To me, it started with Trevor Ariza. When the Rockets let him walk after taking the Warriors to seven games in the 2018 Western Conference finals, it was the beginning of the end for an era of Houston basketball that is, as we speak, gasping its last breath. Russell Westbrook wants out. So does James Harden. Robert Covington now plays for the Blazers. P.J. Tucker is on the trade block. Daryl Morey is in Philadelphia. Mike D’Antoni is in Brooklyn.
Houston doesn’t have a problem.
It had a problem.
To have a problem is to suggest there is still hope of an answer. There is no more hope in Houston. The Rockets as we’ve come to know them over the past half-decade are dead. Even if somehow Harden isn’t traded before the start of the 2021 season, his departure now feels inevitable, like Anthony Davis in New Orleans. With a player who holds that kind of value, especially for a franchise that severely lacks for assets, he’s going to get his wish eventually.
Paul George worked his way out of Indiana, then out of OKC. Kawhi Leonard got out of San Antonio. Jimmy Butler bludgeoned Minnesota into trading him, then leveraged his way to Miami when Philly had to give up on the hope of resigning him to a long-term deal.
Players have the power. If Harden wants out, he’s going to get out. Whether Houston finds a suitor willing to accept Westbrook’s contract, I can’t say that for sure. But it doesn’t matter. The minute Harden goes, the Rockets are done.
Frankly, they’re done even if Harden stays. They know it. This team has hit its proverbial ceiling. Again, it started when they let Ariza walk. That 2018 Rockets team was a championship team, despite not having the hardware to prove it. But in letting Ariza walk, they let the first piece of thread — thinking it was a relatively insignificant piece — loosen, and it wasn’t long before it all started to unravel.
Next they traded Chris Paul for Westbrook, a much bigger and more crippling move. Then they traded Clint Capela, the most desperate move of all, for the simple fact that Westbrook was a terrible fit to begin with. One mistake quickly compounded into another. And just like that, the whole ball of yarn is in tatters.
On Monday, Paul was traded to the Suns because OKC knows where it’s at as a franchise, and it’s not in the championship chase. The Rockets squeaked past the Thunder in seven games in the first round of the bubble playoffs. The Thunder were essentially an equal team to the Rockets last season, and believe me, if they know they’re not a true contender and have in turn decided to flip their most premium veteran asset in Paul, then the Rockets are about to do the same with Harden.
It’s a shame, too. Because Houston was close. Real close. When Kevin Durant went to the Warriors, the league shifted into an impossible mindset of having to create a perfect team to compete with a healthy Golden State. Nobody got close. Except for the Rockets, who for all their mathematic offensive ideologies were in a position to upset the Warriors because of their defensive versatility.
Again, Ariza was central to that. Paul was a better defender than Westbrook. Capela at least gave them a chance against bigs and on the boards, though he proved highly vulnerable when forced onto the perimeter. Next thing you know the Rockets are playing a 6-foot-5 guy at center, and a team that lives for 3-pointers suddenly became way too dependent on a guy who can’t shoot 3-pointers to save his life.
And now there is no saving the Rockets. They had a window. In my opinion, they would have a championship had Paul not gotten injured in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. But he did get hurt. They did let Ariza walk. They did go all-in on Westbrook. It was a flawed, impulsive bet to begin with. What’s ironic is that Harden was the one pushing for Westbrook, and now Harden wants out largely because that bad bet predictably didn’t pay off. The Rockets have one chip left to play, and it’s Harden. He’s gone. Bank on it. Say goodbye to the Rockets as you know them. It was an interesting ride, but it’s over.