What (or Who) Next for the Rockets?
Something needs to change.
James Harden has been paired with another star before, but in a bid to win an NBA Championship, the Rockets need to add a third to the roster.
The Houston Rockets have been the winningest franchise in the NBA over the last two regular seasons, with 118 wins to their name. (The Raptors fall one short, with 117 and the Golden State Warriors have 115). But for all that regular season success, the wins have been limited to the regular season, with little tangible postseason success to speak of.
The Rockets, from 2014 to now in 2019 have been a team with many different focal points and identities. From the Dwight Howard-James Harden partnership to a solo Harden run to the Harden and Chris Paul duo, the Rockets haven’t been afraid to make big changes to their roster in order to win a title. In fact, the only cross overs from that 2014 roster to now are James Harden (of course) and Clint Capela, who played a grand total of 90 minutes over the course of the season.
The 2017–2018 playoffs saw the Rockets lose to the eventual NBA Champion, Golden State Warriors, in a hard-fought slugfest that lasted for 7 games and one of the worst cold shooting streaks of all time. And 2018–2019 once again saw the Rockets fall to the Warriors, for the fourth time in five years, in a 6 game series in the semi-finals.
For the entire duration of the Warriors’ Finals and championship runs, the Rockets have been trying to break through and win a championship of their own. And, at every turn, they’ve been foiled by the Warriors. Even despite the drastic personnel and stylistic changes, the Rockets have undergone since they first lost to the Warriors, nothing has been able to provide sustained success in a playoff series
First, the 2014–2015 iteration of the Rockets was Daryl Morey’s first attempt to pair a star with James Harden. Dwight Howard signed with Houston, seemingly signaling a shift in the balance of power in the Western Conference. And, for a year, it worked. Harden and Howard partnered to lead the Rockets to 53 wins, the 2 seed in the West, and a berth in the Conference finals.
Then the duo ran into the Golden State Warriors who were still young and experiencing the first of many conference finals in their future. The Rockets didn’t stand a chance. The Warriors, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green ran all around them. Harden played remarkably well, averaging 28.4 ppg and shooting 42.9% from three and Howard averaged 14.4 points and rebounds per game. But the Rockets had no way to contain Steph and Klay, who averaged 31.2 and 17.8 points respectively. And, so the Rockets lost for the first time.
Losing again to the Warriors in 2015–2016 was annoyingly expected. The Rockets, driven by issues between Harden and Howard, fell apart in the regular season, scraping their way into the playoffs with the 8 seed. The Warriors, coming off of their record-breaking 73–9 regular season, dispatched the Rockets with ease in five games. After the season, Howard was jettisoned from Houston and the team transitioned to the control of James Harden.
In his first season as the unquestioned star, James Harden put on a show, averaging 29.1 PPG, 11.2 APG (leading the NBA), and 8.1 RPG, while playing in 81 of 82 possible games. He led the Rockets to 55 wins and the 3 seed in the West but still fell short to Russell Westbrook in a hotly debated MVP race where it seemed as though the team success of Harden and Kawhi Leonard relative to the 6 seed Thunder should carry more weight.
The San Antonio-Houston series will be remembered as the year that Harden collapsed in the playoffs, eternally dooming the Rockets. Yet, Harden led that series by averaging 24.5 points and 9.7 assists per game. Harden had games of 43, 28, and 33 points, leading all scorers. His three-point shooting was down though, to 30.8%, which sunk the Rockets, but he wasn’t the only one who shot poorly. Lou Williams, known for being a scorer off the bench, shot 17.6% from 3 and 35.3% overall and only averaged 7.3 points per game after averaging 17.5 PPG in the regular season. The Rockets lost, not solely because of Harden, but because the Spurs were able to focus everything around him defensively and the Rockets had no plan B.
That shortcoming sparked one of the biggest changes in franchise history, the Chris Paul trade. Beyond the need to pair Harden with another star, the Warriors, now with Kevin Durant, looked more formidable than ever. Everything the Rockets were doing, every personnel move, had the Warriors in mind, how to beat them. PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Paul. All players intended to give the Warriors, Steph, and KD problems.
Paul and Harden seemed to mesh immediately, leading the Rockets to 65 wins, the 1 seed, and Harden’s first MVP award. The Rockets walked through Minnesota and Utah on the way to the Conference Finals for their showdown against Golden State, in Houston.
Through five games, the Rockets held a 3–2 lead, until the combined injuries of Chris Paul and Mbah a Moute became too much for them to handle. In Game 7, the Rockets essentially played a six-man rotation against the Warriors’ eight. At the end of the long season, Harden and the others couldn’t pull Houston to a win, a loss punctuated by their 0–27 streak on three-pointers.
Harden, viewed as the main culprit, deserved much of the blame. But, he averaged 28.7 PPG in the series, albeit on 24.4% three-point shooting. However, in that Game 7, while the Rockets were missing every single shot they took, Harden had two made threes and four-point play attempts waived off. Even if just the three-pointers stayed on the board, the Rockets would have been 6 points closer, instead of losing 101–92, they would have lost 101–98 and who knows how those 6 points would have changed the course of the game.
All of that leads into the 2018–2019 playoffs. After a rough regular season, the Rockets were returning to form, with James Harden dragging their occasionally lifeless corpse to wins buoyed by his all-time scoring binge. Unfortunately, the Rockets were unable to overcome a horrid early start, resigning them to the 4 seed.
The semi-finals versus the Warriors was the closest the Rockets ever came to beating the Warriors. They averaged 1.9 fewer points per game and each game was decided by 6 or fewer points. Game 1 could have gone either way, swung towards to the Warriors due to officiating. Game 2, the Rockets lost. A few things could have changed the outcome, but no egregious occurred. Games 3 and 4, in Houston, were close wins for the Rockets; with the series tied back up at 2–2, the door was still open for the Rockets.
Kevin Durant leaves, part-way through the game with a calf strain. Yet, the Rockets were unable to close the gap, to steal Game 5 in Oracle, to once again take a 3–2 lead. Game 5 was the tipping point of the series. In Game 6, when Steph Curry scored 33 in the second half, the Rockets didn’t stand a chance. And the series ended, just like that.
Harden, again caught flack. Except this was the best he had ever played against the Warriors in the playoffs, at least statistically mirroring his regular season performance. Harden led all scorers 34.8 PPG on 35.1% three-point shooting, a tad below average but it’s a super small sample size.
But watching the Rockets-Warriors on TV, there was another problem that popped out, one that persisted all the way from 2017–2018.
Harden went passive towards the ends of big games. I won’t say “he choked,” because the reason those games were tight was that he pulled them tight, pulled them within four or five. But once the score was within four or five, he started to defer, letting Paul or Eric Gordon run the offense. The problem is that, when he isn’t scoring, Harden is kind of a zero offensively.
Therefore it can be really hard to score for the Rockets when he isn’t involved. It felt like all Harden needed to do to score was drive to the hoop. The Warriors don’t have an A+ rim defender, but Harden refused to drive, instead choosing to shoot his step-back three.
Chris Paul isn’t good enough to be the number two scorer on a championship team anymore. As a third creator and initiator, always playing alongside another star, he’s perfect.
That’s where Jimmy Butler enters the equation. A third (or second) star, who can defend at a high-level and score, he’s almost perfect. Butler gives the Rockets another option, a player who is willing to go and score the buckets they need at the end of games. Everything that we’ve heard about Butler publicly is that he wants to win. And Houston is the best place for him to do that.
With the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler was fourth on the team in touches. With Houston, he’d be second, behind Harden. Adding Butler would provide the Rockets the flexibility they need in order to match up with the new Western powers: the LeBron-AD Lakers, the Utah Jazz, as well as contend with Milwaukee and Philly.
Jimmy Butler makes sense on a multitude of levels, from offense to defense to personality. The Rockets need to make a change to win a title with Harden. Butler (29 years old) is the same age and on the same timeline. All of them, Harden, Paul, and Butler want to win a title and a team up is the best way to do so.