Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is nothing if not innovative. His decision to trade starting center Clint Capela and go with small ball ahead of the trade deadline added another layer to this.
Morey figured his former iteration of the Rockets was not good enough to compete with the big boys in the Western Conference. He was right.
Unfortunately, it does not look like this team in its current form is going anywhere.
Houston enters the unofficial second half of the NBA season at 34-20 and as the fifth seed in the conference. As of right now, it would have a difficult opening-round matchup against the Utah Jazz.
A hypothetical Round 1 matchup with Utah would include going up against a lineup that consists of the 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert. That’s the short-term problem for these Rockets. They are relying on the 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker to play center in this small-ball lineup, and the only real backup option is recently acquired Jordan Bell.
It’s part of a larger systemic issue for these Rockets, one that Morey thought he could overcome with bold moves, included signing the likes of wings Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll.
Essentially, Morey attempted to get cute at the deadline. It’s likely going to backfire once the playoffs start.
The idea of going up against Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee of the Los Angeles Lakers in a hypothetical playoff matchup is hilarious. Los Angeles can simply pound the rock inside, and that's not even mentioning LeBron James’ physical ability.
It doesn’t change too much with the Nuggets, who boast bigs Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap. That’s a nightmare matchup waiting to happen.
We can go up and down the list and note mismatches in virtually any potential opponent’s favor. Small ball worked with the Golden State Warriors over the past five years, but when it was needed, the team was able to throw bigs such as Zaza Pachulia, Kevon Looney and McGee out there. Houston does not have that same capability.
Moving forward: Let’s assume for a second Houston does not shock the NBA world and come away with a title. The future looks bleak.
The Rockets’ decision to trade for an aging Russell Westbrook this past summer was a desperation move with a short-term goal in mind. Westbrook has not been a tremendous fit with James Harden thus far this season, and his contract is crippling moving forward, as is Harden’s.
Westbrook is set to count $132 million-plus against the cap over the next three seasons with hits of $41.4 million, $44.2 million and $47.1 million, respectively. Harden’s cap hit over the next three seasons comes in at $41.3 million, $44.3 million and $47.4 million. This does not give Morey and Co. any reasonable hope of improvement behind these two.
Houston currently finds itself $17.1 million over the cap and dangerously close to the luxury tax. The team’s cap situation outside of Harden and Westbrook is not great moving forward.
Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker are set to count a combined $37 million-plus against the cap in 2020-21. Add in the Harden and Westbrook hits, and that’s a total of nearly $120 million for five players.
Austin Rivers has an opt-out he’ll almost certainly use this summer. Outside of that, Danuel House is the only rotational player under contract for next season. Houston will have to fill out the roster with veteran-minimum players.
This begs a major question: Where will the depth come from in Houston next season? Can the Rockets add any viable big man to change Morey’s currently philosophy on the fly? There doesn't appear to be much of an avenue here.
By virtue of the Westbrook trade and the deal we saw last month, Houston is going to be irrelevant come draft time moving forward as well. The team yielded first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 to Oklahoma City in the Westbrook-Chris Paul trade. That deal includes Oklahoma City owning the right to swap first-round selections in 2021 and 2025.
The Rockets’ first-rounder in 2020 was also sent to Denver in the multiteam deal that brought in Covington from Minnesota earlier in February. This means that Houston controls its first-round pick just twice (2022 and 2023) over the next seven years. That’s not going to get it done from a team-building standpoint.
We don’t blame Morey for going all in. It’s what has made him one of the best general managers in the NBA. Unfortunately, his most recent trades have handcuffed this team moving forward.
Without a reasonable expectation of contention this season and failing to boast both the cap room and draft pick assets to improve moving forward, it seems like Houston does indeed have a problem.
Harden and Westbrook are aging. Both are playing under huge long-term contracts. There’s no depth on this team. There’s no size on this team.
It’s going to cause the Rockets’ house to collapse from within sooner rather than later.
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