What comes next for the Houston Rockets?

After another season of treading water, is it time for the Houston Rockets to abandon their ideological purity?

After losing to the Warriors four of the last five postseasons, the Rockets decided it was time to take a big swing last summer, trading Chris Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook. The relationship between Paul and Harden had reportedly become too strained to make their continued partnership viable. In theory, it made sense to reunite Harden and Westbrook who were teammates upon entering the league many years ago and had remained friendly ever since. It was not a seamless fit strategically, but the Rockets hoped their off-court chemistry would translate into on-court success. It did not quite work out that way. The Rockets had essentially an identical season to the one before — earning the No. 4 seed and then falling to the West’s top seed in the second round.

James Harden is one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history. He can create his own shots at any point by stepping back for a 3 or driving to the rim. He is also great at setting up others when the defense collapses on him, yet in the postseason, it feels like instead of looking for seams in the opposition’s schemes, he sticks to a prescribed script. It’s hard to imagine that Harden, with all his offensive mastery, is unable to find other ways to attack that may work better when his primary methods are closed off yet year after year he shows no inclination to.

He refuses to take open mid-range shots or play off-ball, when both tactics, among others, could pay off major dividends in a series like this. Not only would it potentially help get him going on a night where he is struggling to score, it could also open up new avenues for his teammates as well. Yet, such shifts have thus far not been considered by him or the organization as a whole. Both he and the Rockets are ideological purists, and in a league where flexibility is more important than ever, a single-minded allegiance to a particular style of play can only take you so far.

Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, plays too instinctively to have a thought-out ideology. But through the second half of the regular season, Russell Westbrook played perhaps the best basketball of his career. It was not his most dynamic or overpowering stretch, but it was at least his steadiest and most reliable. He cut back on his 3’s and started attacking the hoop more, accentuating his strengths while eliminating a major weakness. It was a shocking change of pace for a player whose career — both its highlights and lowlights — has been defined by his refusal to compromise, an insistence on playing the game on his own terms. That tendency has led to a lot of thrilling moments and unexpected victories, but it’s also led to innumerable late-game attempts at heroics that have cost his team the game.

In the postseason, Westbrook’s old habits came back. With the Lakers playing off of him, daring him to shoot, he has taken the bait, reflexively returning to what he had done such a good job of walking away from. He tried too hard to make things happen, taking shots that, open as they were, were still ill-advised. Driving to the basket with furious determination, he would attempt a haphazard lay-up or to pass out to an open man, all too often having that pass sail past his teammate or into the arms of a Lakers defender. As hard as one tries to get away from one’s worst habits, in moments of crisis, they are so easy to fall back on, as one seeks the comfort of the known in the midst of the chaos swirling around them.

Is it time for the Houston Rockets to change?

It’s easy to see this series as a referendum on Harden and Westbrook, their legacies and standings as all-time greats, which regardless of their defeat, they certainly are. But while this does affect the way they will be judged, it is worth noting that the Lakers simply were the better team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are, at this moment, a better, more adaptable duo than Harden and Westbrook on both ends of the floor and Davis’ defensive versatility eroded any advantages the Rockets may have been projected to have with their small-ball strategy. The Lakers also got more out of their bench than many expected, especially from Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo, who looked better in this series than he has in many years. And it is worth noting that Westbrook did have COVID-19 earlier this summer and was still recovering from an injury, keeping him from being at 100 percent, though while that may have changed how the Rockets lost, it likely would not have changed the final result.

The Rockets organization seems to believe that, on a long enough timeline, their algorithmic style of play will be enough to win a championship, that Harden’s regular-season heroics will eventually translate to the playoffs, that the numbers will win out. However, a major component of postseason success is adaptability, the ability to seamlessly shift depending upon what looks are available and what the opponent’s weaknesses are. Yet the Rockets have adopted a rigid system that they are loathe to shy away from regardless of what is happening on the floor.

One does have to respect the Rockets though for continually taking swings at a championship; at the same time, the question arises of whether or not they have gone about it in the best way. Maybe there was no path to a title or maybe they were just one bad shooting night away from a title in 2018 or maybe if they had made a few different moves than the ones they did, they could have made it through. Mike D’Antonio has already announced he won’t return. With the team unlikely to move Harden, they now have to figure out how to reshuffle the deck in order to enhance their odds next season. It likely won’t be enough, but it’s hard to imagine them stopping now.

As long as Westbrook and Harden are still playing, any judgments of their ability as leaders, as winners, are inherently tentative. It remains possible that both players may still someday win a title, though as another season ends with them falling short of their ultimate goal, the stark reality is that their opportunities to reverse these narratives are falling away.

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