Before we get into the ins and outs of the Houston Rockets season and how fans should feel about their current standing in the NBA, let me first say a couple things.
So yeah, its not easy staying consistent with blogs/videos when its not your job. So it’s been awhile since anything has been put up. Its tough to match schedules with other guys and find time to record good videos. As we get into summer and I have some more free time, hopefully I can get more consistent. Also, the Rockets lost to the Warriors (again!) and I got REAL sports sad and didn’t want to talk/write about it… But some time has passed now and Ive got some things to say. So lets get into it!
Its been a couple of weeks now since the 2019 season ended for my beloved Houston Rockets. It ended sooner than anyone wanted and it ended against the same team as last year (and 2015 and 2016, but whatever). After game 6, I wanted nothing to do with the NBA Playoffs and have only just now started to find the games interesting again. Losing in the playoffs always sucks. But it sucks so much more when you have a transcendent player that always makes you feel like you can win it all. And it sucks even more than that when you lose to the same bloody team ever year. And when that team is the most obnoxious, annoying, dominant team of all time, it just makes you wanna swallow a slug for a little while (not really, but I mean its all relative).
In the days and now weeks that have passed since game 6, I’ve been mostly surprised by the reaction by most NBA fans and media. I expected a decent amount of the boring, tired, and inaccurate hot takes of Harden being a playoff choker, CP being too old, or Mike D’antoni’s style not being able to win in the playoffs. While there was some of that from the typical internet trolls, the narrative for the most part has been about the Warriors. Which is what it should be. The 2018-19 Golden State Warriors were a significantly better team than the 2018-19 Houston Rockets. It should have surprised no one that the Warriors won a hard fought series against the Rockets, so it really makes no sense to call the Rockets anything other than “not quite good enough” after the series.
Despite the fact that the Rockets were a Chris Paul hamstring away from taking down the Warriors in 2018, and the expectations that set up for the 2019 season, the Rockets were never good enough to beat the most talented team in league history this season. So why is that? I think that question can be answered by looking at a few different variables that shaped the season for the Rockets.
First and foremost, despite the season long mantra coming out of the Houston front office, “Run it Back,” this was a different roster from the get go this season. The Rockets had to replace 3 key contributors to the 65 win team from the year before when they lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency and traded away sharpshooter Ryan Anderson. Now, I argued all off-season (and most of the regular season) that these losses wouldn’t effect the team all that much come playoff time. I was wrong, but not for the reason you might be thinking. The problem was not that the Rockets lost these players, the problem was that they attempted to replace them with players that didn’t fit. The most obvious guy to point to here is Carmelo Anthony. Hand up, I thought Melo would take advantage of his opportunity in Houston and redefine his game as a role player. A super stretch-4. I never viewed him as Ariza’s replacement, I viewed him as Ryan Anderson’s replacement. Whether he was starting or not, I thought he’d be fine with 25 minutes of getting wide open 3’s from Harden and Paul… Evidently he still wants to be Denver Melo and jab step for 21 seconds… So that was a big fat miss by not just fans like me that thought it’d work, but for the front office as well.
The thing is, though, the Melo experiment was over pretty quick. So I still don’t think that was the main problem with this team. There were two other minor acquisitions that set this team back. The two guys that I thought were better candidates for replacing Ariza and Mbah a Moute were James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams. First off, I have never been a MCW fan. It’s important to me that you know that before this next sentence… But I have to shamefully admit… During the pre-season, I convinced myself that MCW was going to be our Shaun Livingston! Come in with the second unit, play hard defense, distribute the ball well, and hit the occasional mid-range shot. I have never been more wrong! Michael Carter-Williams sucks. He has always sucked and he will always suck. Even at the minimum, thats a signing that Daryl Morey never should have made. James Ennis, however, I have always been a fan of. I think bringing him in as a potential replacement for Ariza made sense. Now, it didn’t work out. Ennis turned out to be a much worse defender than he had shown in past seasons and his offense/decision making was too inconsistent for such a large role. I do think Ennis could have been a fit on this team, just in a Mbah a Moute role in stead of a starting wing.
It feels like ages ago that those guys were even wearing Rockets jerseys though. They were all gone by the trade deadline, and Morey did a much better job in his replacement attempts mid-season than he did in the off-season. Being able to grab Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers, Danual House, and even Iman Shumpert mid-season was as much as you could have hoped for as a Rockets fan. And, for the most part, those guys played pretty well in their roles (with the exception of Shumpert probably). With the help of those guys, a relatively healthy second half to the season, and James Harden having the best scoring season in like 50 years, it was still fair to consider this team contenders, just not favorites.
So what went wrong come playoff time?
Look, if you want to blame Harden for the loss to Golden State, than for the love of everything sacred, just don’t talk to me about it. After hearing all season how Harden’s scoring always drops in the playoffs, we saw him score 35ppg in 6 games being guarded by 4 of the best perimeter defenders in the league (Klay, Dray, Iggy, and KD). In the same series, fans and media were in awe of KD’s performance (before the injury), and rightfully so. He averaged 34ppg in his 5 games. And if you want to bring up efficiency, Harden shot 44%, KD shot 45%. They essentially played each other to a draw all series. So please, for my sanity, do not tell me Harden choked in this series!
It’s so stupid to try to blame one (or even two or three) players for losing a playoff series, especially against the Warriors. But it doesn’t take a scouts eye to see that Capela was atrocious against GS this time around. And Chris Paul, other than game 6, had a pretty underwhelming series as well. And as much I like the guy, I thought Coach D’antoni made some costly mistakes with his rotations. But again, its stupid to place blame like this.
So what went wrong against the Warriors? Why did the Rockets go from a CP hamstring away from victory, to fighting hard but being overmatched a year later? It all goes back to the inability to replace valuable role players in the offseason. As well as the mid-season pickup guys played in the regular season, they no-showed in the playoffs. Austin Rivers was the only one making any significant contributions. House, Faried, and Shump all saw limited minutes when it really mattered. When you combine that with Capela not playing well and CP looking a year older, it doesn’t really matter how good James Harden is. Heck, it doesn’t even matter that KD got hurt. Lets assume the “stars” on these teams are evenly matched, tell me which group of role players you would prefer… The answer is easy, you’d take Draymond (yes, he’s a role player, just and insanely good role player), Iggy, Livington and Looney over Rivers, Shumpert, Green, and even Capela. And in games 5 and 6, those guys were the difference for the Warriors.
The fact of the matter is, the Rockets lost some key contributors to a 65 win team. Most of us, including myself, didn’t think it would be difficult to fill the roles of Ariza, Anderson, and Luc Mbah a Moute. But it was. And for that reason, the Rockets were a 4 seed. Tell me when it has ever been considered a “failure” when the 4 seed loses to the 1 seed?
So what now? Where does Daryl Morey go from here?
Well, we have already seen a few answers to this question… It seems as though there will be some new voices in the locker room for next season as a considerable amount of the coaching staff will be different. While it still looks like MDA will be back, I would expect the identity of the team to, if not change, at least diversify a little bit. I would expect to see less of a commitment to the switching defense. And while the offense will still go through Harden and CP, I could see an emphasis on more off-ball movement. Just based off of Harden’s comments throughout the year, as well as the hilariously overblown story that just came out about Harden and Paul arguing (more on that in the next paragraph), I think they want to do more than just ISO every possession.
As I just mentioned, it was reported yesterday that Harden and Paul had a “heated exchange” during game 6… Apparently this is news? I don’t know, it really shouldn’t be. If you watched the Rockets all season, or paid any attention to comments made by both Harden and Paul, you would already know that the two get into a “heated exchange” probably every few games. It’s not because they don’t like each other or because one guy wants the ball more than the other, its because they both want to win. I grew up playing basketball with my brother. We are 18 months apart. He is my best friend. I was the Best Man in his wedding and if I ever get married he will be the Best Man in mine. And guess what? We have cussed each other out, wanted to punch each other, or just plain stopped talking to each other during a pick up game because I was open in the corner and he drove in and missed a layup, or because he had a mismatch at the top and I jacked up a bad 3. Then the game ends and we move on… Again, this is not a story. The goals for building a team for the 2019-20 season remain the same… Find guys to fit in with both of these superstars.
So that’s probably a good place to leave it for now. We have a long off-season to speculate on players or assistant coaches that could be in Houston next year. For now, just watch the Warriors continue to decimate their remaining opponents in route to their 3 consecutive title, and then ask yourself if we should really be piling on Houston for being the only team that has tested the Warriors in the past 3 years… I hate them, but I cannot deny the greatness of that team. The Rockets have been better than 28 teams over the last 3 seasons… Should they be overly criticized for, like the rest of the league, not being able to beat the Warriors?
The great Pedro Martinez said it best,
Just have to tip your cap and call the Warriors your daddy…