The Houston Rockets are in a fairly dire situation. They just got decimated by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. They’ll have a new coach and a new general manager next season. They owe two first-round picks and two pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their two superstars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, are now in their 30s and have hefty contracts still on the books. That isn’t uncommon for Houston. They owe their top five players almost $120 million, and will almost certainly pay the luxury tax next season.
The future is not particularly bright in Houston.
With that in mind, there is an argument to be made in favor of kickstarting a rebuild now. Trading Harden would still net a significant return, but the longer they wait, the less likely that is to be true. Wait too long, and they might be stuck with aging versions of Harden, Westbrook and Eric Gordon that are no longer capable of contending. For now, though, it doesn’t look like they’re ready to pull the trigger on that sort of move. The Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen appeared on the Pushin’ Thru/Athletes Unfiltered podcast and said that he does not expect the Rockets to move toward a rebuild yet.
“The blow it up and start over thing is not for this offseason.” Feigen said. “And the reason I feel fairly certain about that is they’re certainly keeping James Harden informed and getting his input on coaching, discussions and considerations. You wouldn’t involve him if you’re planning to send them off somewhere.”
Fortunately, the Rockets still have a bit of wiggle room. Although Harden’s trade value could go down with time, Houston has no great need to tank this season. They don’t control their first-round pick, which is owed to Oklahoma City in a swap. It is top-four protected, so some luck could allow them to keep the pick, but considering the likelihood that they will lose it anyway, an immediate tank is somewhat unnecessary. Soon after, though, high draft picks will become crucial. The Rockets don’t control their first-round pick in 2024, 2025 or 2026, essentially giving them a two-year window in 2022 and 2023 to restock their roster with young talent. The Rockets don’t have to be bad right away, but they need to be soon if they plan to take advantage of their draft picks in order to restock their roster before they lose the draft as a means of rebuilding.
That gives the Rockets the 2020-21 season to try to win a championship with their current core before needing to start seriously considering alternatives. If the Rockets are in the running next season, they can play it out and see what happens. If not, the deadline or the 2021 offseason would become the likeliest points for a Harden trade.