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?