Another genuine superstar and MVP to partner with James Harden, at least on paper, rivaled the combinations of LeBron James-Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard-Paul George in the Western Conference.
Russell Westbrook’s reunion with Harden elevated expectations in Houston. It also brought hope that the club would be able to move on from Chris Paul and Clint Capela and thrive in its switch to a ‘small ball’ strategy.
But Houston’s season came to an end in the West semifinals at Walt Disney World Resort, prompting the parting of ways between the Rockets and head coach Mike D’Antoni. At the same time, longtime general manager Daryl Morey opted to step down and Rafael Stone was elevated from general counsel to replace him.
As the Rockets search for a head coach they hope can finally lead them back to the NBA Finals, let’s look at the issues facing the team heading into 2020-21:
THE HARDEN-WESTBROOK PAIRING
The Rockets gave up a lot to reunite the former Thunder teammates, parting with two future first-round selections, two pick swaps and Paul for the nine-time All-Star Westbrook.
Harden played his first three seasons alongside Westbrook in Oklahoma City, helping the Thunder reach the 2012 NBA Finals before joining the Rockets.
In their first season back together, Harden and Westbrook became the first teammates in league history to average at least 25.0 points and 7.0 assists in the same season. Harden averaged 34.3 points and 7.5 assists, while Westbrook averaged 27.2 points and 7.0 assists in 2019-20.
NO BACKSEAT FOR HARDEN
Even though Westbrook also needed the ball and put up some big numbers, Harden continued to lead the way offensively. In 2019-20, Harden generated 52.4 points per game off either his own scoring or on his assists after averaging 53.9 in 2018-19, 51.3 in 2017-18 and 56.0 in 2016-17.
That marked four successive seasons with 50-plus points per game created, tying Oscar Robertson (1963-64 to 1966-67) for the longest streak in NBA history.
While Harden dazzled, Westbrook’s struggles were evident in the postseason. He shot just 24.2% from 3-point range and 53.1% from the free-throw line. He was the first player in league history to shoot under 25.0% from 3 and under 60.0% from the line in a single postseason (minimum 30 attempts in both categories).
The Rockets are usually at their best when Westbrook is not shooting a lot of 3s. They had a 29-13 record when the 2017 MVP shot less than five from beyond the arc compared to 10-13 when he attempted five or more.
This could signal an offensive system change with Morey and D’Antoni gone (more on this later).
Houston first experimented with ‘small ball’ while Capela was injured in January. Shortly afterward, the Rockets opted to trade the center to the Atlanta Hawks.
Houston was all-in on the approach to help free up Harden and Westbrook and embrace a lineup that featured 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker and 6-foot-7 Robert Covington as its “big men,” but it resulted in a major disadvantage on the boards. During the regular season, the club’s rebound margin was minus-3.6.
It was further exploited in the playoffs. The Rockets’ rebound margin was minus-9.2 per game, the worst by any team that played at least 12 games in a single postseason in the past 30 years. They also had no answer for the Lakers’ Anthony Davis, who averaged 25.4 points and 12.4 rebounds while shooting 60.0% from the field in the series against the Rockets.
Since the 1976-77 merger, no team has won the NBA title after posting a minus-3.0 or worse rebound margin in the regular season. In fact, only three of the 43 champions since the merger even had a negative rebound margin in the regular season – the Rockets in 1993-94 (-0.3) and 1994-95 (-2.8) and the Miami Heat in 2012-13 (-1.5).
MAKING UNWANTED HISTORY
While Houston has enjoyed a lot of regular-season success, the same cannot be said in the playoffs.
The franchise has finished at .500 or better in 14 consecutive seasons but has fallen short of reaching the NBA Finals in each – the longest streak of its kind in league history. Overall, the Rockets have not advanced to the Finals since winning their last championship in 1995.
This year, Houston secured the fourth seed with a 44-28 record before falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games. There will be a new coach at the helm for the club’s next Finals bid after D’Antoni’s contract expired and the 69-year-old did not renew.
D’Antoni oversaw a 217-101 regular-season record in four campaigns in Houston, where the Rockets reached the conference finals once and enjoyed three other trips to the semifinals.
STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION
The Rockets only have six players under contract for next season (Austin Rivers has a player option), but they’re not going to have the money to sign a big name.
In a recent CNBC interview, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta declared that the club isn’t trading Harden or Westbrook and “we’re not blowing up anything.” If that holds true, Houston has likely already made its big changes with a new general manager and soon-to-be new head coach.
Previously, much of Houston’s offensive approach revolved around the 3-point shot, which begged the question as to whether Westbrook was a good fit or whether the Rockets could make a shift in strategy now that Morey and D’Antoni have moved on.
It looks like we may have the answer.
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