On balancing aggressiveness with conservatism

In the Age of Morey, the Houston Rockets have always shown an aggressiveness to make changes and never stand pat. Daryl has illustrated time and time again a willingness to make bold moves, whether through headline-grabbing trades or aggregating players valued below replacement to build to something greater.

The Rockets, along with the league as a whole, are now in uncharted territory for the first time in five years. As Rahat wrote, the calculus has indeed changed for the Rockets’ offseason following the devastating back-to-back injuries of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are no longer favorites to win it all next year, a strange and unfamiliar reality for NBA fans accustomed to the team’s dominance since 2015.

During the Rockets’ annual service for the Houston Food Bank, CEO Tad Brown said this:

“You have an owner like Tilman (Fertitta) who is driven to win a championship for our city and for the fans and an organization that is historically and consistently aggressive, there are going to be fireworks.

It is clear Mr. Fertitta, going into his third year as the Rockets’ owner, is looking to put his fingerprints on the team. He wants fighters that embody the aggressiveness that made him the restaurant and gaming business magnate he is today. But in light of the NBA’s new reality, such aggressiveness needs to be balanced with conservatism.

The team’s complete dismantling of its defensive coaching staff merely two weeks following its unceremonious exit from this year’s playoffs perhaps seems rash in hindsight. I am able to understand the removal of Jeff Bzdelik, who was rumored to be noncommittal to the 2019-2020 season much like last year. If that was the case, then it is important to move on from the coach sooner rather than later to get started on hiring a replacement. However, the subsequent firings of assistant coaches Roy Rogers and Mitch Vanya, Harden’s personal trainer, Irv Roland, and longtime video coordinator John Cho now feel as though the moves may have been done simply for the sake of change. Further, the ongoing contract stalemate with Head Coach Mike D’Antoni, the most winningest coach in Rockets’ history over a 3-year span, has only given this theory a bit more credence. There could be philosophical differences that resulted in the coaches’ departures that were too large to overcome or some other unknown factor(s) we’ll never know, but the Rockets have yet to fill the vacancies while also securing MDA. While free agents will come to Houston predominantly to play with a top 5 NBA player, an incomplete coaching staff may create some pause.

The team needs to make changes, no question. The Raptors’ NBA championship proved Daryl needs to surround James with more athletic, longer players that can also put the ball on the floor, create their own shots and be strong defensively. Danuel House had seemed to be that type of player for Houston this past offseason, but it is clear he needs some further seasoning following a disappointing playoff run. Still, let us not forget the team went on a 60-win pace following its disastrous 11-14 start this past season. The Rockets don’t need to make earth-shattering, full sail changes unless they are absolutely certain the new reality is better than the old.

The Raptors success proved another thing – keep banging on the door and eventually you’ll break through. Acquiring Kawhi Leonard was the final piece to getting the team over the hump, along with some luck along the way, which every NBA champion needs. But the Rockets already have their Kawhi Leonard in James Harden. They simply need a stronger frontcourt, something the Warriors had in Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and the Raptors did in Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Daryl, who has been accustomed to upping the team’s risk-profile these last few years in order to compete with the greatest NBA team ever assembled, now needs to perhaps ratchet it down. This will be a difficult balance with a new NBA owner looking to shake things up.

About the author: Justin Levine is a commercial real estate investor and developer for Levcor, Inc., based in Houston, TX. Justin’s business career includes experiences in Wall Street, private equity, media and tech. He has a B.S. from Northwestern University and an M.B.A. from The Wharton School. A lifelong Rockets fan since the team won it all, he regrets being too young to party on Richmond Avenue during that fateful eve in ’94. Twitter: @JustinLev

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