On the Houston Rockets’ current path

The morning it was reported that Al Horford had narrowed his list of desired destinations to one which did not include the Houston Rockets, I tweeted that the team needed to begin exploring options to trade James Harden immediately.  The thinking there was that with no real avenue to enter contention, management would be best advised to avoid the unenviable situation in which the Oklahoma City Thunder now find themselves with Russell Westbrook.  Since that time, Houston agreed to terms with Harden to secure his services for at the very least, an additional three seasons.

The uncertainty now is gone.  The team will have a top-5 offensive player as its centerpiece for the short future.  But where do they go from here?  Followers of this team during the Daryl Morey era have become accustomed to a forward-thinking strategy with an eye towards the next move.  But as currently constructed, even with the expected cap increase, Houston is not expected to have funds available next summer for a frontline acquisition.  It begs the question as to how the Rockets plan to improve their team.

Have they secured themselves a place once again on the mediocrity treadmill?  Rather than spending their cap on Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, should they just have recognized their limited ceiling and dealt Harden, blowing the whole thing up?  The Rahat Huq of 2014 certainly would have thought so.  As I discussed in Episode 101 of The Red94 Podcast, somewhere along the line, something in my thinking changed.  Maybe I’m just older, more realistic, or more cynical from previous failed pursuits.  Longtime readers might have recognized the change in my tone this season, particularly after the Motiejunas trade when I wrote, “when will the endless pursuit of cap space end?  Why not just build a team?”

Prior to Episode 101, and shortly after news of the Kevin Durant signing, I asked you all on Twitter whether you were excited about the upcoming Houston Rockets season.  My curiosity stemmed from the pervasive sentiment throughout the league that the transaction, with its effects on parity and competitive balance, would be bad for business.  The results of my query were mixed.  Several of you lacked enthusiasm citing the inevitability of the outcome; but many of you were intrigued by the additions and the potential overhaul in scheme.

As I remarked in Episode 101, I fall into that latter camp.  And in some strange way, Les Alexander played his hand perfectly.  I don’t care about Durant and the Warriors.  That topic actually really bores me.  I want to see how the Rockets will look like on offense.  I know we won’t win the championship, and likely won’t go very far, but I want to see how high we can climb in the offensive rankings.  Can we lead the league?  Can we approach anything even remotely resembling the outstanding efficiency of D’Antoni’s Suns?  I think a lot of you feel this way.

Had the Rockets hired Jeff Van Gundy or Frank Vogel, the two choices I overwhelmingly supported, and tried to build it up the conventional way, that element of curiosity wouldn’t be there.  To that end, I’ve been thinking a lot about the business side of things here.  We, I in particular, mocked Alexander for wanting an uptempo exciting brand of basketball.  But in the face of an almost inevitable Warriors title, that potential style of play is what will likely keep local fans intrigued and coming to the gates.  On the flip side though, such an approach only works because of the novelty.  Even if they lead the league in scoring in consecutive years, if the Rockets keep flaming out in the first round under D’Antoni, the fans will again lose all interest.

I’ve been thinking for some time, recently, that the preferred model for sports business viability is sustained competitiveness with injected fusions of novelty.  You can’t go to the extremes, chasing an ideal.  That leaves you too vulnerable to setbacks.  Look at the Sixers, or more locally, the Rockets.  While they got Howard, they kept punting on incremental progress with each failed pursuit of the final fish of a Big 3.  Maybe the results would have been better had they just signed mid-tier players to supplement their stars.  I’ve written a lot the past year about the need to, rather than trying to be the best, just stick around and be “good enough”.  I think you want to just stick around, chase 50 wins each year, and just be interesting.  When things grow stale, inject some novelty with some sort of acquisition, even if not as drastic as an entirely new scheme.  You want to aim to just be good and then luck your way into a title – this idea becomes even more applicable when you already have a star.  Aiming for the ideal leaves you with no position from which to hedge.  I talked at length about this during the season when I advocated pursuing Kevin Love (something which won’t happen anymore).  You can’t just say, “no, I don’t want this potential All-Star power forward because he’s a terrible matchup against the league’s best team.”  You can’t turn your nose up at incremental improvement in chasing the ideal.  (And, in some way, that kind of came to fruition for the Cavs in the Finals where, against all odds, Love performed adequately defensively in the last game, and helped them win the title).

Especially in light of the Harden extension, I think the Rockets are doing the right thing.  Realistically, yeah, they probably have a ceiling.  But what’s the alternative?  If you trade Harden, you’re just hoping to get back a player who will some day be as good as he is, and that in itself is a long shot.  At the least, now, you have that main guy, locked in through his prime.  You’ve added premiere shooters, something you’ve never had, and a coach who might be able to maximize Harden’s abilities.  Now, as I outlined in Episode 101, you look to internal growth from young players: can Clint Capela take the next step?  If Donatas Motiejunas returns, can he return to his 2015 form?  Can either of Sam Dekker or K.J. McDaniels become major contributors?  If Harden is focused, and the above items occur, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t repeat their success from two seasons ago.  Maybe they can lead the league in scoring – that is interesting to me.  Sure, there would still be a sizable gap between Houston and the Warriors/Spurs, but is that really the end of the world?

I’m really curious to know how you all feel regarding my outlook.  I spent my entire adult life ridiculing the Milwaukee Bucks of the world for just chasing mediocrity, as if the 8th seed was something for which a banner should be raised.  But now here I am.  Those of you who think, this moment, as currently constructed, without having even watched to see how things play out, that this team is a championship contender are deluded by your fandom – while I admire your optimism, I’m not interested in your opinion.  I want to hear from the rest of you.  Has my defeatism just spawned some sort of neo-realism?  Am I just burnt out from years of frustration with this aforementioned paradigm as the resulting coping mechanism?  In summation, I don’t really see an evidently obvious path to contention for this team.  This is maybe the first time I haven’t said to myself, “okay, we play out this year, and then next summer we get Chris Bosh and its on, or next summer we get Durant and its on.”  But in a strange, simplistic way, for the first time since I’ve been a Rockets fan–a period which has spanned over 20 years–I don’t really care.  I’m just glad they’ll be interesting and will be happy if they’re just good.  I’m tired of looking at cap space and looking ahead to next summer.  Is that wrong?

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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John Eby
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John Eby

You’re not wrong. The team’s course is defensible on both a business level and a competitive level. On the business level, the raison d’etre for the league is to create an entertaining product that people want to see. If you put a team on the floor that can compete with anyone on any given night (i.e. a 50+ win team) and do it with some flair, then that’s a good show/good business. On a competitive level, it looks like Morey is actually just trying to take a different approach to building a “Big Three,” or a “Death Lineup” as they… Read more »

Sricharan
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Sricharan

Great article, I agree with the approach, and not a huge fan of the tanking strategy (especially where the rockets are). We have a top 5 player hard to get anything back for his value via trade (look at what okc got for harden…). Plus the reason why we got Howard in the first place is because he knew he was joining a team on the rise and that’s competitive. Same thing of why Hortford joined Boston. So staying competitive will help us land a big free agents or trade for one. Call me a homer, but I think the… Read more »

Sricharan
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Sricharan

Totally agree with the situational all-stars. Otis Thorpe comes to mind during the older rocket years

Jatman20
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Jatman20

“If you know the enemy & know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb In every battle.”-(Sun Tzu, The Art of War, chapter III, paragraph18) The NFL has become a spread offense league relying on space and pace, passing league. In doing so, teams have gone to smaller quicker younger guys. Once you hit 30 y/o in the NFL, you better be really good are you or… Read more »

Davion Watts
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Davion Watts

Tony Wroten is a huge sleeper sign this man and all the problems of the world will go away

Jatman20
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Jatman20

Capela (Recently working w/John Lucas) will get his experience
this year….Qi will join him at 1)center next season. 2) Ariza & Dekker
will handle the SF position. 3) Harden and Gordon the SG position.
4) Beverley and Bobby Brown/Gary Payton II the PG’s. 5) Starting PF
will be Ryan Anderson. Will Harrell become the stretch forward the
Rockets want him to be? If not the Rockets will look for a backup
PF in next years draft. Find a place for KJ, Beasley and Chinanu if
they can improve their games. Future can be good.

Alexis Rudolf [Karma]
Guest

I’d like to see a lineup of Harden-Gordon-Ariza-Anderson-Motiejunas

Jatman20
Guest
Jatman20

After last night, I have to pump the brakes on Zhou Qi.
I believe I heard from the Rockets beat writer speak of:
Harden-Gordon-?-Ariza-Anderson. Who the ? guy is,
is yet to be determined.
KJ .333 (9-27), Dekker 39% (9-23), Payton II 50% (2-4),
Wiltjer .414 ((12-29) or take away 1st game jitters (9-20) 45%,
Harrell 16% (3-19) or take away 1st 2 game jitters (3-14) .214.
Again these are summer league numbers where things are a
little helter-skelter. They will get open shots.

Jz Jz
Guest
Jz Jz

I’m not interested in being the Milwaukee Bucks from a few years ago – a team that chased the 7th or 8th seed. To me that’s not exciting or interesting even if we have a great offense. Now if we can chase the 3rd, or maybe 4th, seed, I can see your theory working for a couple years. In that case you still feel like you have a suckers chance…if all the chips fall just perfectly.

Michael Wu
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Michael Wu

I’ve followed the Rockets since 2006 and the I’ve seen the team transition from the Yao-McGrady years to the Ariza/Martin/Scola/Hayes/Brooks days and then to the Harden-Howard years. The Houston Rockets is an excellent organisation and I remember being excited to watch even the Adelman period, without the likes of Yao or Harden. Those years, I saw a collection of mid-tier players play with extreme heart in chasing a playoff position, albeit realistically a low seed and first round exit. I was excited when Asik/Lin signed up. Harden was then traded, Parsons improved season by season. Howard then came. The team… Read more »

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[…] guard James Harden will officially spend the rest of the decade – and his prime – in a Houston Rockets uniform.  That is all but certain as GM Daryl Morey and the Houston front office worked together […]

jerel
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jerel

“I’m just glad they’ll be interesting and will be happy if they’re just good” Both “good” and “interesting” can be considered relative depending on how you define it. From a fan’s business perspective, I posit that people don’t pay for “just good”. As a matter of fact why pay when you can go see “good” for free? The same applies to “interesting” as players secure millions just to make things interesting? It’s been reported that the value of the Rocket’s organization is growing, and the owner is getting richer, yet ‘good and interesting’ is all that is required? I would… Read more »

Jatman20
Guest
Jatman20

Donald Sterling (Former Clippers) was always known as an owner
who had his team in the green while every other team was in the
red (supposedly). His teams never won squat. I want the Rockets
to tackle the running back on its way to sacking the QB. In other
words I hope the Rockets can tackle the Spurs on their way to
sacking the Warriors.

norah mackenzie
Guest
norah mackenzie

the fate of the rockets is now tied to james harden simple as that. i think the rockets will fail once again – unless the team is able to work as a team without the ego hassles then the rockets are goners. they needed someone to balance harden out – and i highly doubt any new additions will do that. morey is not interested in the team per se – never was – it is all the bottom line which sometimes cannot integrate itself with sports like basketball

norah mackenzie
Guest
norah mackenzie

maybe if harden wd shave his beard off – fans wd find the games more entertaining

Jatman20
Guest
Jatman20

That’s a good 5-man unit. Houston beat writer (Feigen or Watkins)
mentioned how we may see Anderson at the 5 and Ariza at 4 in
some lineups. I can see a Gordon-Harden-Ariza-Dekker-Anderson
lineup at times. Throw in Wiltjer at end of games situations.

  • John Eby Jul 24, 2016 @ 10:56

    You’re not wrong. The team’s course is defensible on both a business level and a competitive level.
    On the business level, the raison d’etre for the league is to create an entertaining product that people want to see. If you put a team on the floor that can compete with anyone on any given night (i.e. a 50+ win team) and do it with some flair, then that’s a good show/good business.
    On a competitive level, it looks like Morey is actually just trying to take a different approach to building a “Big Three,” or a “Death Lineup” as they call it in Golden State. Having a Big Three doesn’t mean you bring in three All-Star free agents. It means having at least three guys who produce at an All-Star level in the team’s system. Call them “situational All-Stars.” Dennis Rodman on the Bulls, Tyson Chandler on the Mavericks, and even Draymond Green are examples on championship teams. Even though he doesn’t have a ring, D’Antoni has a great track record of creating situational stars: Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Linsanity (the use of the nickname to refer to a specific period of said player’s career is intentional) being at the top of the list. Morey is betting on D’Antoni’s system turning either Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, or one of the young prospects into situational stars. I’m keeping an eye on Montrezl Harrell for Shawn Marion/Draymond Green potential (long shot), Sam Dekker looks like Chandler Parsons 2.0 (best case), and the Hack-a-Shaq rule change had to have boosted Clint Capela’s value by at least 25 percent (knock wood). The upside of having D’Antoni is that there is a good chance that he will invigorate or reinvigorate the careers of at least a couple of those guys, and that could lead to a really great team. The downside is that his history indicates if the team doesn’t do some serious winning pretty fast, the players will tune him out.
    Based on the Anderson and Gordon signings, Morey is clearly betting hard on D’Antoni’s system. I hope that bet works out, because it will be easier to get a new coach than move those contracts.

  • Sricharan Jul 24, 2016 @ 12:27

    Great article, I agree with the approach, and not a huge fan of the tanking strategy (especially where the rockets are). We have a top 5 player hard to get anything back for his value via trade (look at what okc got for harden…). Plus the reason why we got Howard in the first place is because he knew he was joining a team on the rise and that’s competitive. Same thing of why Hortford joined Boston. So staying competitive will help us land a big free agents or trade for one. Call me a homer, but I think the rockets will surprise some people this year. At a minimum because they will be playing within a system ( I’m not a Mchale hater, thought his firing was total BS, but don’t think he was a huge Xs Os guy). Also we know JB was in over his head. If we can stay healthy thinking top 3/4 team in the west. Being competitive in the playoffs.

  • Sricharan Jul 24, 2016 @ 12:28

    Totally agree with the situational all-stars. Otis Thorpe comes to mind during the older rocket years

  • Jatman20 Jul 24, 2016 @ 13:30

    “If you know the enemy & know yourself, you need not fear the
    result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the
    enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If
    you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb In
    every battle.”-(Sun Tzu, The Art of War, chapter III, paragraph18)
    The NFL has become a spread offense league relying on space
    and pace, passing league. In doing so, teams have gone to
    smaller quicker younger guys. Once you hit 30 y/o in the NFL,
    you better be really good are you or exit stage right. NFL
    middle linebackers use to be 256 pounds geared to stop the
    run. Now they are 238 pounds like Luke Kuechly…for coverage
    reasons. The NBA is following the NFL’s spread offenses of
    Chip Kelly’s or the Erhardt-Perkins offense (run by the Patriots
    and Texans) with a, “Pace and Space style.” We all saw Dwight
    Howard touch the ball less this past season, but then we find out
    he was #1 in the NBA in post touches and #2 in paint touches.
    Rules have changed designed to promote a more perimeter game
    with a lot of made 3’s and missed 3’s that lead to long rebounds
    which results in fast action headed to the other end of the court.
    The Rockets could hit 18 three pointers per game in 35-40 attempts compete with any team. Finally they match players with a form
    of the system they have been wanting to run for years. Lack
    of decent 3 point shooters while trying to cater to a post game
    has prevented that for a couple of years. On paper it looks great,
    But they don’t play the games on paper.

  • Davion Watts Jul 24, 2016 @ 17:08

    Tony Wroten is a huge sleeper sign this man and all the problems of the world will go away

  • Jatman20 Jul 24, 2016 @ 18:27

    Capela (Recently working w/John Lucas) will get his experience
    this year….Qi will join him at 1)center next season. 2) Ariza & Dekker
    will handle the SF position. 3) Harden and Gordon the SG position.
    4) Beverley and Bobby Brown/Gary Payton II the PG’s. 5) Starting PF
    will be Ryan Anderson. Will Harrell become the stretch forward the
    Rockets want him to be? If not the Rockets will look for a backup
    PF in next years draft. Find a place for KJ, Beasley and Chinanu if
    they can improve their games. Future can be good.

  • Alexis Rudolf [Karma] Jul 24, 2016 @ 21:33

    I’d like to see a lineup of Harden-Gordon-Ariza-Anderson-Motiejunas

  • Jatman20 Jul 25, 2016 @ 16:39

    After last night, I have to pump the brakes on Zhou Qi.
    I believe I heard from the Rockets beat writer speak of:
    Harden-Gordon-?-Ariza-Anderson. Who the ? guy is,
    is yet to be determined.
    KJ .333 (9-27), Dekker 39% (9-23), Payton II 50% (2-4),
    Wiltjer .414 ((12-29) or take away 1st game jitters (9-20) 45%,
    Harrell 16% (3-19) or take away 1st 2 game jitters (3-14) .214.
    Again these are summer league numbers where things are a
    little helter-skelter. They will get open shots.

  • Jz Jz Jul 25, 2016 @ 17:33

    I’m not interested in being the Milwaukee Bucks from a few years ago – a team that chased the 7th or 8th seed. To me that’s not exciting or interesting even if we have a great offense. Now if we can chase the 3rd, or maybe 4th, seed, I can see your theory working for a couple years. In that case you still feel like you have a suckers chance…if all the chips fall just perfectly.

  • Michael Wu Jul 25, 2016 @ 19:57

    I’ve followed the Rockets since 2006 and the I’ve seen the team transition from the Yao-McGrady years to the Ariza/Martin/Scola/Hayes/Brooks days and then to the Harden-Howard years. The Houston Rockets is an excellent organisation and I remember being excited to watch even the Adelman period, without the likes of Yao or Harden. Those years, I saw a collection of mid-tier players play with extreme heart in chasing a playoff position, albeit realistically a low seed and first round exit.

    I was excited when Asik/Lin signed up. Harden was then traded, Parsons improved season by season. Howard then came. The team was exploding with talent. But then, like you said Rahat, that pursuit of that third star probably cost the team overall but you can’t fault Morey for his efforts. If all reports were correct, we were a coin-flip from having a core of Harden/Howard/Bosh/Parsons – I think in another universe, if one exists, this team could give the Warriors a run for their money. But alas, it didn’t happen and we got Ariza while Parsons walked away to get paid. That was a seriously good move, at least for the 14-15 season and I don’t care about the 4-1 Conference Finals loss, the scores were much closer than the line suggested. We played the Warriors so close the first two games, probably would have stolen home-ground advantage if we had a bit of ‘luck’ and then the series would have been interesting. Morey, rightfully so, thought that this core could take us to that championship given how close we took them. Ty Lawson was always going to be a gamble but at least he made a move. And then it all imploded, this season was an abomination. That focus from our stars waned with every loss in the season: Harden was ridiculed for his defense, Howard was whining about not getting enough post-ups. My interest in the games waned every time I saw Harden play isolation ball or Ariza/Beverley missing another open 3.

    What am I getting at with all this? While we did get an 8th seed, this was a terrible year for the fans. This collection of talent that Morey had worked so hard to accumulate just didn’t mesh. So many team meetings but no real results to show for it. Heck, we had a chance to get to 5-6 seed but that championship-winning mentality from 14-15 was gone. All in all, if I had to make the decision, I would choose the Adelman low-seed playoff teams to the rubbish from this past season. The off-season changes have been refreshing, I just want to see this team perform closer to their potential.

  • jerel Jul 26, 2016 @ 10:35

    “I’m just glad they’ll be interesting and
    will be happy if they’re just good”

    Both “good” and “interesting” can be considered relative depending on how you define it. From a fan’s business perspective, I posit that people don’t pay for “just good”. As a matter of fact why pay when you can go see “good” for free? The same applies to “interesting” as players secure millions just to make things interesting? It’s been reported that the value of the Rocket’s organization is growing, and the owner is getting richer, yet ‘good and interesting’ is all that is required?

    I would say that there are at least two echelons that define fans. The first is those who will be fans at any cost – settling for the ‘good and interesting’. Then you have those who push the envelope requiring not only ‘good and
    interesting’ but winning – winning the Championship. I unapologetically declare that I fall into the latter. Just being ‘good and interesting’ is terminology for diamond league or street ball. This is the big leagues, either perform to win for the fans, or fold the tent.

  • Jatman20 Jul 26, 2016 @ 15:58

    Donald Sterling (Former Clippers) was always known as an owner
    who had his team in the green while every other team was in the
    red (supposedly). His teams never won squat. I want the Rockets
    to tackle the running back on its way to sacking the QB. In other
    words I hope the Rockets can tackle the Spurs on their way to
    sacking the Warriors.

  • norah mackenzie Jul 27, 2016 @ 10:50

    the fate of the rockets is now tied to james harden simple as that. i think the rockets will fail once again – unless the team is able to work as a team without the ego hassles then the rockets are goners. they needed someone to balance harden out – and i highly doubt any new additions will do that. morey is not interested in the team per se – never was – it is all the bottom line which sometimes cannot integrate itself with sports like basketball

  • norah mackenzie Jul 27, 2016 @ 10:53

    maybe if harden wd shave his beard off – fans wd find the games more entertaining

  • Jatman20 Jul 27, 2016 @ 15:59

    That’s a good 5-man unit. Houston beat writer (Feigen or Watkins)
    mentioned how we may see Anderson at the 5 and Ariza at 4 in
    some lineups. I can see a Gordon-Harden-Ariza-Dekker-Anderson
    lineup at times. Throw in Wiltjer at end of games situations.

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