James Harden, Russell Westbrook and a Houston Rockets team potentially facing the end of an era

James Harden and the Houston Rockets are like a piece of art. Fascinating to some people, wildly boring to others. In many ways they have been too good for their own good -- not a top-tier championship contender in the present, at least not in most people's opinions, but measured against that expectation for the success of their past.

In reality, these Rockets should feel a lot like, say, the Utah Jazz. You can look at them on paper and convince yourself they're on the fringe of the title conversation, but it's not your expectation. A second-round loss wouldn't be considered a bust. The team is what it is. And in the Rockets' case, this is not the same team that is responsible for those expectations in the first place. 

The team that set this bar in Houston was the 2017-18 Rockets, who had Chris Paul and took the juggernaut Warriors to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. That Warriors team is gone, but so are those Rockets. The versatile defense that gave Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry fits is 17th in the league this season, per NBA.com. Chris Paul was traded for Russell Westbrook, who is an entirely different player. 

So again, why would the expectations be the same?

Because of Harden, of course. He's the constant. As long as he's there, it feels like the same old Rockets team that's right on the cusp of a championship. In many ways, Harden has also been too good for his own good. If he was averaging, say, 31 points per game, perhaps we could just see him as the all-time great scorer he clearly is. But at close to 40 points a game -- 39.3 through Sunday, to be exact -- his production becomes this fishy referendum on the validity of modern stats. 

Until proven otherwise, the question will continue to be asked: Is Harden playing, and scoring, this way more regular-season stat gimmick or true championship material? For the record, it's not a gimmick. That's too harsh a word. But it is not entirely unfair to at least wonder how many other top-tier players could score like this inside Houston's one-man-show system. 

Ultimately, it's that system that's really on trial. And in the eyes of many, a verdict is coming at the end of this season. On Sunday, on his ESPN Trade Special with fellow reporter Zach Lowe, Adrian Wojnarowski said the following about the Rockets:

"This is really a moment of truth coming for this entire organization. [Mike D'Antoni] is in the last year of his deal. Daryl Morey sent that [China] tweet out earlier this season. There's even more pressure on [Morey] with this new ownership group to advance deeper than they have in the playoffs. The only thing left for them is the NBA Finals. I think this era of Rockets basketball is at stake with this season."

Wojnarowski went on to say Morey and the Rockets are "going to try everything they can to improve the team [via trade]," but both he and Lowe agreed there aren't that many moves out there for them to realistically make. 

"Daryl Morey has tried any number of two-way, three-way, four-way scenarios to get Andre Iguodala from Memphis," Wojnarowski said. "That doesn't seem to be a scenario that is going to come into play. I think he's kind of throwing his hands up on that one."

So probably no Iguodala, and as Lowe pointed out, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela are really the only two lures they have to get teams interested in a possible deal -- notably because Eric Gordon is ineligible to be traded within six months of the Rockets giving him a four-year, $76 million extension, which happened in early September. The trade deadline is in February. 

"[Not being able to trade Gordon] kind of cripples their flexibility in terms of salary and appeal around the league," Lowe said. "He's the one who really gets things done."

Houston could, if it were desperate enough, attach Clint Capela or P.J. Tucker to a future draft pick and try to make a splash move. But it's hard to envision a return package that would actually be an upgrade over either of those players, let alone one that would justify the potential forfeiture of a future first-round pick. They could look to the buyout market. Perhaps there's a deal to be done for a Jae Crowder-type. Maybe Robert Covington is a possibility in Minnesota without having to sell the farm. 

In the end, barring something unexpected, this Rockets team pretty much is what it is. Harden is going to have to play complete Superman in the playoffs, and Westbrook -- who has been really good of late but is still shooting 23 percent from 3-point range -- is going to have to summon, and sustain, the absolute best version of his game for two solid months come April and May. 

Indeed, from the second the Rockets traded Chris Paul, Westbrook has been the true barometer of this team. More or less, you know what you're going to get from Harden, Capela and Gordon. Houston's peripheral players have been pretty good. It's Russ, and in many ways only Russ, on which this season swings. 

Whether this is actually the end of the road for this era of Rockets basketball depends on your definition of era. Yes, D'Antoni might be gone barring a championship. Perhaps Morey follows him out the door. That would change a lot, no doubt. Perhaps another coach and/or GM would deem this analytical era of Rockets basketball a failure and shift gears philosophically. But Harden will still be around. And so will Westbrook. 

Harden is too great to trade and Westbrook is too expensive. The Rockets are almost certainly locked to those two through at least the summer of 2022, when they both have player options for more than $47 million. As long as those two guys are with the Rockets, a championship or at least a Finals berth, will feel like a possibility. But you could argue that realistically, that ship sailed out of town right along with Chris Paul. It's just that the expectations stuck around. 

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