The Houston Rockets are not the darlings of the NBA. They are not on an upward trajectory. They ended the 2019-20 season in shambles, with four straight losses to the eventual champions, the last of which was a complete clunker, presaging the departures of general manager Daryl Morey and coach Mike D'Antoni, who have left behind a roster that is expensive, bereft of young talent, devoid of draft picks and built to play a specific style.
Before the Rockets were even eliminated, The Athletic's John Hollinger wondered how long it would be before they'd face the music and move James Harden. When it becomes too difficult to add reinforcements to the team you've built, the most prudent thing to do is dismantle it. At 31 years old, Harden's trade value might never be higher than it is right now.
Houston is not there yet. Shortly after Morey left, owner Tilman Fertitta said there's no reason to blow up the roster and promised Rockets fans that they'll "do whatever we have to do" to compete for a title. New general manager Rafael Stone echoed Fertitta at new coach Stephen Silas' introductory press conference and told the Houston Chronicle that they're "still all-in."
If Stone executes a teardown at some point in the next year or two, all of this might look delusional. There are rational reasons, however, for Houston to have some hope. It can look back at how Russell Westbrook played before the hiatus, before he got COVID-19, before he injured his quad in Orlando. It can also look forward to having Silas on the sideline, overseeing a team he said will be less predictable.
For all the things that have been decided on Zoom conferences this year, the outcome of a basketball game is not one of them. Silas' first virtual meeting with the media was an opportunity, though, to talk about the tweaks he wants to make. He said there won't be drastic changes to the league's sixth-most efficient offense, but he wants to make things easier for Harden and Westbrook. There will be fewer isolations, more movement and more of an emphasis on attacking the defense before it is set.
"Those guys have had to work so hard to get to their greatness, and get to what makes them really successful," Silas said in an interview on ESPN. "But in the playoffs you see it stalls because there aren't really third, fourth options to go to. From my point of view, optionality is going to be everything."
Silas wants to tweak Houston's defense, too. Instead of switching everything, he wants to play multiple ways. At his press conference, he mentioned playing zone.
"As an offensive coordinator over the past two years, playing against teams that have different ways of defending is really tough and it takes a lot of time to prepare for," he said. "So I want to be that team. I want to be the team that you have to spend a day preparing to play."
When everything was clicking, D'Antoni's Rockets seemed revolutionary, but when things went wrong in the playoffs, they went totally off the rails. They're unlikely to add high-end talent in the offseason, so improvement will have to be a result of several smaller gains. Silas said they'll be a more "versatile" offensive team and force defenses to make more decisions, and he wants to go from being sixth on offense to first or second.
He has the right idea. Even for those of us who respected Houston's commitment to the bit over the past few years, it could be grating to watch it run iso after iso and switch when it wasn't necessary. Ball movement and player movement is typically the best way to get a flailing offense going, and NBA defense is evolving to the point where any team that doesn't play at least a little bit of zone will seem antiquated. To the degree that there was low-hanging fruit for a team that made up for its deficiencies with an unconventional style of play, Silas has identified it.
The appeal to unpredictability seems like a divergence from the way the Rockets have operated, but in a way, it fits with their ethos. Like spacing, unpredictability is a way to open things up for an offense and make star playmakers harder to guard. Smallball is more effective when it is not the only option, and switching is more effective when defenses aren't always expecting it.
If this is going to make a difference, though, Silas needs help. He and Stone telegraphed the Rockets' intentions of adding size, and his ability to get creative will be constrained unless they also add skill. Silas isn't about to ask P.J. Tucker to move from the corner to the elbow and start zipping passes around the court like Nikola Jokic.
Even if the front office makes the absolute most out of its midlevel exception and minimum contracts, are Harden and Westbrook ready to run around in the halfcourt, set screens and make hard cuts? Based on how close Houston came to the Finals in 2018, Harden can credibly argue that the only thing that needs to change is the cast of characters around him. D'Antoni's shifts from pick-and-roll to iso-ball and from 4-out to 5-out were pragmatic, not ideological.
The Rockets' decision to keep going for it is understandable. If there is a tendency for teams to hold onto their superstars for too long, it's because they're so hard to get and trading them usually means years of misery. As long as Harden is willing to give Silas and Stone a chance, maybe Houston isn't in such a dire place, at least in the short term. Maybe the next iteration of the Rockets will be more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing than recent ones, and maybe they'll still be fringe contenders. For Harden, is that enough?