Rockets Post-Harden: Four Thoughts

Christian Wood (left) and John Wall,  represent the youth and veteran leadership of a post-Harden Rockets.
Christian Wood (left) and John Wall, represent the youth and veteran leadership of a post-Harden Rockets. Screenshot
We've had more than 24 hours to digest the deal that sent one of the all-time best Rockets to Brooklyn. On Thursday night, a very short-handed, young squad (only nine dressed including multiple rookies) managed to win on the road at San Antonio — not the feat it was a few years ago, but still — as the team begins a new Harden-less era in Houston.

No doubt, the end of James Harden's ending was rather inauspicious and left a bad taste in the mouth of many a Rockets fan. But there is no questioning the former MVP's skills, which should help bolster an already talented Nets team.

In Houston, the Rockets are left to figure out what is next. While it began on a positive note and we'll really start to see what they have for the rest of the season Saturday, there will be tough days ahead. Now that we've been able to let the dust settle, we have some thoughts on the deal that sent Harden to Brooklyn and what it means for his now former team going forward.

The trade was entirely about flexibility.

For years, former GM Daryl Morey and his staff, which included current GM Rafael Stone, did everything necessary to improve the team around their star guard. That included trading away young assets and loads of draft picks. It also meant signing players to large contracts with little hope of significant cap room. All that went out the window this offseason with the deal that landed Christian Wood and the most recent deal for Harden that gave the Rockets four first round picks.

When you factor in Victor Oladipo, whose trade isn't quite final yet, will be a free agent after this season, the Rockets have a chance to not only get below the luxury tax threshold, but also get well under the salary cap with plenty of young assets and draft picks to use for adding to the roster or using in trades to secure additional players. It can be disappointing to casual fans when the team sacrifices talent for future prospects that aren't promised, but these moves will help reset the team and give them hope for years to come.

The Rockets probably aren't done making moves.

The NBA trade deadline is well over two months away. Do not expect the Rockets to sit quietly. Oladipo could be a valuable trade commodity if the Rockets wanted to flip him instead of keeping him in Houston. More importantly, P.J. Tucker has quite a bit of trade value both for his low salary and his veteran leadership (nevermind his league leading corner three percentage). With this new youth movement, the Rockets are unlikely to sign the 35-year-old Tucker to the long-term deal he wants, so moving him might be the right play.

Until then, Tucker, unlike Harden, won't pout. He will act as a leader for these young guys and play hard as always. But the chances of him still in a Rockets uniform by year's end is probably less than 50-50.

This team will get a chance with greater freedom and a new attitude.

Only four players remain from last year's Rockets. Eric Gordon is the longest tenured having signed here in 2016. Make no mistake, this is not a retooling, this is a full reset for this team. They want more youth, cap flexibility, trade assets and draft picks. They will try to build around Christian Wood, Jae'Sean Tate, Danuel House and other youngsters going forward. And they are likely going to let them play.

Even with Oladipo, the Rockets want to get their young guys some experience. And, frankly, it's probably their best option. The energy of the young guys is refreshing and with veteran leadership in John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Gordon, they should be able to keep this a very respectable team. They should be pretty exciting as well.

Don't expect the Rockets to tank, but they are no longer real threats in the playoff race.

Despite the intensity and fun of a new bunch of guys, don't expect them to be contenders as they had planned with Harden. Wall, Oladipo and Wood make up a solid top three on this team, but it isn't enough to match the best teams in the league. There will likely be some addition by subtraction allowing some guys to open up their games and not be beholden to a unique player like Harden who is so ball dominant. But, they are not a better team without him.

This is likely to be an average to slightly above average team the next few years as they look to reset the roster and change the path forward for the franchise. It will probably be a lot of fun assuming you're OK with plenty of marks in the L column.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke