Huq’s Pen: Houston Rockets 2018-2019 postmortem

  • I’ve already tweeted a lot of my initial reactions in the hours since the loss, but I kind of see this place as a refuge for more nuanced takes. That’s the thing I hate about Internet culture today, particularly with respect to politics but also seeping its way down to sports. No one wants to hear about some white paper and the impact on GDP and other economic indicators of some policy position; all that matters is “TRADE DEFICIT!!11” or “MOAR FACTORY JOBS CREATED!” or whatever else can be bundled up conveniently into a catchphrase or sound bite. Truth really doesn’t matter. Explanatory facts are another phrase for whining. The stance that ‘wins’–or I guess the one that gets adopted as narrative into conventional wisdom–is whichever one is less conducive to public mockery.
  • And so that’s why it doesn’t matter to anyone else that the Rockets have overall been the second best team in the NBA behind the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history. It doesn’t matter that they actually swung for the fences and took a shot at the Warriors when the rest of the league was content to just ride out their reign. It doesn’t matter that they came so close for two years running, taxing the Warriors to the brink and posing as the greatest threat during their run. The Houston Rockets are a punchline today and will be all summer and through next year, or maybe until James Harden either wins a title or retires, because they fell flat on their faces yet again when it mattered. We don’t care for excuses; they didn’t get it done, and thus, they’re a mockery. In some ways, we’re far more kinder to the mediocre. It’s better to be the Orlando Magic or some other hapless franchise that never even got this far to set itself up for failure. This is why we mock the Rockets. Because its funny to us that they again came so close and couldn’t get it done. This is why I hate this place we call the Internet so much.
  • And why is Daryl Morey supposed to feel ashamed, like he somehow colossally failed? Admittedly, he did not have the best summer; but he recovered in-season and cobbled together deals that guided Houston to the league’s best second-half. He put together a team that went toe to toe, and blow for blow with the NBA’s best. Why is that worthy of shame? Would you rather the Rockets be whoever between the Nuggets and Blazers is about to get swept in four? Would that outcome carry more dignity? This is why I hate the Internet. Because gradations here don’t matter. You either won the ring, or you’re an abject failure.
  • And amidst all the weird schadenfreude surrounding the Rockets over the past twelve hours is this victory lap taken by critics of their system. “This is why the Rockets can’t win playing like that!” Do people not understand that the Rockets are only as good as they are because of their system? As individual parts, they would not stack up. If the Rockets’ system is so worthy of indictment, what does that mean for the other 28 system which haven’t even had a chance?
  • One of the civil wars that’s been playing out on my timeline over the past twelve hours is over the performance of one James Edward Harden, Jr., an American professional basketball player born in 1989 in Los Angelos, California. There are good people on both sides of this war. Very fine people. And I think both perspectives have merit. On the one hand, if you’ve been visiting this page over the past ten years (holy crap!), you know that I try my best to separate from the raw emotions of the moment, particularly while in the moment. 35 points is 35 points, whenever those points came. Why are Curry’s 20-something in the fourth considered superior to Harden’s, analytically? Had Harden not had his points earlier in the game, when the rest of his team was doing nothing, Houston would not have even been in position to challenge. And similarly, had Curry’s mates not carried the load during his abysmal first half, he would never have even been granted the opportunity to shine late. So why are Curry’s points so superior? But on the flip side of this, I get it. I get what those of you pointing at Harden are saying. I think its preposterous to say he’s to blame for this loss. But one must admit, it is at least weird how he just goes quiet in these spots. Is it not? There’s something about it, probably mental, where from just viewing his body language, he tightens up with the season on the line. He doesn’t have the ferocity or the ‘swag’ that you come to expect from the man and player that he is. I mean we can break down as much film as we want about how his passiveness is actually a factor of making the right reads etc., and that’s fine…but at the end of the day, at a human level, people want their best player to go down in a blaze of glory. Fair or not. You must admit it just simply is weird how this keeps happening, starting from stints in the Blazers series, most famously against the Spurs (when I suspected he might have been playing concussed), again last year, and now yesterday. There’s just a feeling of a lot of empty calories.
  • And all of the above may be grossly unfair. How would Lebron be remembered if Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving don’t hit their respective shots, or Hakeem if Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and friends don’t rise to the occasion in a way completely unlike what this Rockets bench turned in?
  • I blamed this loss on Mike D’Antoni. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Clint Capela repeatedly was sent to his–and his team’s–death, every single contest, after it had become abundantly clear to everyone watching in horror that he had no business being on the court against this Warriors team. You all have already seen the raw +/- numbers; I’m too lazy right now to find them. Why did he keep getting run out there? Why not try something else? Anything? I understand not playing Faried. Capela, for his complete futility on the offensive end, at least could move his feet and stay in front of the Warriors guards in a way in which Faried could never dream of. But why not just give Gary Clark a shot? Was the fear that he was going to not produce? Because I assure you, Capela already had that covered. Clint Capela had a monopoly on not producing.
  • I think its pretty funny that we all looked at the play of former Rocket Montrezl Harrell and just assumed Capela would go off against this Warriors team. If you asked me right now, I don’t even know how I can look at him and take him seriously next year after such a pitiful, humiliating performance. But I’ll get over that in due time because its irrational. Capela is what makes the Rockets dominant against Denver, maybe the next great threat out West. He’s what gives them hope against Philly, what let them stand up against Utah, and what made us all collectively question Karl Anthony Towns’ manhood. How could Capela look like such a grown man in last season’s first two rounds and then look so completely timid this past week? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an athletic 7-footer drive into a forest of guards and double-pump layup attempts in traffic. Draymond Green had Capela so shook he looked like he had forgotten how to play basketball. But it would be foolish to trade him just for the sake of trading him, as some of you have suggested, for the reasons I outlined above. He’s not irredeemable. But what has changed is that I’m no longer tied to him as I once was. If some daring move presented itself this summer, like an Anthony Davis rental, hell yeah I’d swing for the fences. Remember when we said we were glad we didn’t trade Capela for Paul George two seasons ago? Oops.
  • There’s going to be a ton of time to discuss offseason moves in the coming weeks and we’ll dive into them, but for now, I just want to close with a note on Iman Shumpert, a guy who had a few big moments, most notably in Game 3, but overall, was a huge disappointment, and because of whom we’ll be watching the first round of the draft as observers. This was one that’s got to hurt for Daryl Morey and I won’t act like I was any less wrong because I lauded it as a good move too at the time. Just way too many boneheaded mistakes from a guy who was supposedly a veteran with experience in the big spots. Having just one more viable player may have even been the difference in this series. And this was all because of the edict to get under the tax line. Some of you will retort about next best alternatives. My rebuttal to that is that the talent pool is limited when you’ve resigned yourself within defined financial constraints. For example, the team would be in a better spot this summer if it had Brandon Knight’s expiring contract to move in deals. But I’ll play this game. I get the rationale about the repeater tax. And it’s probably wise. But they had better cash out and spend. I’ll be watching and I hope everyone else at home is too.
  • There will likely be a Part 2. I’m exhausted now and the same age as Chris Paul. I need to lay down.

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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Evan Godwin
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Evan Godwin

Great recap on fluid thought, as always. I think further evaluation of ownership is due. Fertitta’s comments following the loss about how this team would learn his “fighter” mentality was easily one of the most idiotic comments I have seen this year, and that’s including 45. I was absolutely baffled by that.

Steve Larson
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Steve Larson

Good writing. I do think that Mike D bears a lot of the blame. He is a wonderful regular season coach much like Nellie was. But the playoffs are a different animal. Harden complains because he wants regular season calls in the playoffs. Memo to James – No one gets them. The Boston Lakers wars were wars and if you weren’t ready to go strong to the basket, you were going to get decked. The Rockets seemed to lack the desperation you need to win championship games. Tucker played great and actually Rivers did ok. But to see Harden at… Read more »

isaac ho
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isaac ho

– Do you have more insight into your blame of D’Antoni? Because if your main gripe is not playing Gary Clark instead of Capela you have to realize how silly that sounds… – Harden: the sad part is just realizing that in the biggest moments he shrinks from the spotlight, and that we were built to have him be our killer. Coffee for closers only. Final 3 minutes, hard to believe it was truly fatigue, it only being the second round…a pattern of disappearing that is impossible to ignore. Fool me thrice… So unless people can give me more insight… Read more »

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