.” And following the Rockets’ season-ending Game 6 loss to the Warriors, team owner Tilman Fertitta hinted that a shakeup was forthcoming.

“We’re going to have a strong offseason, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to be a better team,” Fertitta pledged. “We are not going to sit on our hands, I can promise you that.”

Harden, meanwhile, was far more ambiguous.

“I know what we need to do,” he said. “I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”

While Harden didn’t specify what he meant, getting on the same page with Paul and head coach Mike D’Antoni may be the first step.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, “There was something of a clash of styles brewing throughout the Rockets season, with members of the team—most notably Paul—having spirited discussions with Mike D’Antoni about the offense and pushing for more movement.” Those tensions boiled over during the playoffs, per Charania, as Harden and Paul had “tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room.”

An isolation-based offense has been the hallmark of the Harden-D’Antoni Rockets. Houston led the league in isolation frequency during the 2017-18 regular season (14.5 percent of its possessions) and playoffs (19.0 percent), and the same held true during this year’s regular season (20.4 percent) and playoffs (20.6 percent). The next-closest team during the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder, ran isos only 8.9 percent of the time.

Harden (48.7 percent), Paul (28.8 percent) and Austin Rivers (25.1 percent) ran isos more frequently than any other player leaguewide during the regular season this year. The reigning MVP averaged 15.0 such possessions per game in the playoffs, while Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the next-closest with 6.0 each.

That deliberate style of play leads to a reduction in turnovers—at 13.3 per game, Houston averaged the sixth-fewest giveaways of any team this year—but the ball doesn’t move much, either. The Rockets averaged the second-fewest passes per game this year (246.0), ahead of only Oklahoma City (242.4).

In the playoffs, that made their offense predictable. Harden would often dribble the air out of the ball before jacking up a step-back 3 while his teammates stood around the perimeter. Of his 146 field-goal attempts against the Warriors, 89 came after seven or more dribbles, and only 39 came within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.

Perhaps slowing the pace down was part of the Rockets’ strategy, as they knew the Warriors would thrash them in a fast-paced, transition-oriented game. Cutting down on passes and allowing Harden to iso at the top of the three-point arc theoretically reduces the number of runouts Golden State can generate.

But after Kevin Durant went down in Game 5 of their second-round series, the Rockets demonstrated a stunning lack of urgency. They gobbled up at least 15 seconds of the shot clock on six of their first seven possessions in the fourth quarter of that game, including one shot-clock violation.

By the end of the season, D’Antoni was down to a seven-man rotation, so an uptempo attack might have worn down his team to the point of exhaustion. But with a few key additions this summer, the Rockets could perhaps avoid such a fate next year.

Houston’s entire starting five is already under contract next season to the tune of $116.6 million. It’ll be nigh impossible for the Rockets to stay under the $132 million luxury-tax threshold while rounding out their bench, but according to Feigen, “general manager Daryl Morey has already been given a green light to pay the tax.”

The Rockets have Bird rights on Iman Shumpert, which allows them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him. They only have non-Bird rights on Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried and Early Bird rights on Gerald Green, which means all three may head elsewhere if they aren’t willing to re-sign in Houston for the veteran’s minimum. But the Rockets will also have either the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.25 million) or taxpayer MLE ($5.7 million), which they can use to retain some of their pending free agents or acquire outside help.

With Kevin Durant appearing increasingly likely to leave Golden State this summer, Houston’s Achilles’ heel in the West may be significantly weaker next year. Sure, the Warriors beat the Rockets sans KD in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and Game 6, but would the same hold true over a full seven-game series? Or would Golden State’s depth issues come into play as the series wore on?

The Rockets may rightfully be concerned with how the remaining three years and $124.1 million (!) of Paul’s contract will age, but dumping his bloated deal onto a team with salary-cap space likely won’t make them better next season. They’ll either have to give up assets such as future first-round picks or take back bad contracts in exchange, neither of which should be all that appealing with Harden in the midst of his prime.

Next: The 2019 NBA Finals are a standoff of priorities in the age of player movement

Dumping Capela would be easier, especially after Golden State played him off the floor in the conference semifinals, but he’s only entering the second year of a reasonable five-year, $90 million contract. He also has utility against traditional bigs like Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, which begs the question of whether his departure would leave Houston vulnerable in the middle.

If the relationship between Harden and Paul is too far gone to salvage—State Farm commercials aside—perhaps a trade is for the best. But with the Warriors appearing increasingly mortal, the Rockets could emerge as the West’s top team next year if they run back their same core and build out around the margins.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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