Getting from game five of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when Chris Paul injured his hamstring through the beginning of their offseason after a game six loss to Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals this year has been difficult for the Rockets.
Their 2018 offseason included some incredible free agents busts, the loss of two key veteran players and a temporary hiatus for the architect of their defense. In their first 20 games, coming off a season with a franchise record 65 wins, they were 9-11.
Fortunately, they had James Harden, whose performance not only kept the team above water but elevated them from second worst in the conference to in the top five. Once they got back injured players like Clint Capela after the All-Star break, they rapidly became one of the best in the league yet again.
But you could almost feel it coming off the rails when they went from second place to fourth on the final night of the season, a seed that put them in the crosshairs of what some believed was a slowly declining Warriors team in the second round of the playoffs. Even with the twist of irony that was Golden State losing Kevin Durant in game five, the Rockets still fell to the Warriors.
And before the matchup for the NBA Finals was even set, there was more news. According to reports, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta rubber stamped the return of coach Mike D'Antoni for another season even though GM Daryl Morey fired three of D'Antoni's assistants shortly before. It should not be lost on readers that Morey was not the person who chose D'Antoni in the first place (that was former owner Leslie Alexander), nor does it appear he was given the choice this offseason.
On top of that, there are additional reports saying Paul and Harden wrestled over the style of play with the team and Paul was complaining to D'Antoni about the need to diversify the offense right up through the playoffs.
We don't probably need to call this Team Turmoil just yet, but the cracks are certainly beginning to show. It's no surprise. This has been, arguably, the second or third best team in the NBA the past few seasons, yet they have been denied on the precipice of the Finals too many times for it not to be frustrating.
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Paul has a large and fairly long contract ahead of him, by aging NBA point guard standards. Morey, who seems secure for now, likely wants to diversify the offense as much as Paul does. Harden, for his part, seems like he'll do anything the team wants if it gets him closer to a title.
And fixing these things won't be easy when you consider the Rockets are capped out with little wiggle room to lure free agents or tradable assets to entice another team into landing a quality veteran. The draft isn't going to help them either.
It leaves the Rockets with far more questions than answers heading into the long summer ahead. While they could lose key rotation players like Austin Rivers or Danuel House this offseason, the way they were able to dig up critical components throughout the season in 2019 and the fact that there will be no shortage of guys who want to play on a contending team with James Harden at least leaves the door open a bit for some additions.
But, with Fertitta clearly grabbing hold of the reins as the firmly established owner, no one should feel safe if the Rockets can't find a way to get past the Warriors. Before too much longer, a full blown house cleaning might happen whether it's the right thing or not, especially if the grumbling over on La Branch continues.