Offseason relevance, for reasons both good and suspect, was nothing new to the Houston Rockets. In 2012, it was the last-minute blockbuster trade for James Harden on the virtual eve of the season opener. In 2013, it was the successful conclusion of a multiyear courtship of Dwight Howard. In 2014, it was the big swings and misses for Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony as the final third of Houston’s very own “Big Three,” failures that, ironically, begat the best Rockets postseason run in 18 years. The Rockets have been a lot of things over the past decade, but boring isn’t one of them.
Now, on July 20, 2015, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sat in on a conference call with the assembled media to discuss the team’s latest salvo, the acquisition from the Denver Nuggets of troubled but talented point guard Ty Lawson, a near All-Star during the previous few seasons whose run-ins with the law — two drunk driving arrests, one in Colorado and one in Los Angeles — had effectively worn out his welcome in Denver.
After the Rockets had bowed out in five games to the eventual world champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, Harden reportedly told Morey in his exit interview that he needed help, that he needed someone to help carry the ball-handling and play-making burden that eventually broke him in Game 5 of the conference finals. The Lawson trade was equal parts Morey obliging Harden and Morey pulling off what we all thought was another coup, acquiring Lawson for four non-rotation players and a conditional draft choice.
“He’s one of the best playmakers in the league,” Morey said that day of Lawson. “If you look at the leaderboard for assists in the last few years or since he’s been in the league, he’s near the top. I think, as we saw, especially when [Harden] played a couple of teams last year, we struggle against teams that really load on James Harden, and we feel Ty will be a lot more difficult for teams to do that.”
Ty Lawson, we all thought, would be the final piece, the unlikely third man, with Harden and Howard, of Houston’s “Big Three.” Unfortunately, not only did the Lawson trade end up a failure — he was waived on March 1 — but that July afternoon was as good as Rockets fans would feel about their team for the next nine months. Indeed, the high point of the Rockets’ calamitous 2015-2016 season was a goddamn conference call in July.
The behavior of Morey as a general manager last summer indicated that he believed this was now the championship rotation that he’d been putting together piece by piece, transaction by transaction, since Yao Ming’s and Tracy McGrady’s anatomies both tapped out in 2010. Morey, who had always treated role players as interchangeable, practically disposable parts, brought back Pat Beverley, Corey Brewer and even rookie K.J. McDaniels on multiyear deals. No rotation players were dealt. Only Josh Smith would leave, and eventually even he came back midseason.
Morey’s multiyear construction of a title-contending castle appeared complete with the Lawson deal. As it turned out, the castle was overrun by termites, built on a basketball fault line, in large part crumbling from within as the result of chemistry issues and a complete lack of leadership.
Whereas James Harden had spent his 2014 summer with the U.S. national team staying in basketball shape, the 2015 MVP runner-up spent his 2015 summer on TMZ clubbing with Khloé Kardashian into the wee hours on the Hollywood strip. Harden came into camp unfocused and out of shape, and for a roster that thought it was safe to take their cues from him after the previous season, they unfortunately did just that in 2015-2016. Three straight losses, each by exactly 20 points, to open the season turned into a 4-7 start, which was enough for Les Alexander to rubber-stamp head coach Kevin McHale’s termination, just five months removed from a trip to the conference finals.
Alexander and Morey would tab assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff as McHale’s interim replacement, hopeful that would kickstart something. Anything. Instead, and perhaps predictably, Bickerstaff had all the impact of a substitute teacher. The Rockets hovered in between three games above and three games below .500 from December 2 through the end of the season, appropriately finishing a decidedly mediocre 41-41 and getting their heads handed to them by Golden State in five games in the first round of the playoffs, the final whimper being a 114-81 loss in Game 5 with MVP Steph Curry watching and cackling in street clothes on the Warriors’ bench.
Never before has the phrase “doing an autopsy on the season” been more appropriate than with these Rockets, who were dead on arrival back in November. When we begin spreading the blame, where do we start? It starts with the firing of McHale, says Brian Geltzeiler, who covers the NBA for Sirius XM’s NBA channel and hoopscritic.com.
“Blame lies, first and foremost, with the individual — to my knowledge, the owner — who decided to fire Kevin McHale,” said Geltzeiler. “That move empowered Harden, which allowed him to make his own rules, and the rest of the roster followed suit. J.B Bickerstaff never had a chance.”
The toxicity of this mix of players was evident all season, in particular the relationship between the two biggest stars, Harden and Howard. As Harden’s season picked up steam individually in March and April, Howard’s touches dipped to career lows. The denials by each of trouble between the two were unconvincing. Now, Howard can opt out of his contract this summer, and his departure seems to be a foregone conclusion, a depressing thought only when you consider the years Morey invested in acquiring him.
“You never know if star players will work well together until you put them together,” Geltzeiler pointed out. “Dwight’s dominance of the Clippers last season was the single biggest reason the Rockets made the Western Conference Finals. Dwight’s a ‘rising tide-sinking ship’ kind of guy. He’ll make a good situation better, but a bad situation worse.”
So what appeared back in July to be Morey’s go-forward nucleus and supporting cast will now almost undoubtedly be torn down piece by piece, and the search has already begun for a new head coach to replace Bickerstaff. Whereas Morey took years to assemble the core of 2015’s Western Conference Finals team, he won’t be afforded the luxury of time. The rebuild must be a reload.
Make no mistake, as much as his questionable work ethic was to blame for the team’s atrocious start to last season, Harden’s play down the stretch single-handedly got the Rockets into the postseason. He finished the season as only the fourth player in league history to average 29 points, six rebounds and seven assists. The other three? Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Harden is as scintillating as he is polarizing, and is maybe the only player in league history about whom you can say that he was the reason his team finished as the eight seed and have that be correctly construed as both blame and praise. Accepting that Harden will be a Rocket for as long as he chooses is the first step to understanding the rebuild of this team.
The new head coach must be someone who can get through to James Harden, who can be honest with him without fear of repercussion, who has power in the building on at least a similar level, and who has Harden’s respect. Geltzeiler’s choice is one familiar to Rockets fans.
“Jeff Van Gundy,” Geltzeiler says, matter of factly. “I think Van Gundy would be a great choice to coach this team. This is no time to be sentimental; you need a no-nonsense approach to this job. There are no scraps in Jeff’s scrapbook.”
Assuming that Howard will opt out of his deal, the Rockets will enter the offseason with more than $40 million in salary cap space and several role players they can jettison in trades. This should be Morey’s most active offseason since he took over the roster a decade ago, which is saying something. Again, understanding Harden is your focal point, what pieces then go around him?
“Because of Harden’s analytics-friendly style of play, the Rockets need to surround him with a ‘modern NBA’ lineup,” said Geltzeiler. “He needs a point guard who can spot up. He needs a tall three-and-D wing next to him. He needs a ‘stretch four’ who can defend the perimeter, and a pogo-stick center who protects the rim and can finish effectively in pick and roll. A traditional power forward is a waste with how Harden’s game has evolved because it will only muck up space for Harden, which will make James more apt to throw up those long two-step back jumpers he’s so incredibly fond of.”
If you’re a Rockets fan, I’ll translate Geltzeiler’s analysis with specific names. Expect young center Clint Capela to be the only untouchable player, other than Harden. Also, expect Morey to pursue players in free agency who can provide some semblance of offense to take some heat off Harden, who was the entire offense by the time the season was over. Feasible names to root for in free agency (aside from Kevin Durant, whose signing would likely require the election of Satan himself as mayor of Houston) would be Memphis point guard Mike Conley, New Orleans forward Ryan Anderson, Charlotte forward Nicolas Batum and Atlanta forward Al Horford.
Perhaps the biggest change in the Rockets’ approach may need to happen with the primary approacher himself, general manager Morey. Rather than adhering to the “star-chasing” rule that you need to have three superstars to win, instead tweak the approach to consider how pieces fit together on the court and in the locker room.
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“I think that Daryl has to realize that there are many ways to skin a cat. He loves to chase superstars, but there are other ways to build a team,” Geltzeiler contended. “Harden may not be a guy who will be effective with another superstar because of his ball dominance. If James won’t change, Daryl needs to work with that and get himself some high-end ditchdiggers to do the work that James leaves for them. His blueprint should resemble more of the 2011 Mavericks than the 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat.”
Talking to Geltzeiler, reading analysis on the team, hell, observing this team for 82 games, you quickly realize that the only constant with the Rockets going forward is James Harden, for better or worse. “Not every star was made to play with other stars, and it appears Harden is that type of guy,” said Geltzeiler.
Those 29 points, six rebounds and seven assists each night come with their fair share of drama and frustration. In retrospect, maybe the only thing that made sense about the Rockets this past season was James Harden’s dating a Kardashian.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.