The Houston Rockets have failed to win a championship in the two years of the Mike D’Antoni era, but fans should be pleased with the results. This team would have won a championship in practically any other era, James Harden will win the MVP, and the Rockets are ready to rebound and compete again for a title next year.
But it is precisely because of these continuing high expectations that general manager Daryl Morey faces his most challenging offseason yet. Sure, he could snag LeBron James, Paul George, or even Kawhi Leonard and give the Rockets that final piece to defeat the Golden State Warriors. But there are plenty of things which could go wrong as well. Perhaps Morey fails to get that big piece. Perhaps he loses Paul, or signs him to a long-term contract which hurts Houston’s ability to improve in subsequent years. Perhaps he fails to trade Ryan Anderson’s contract.
Make no mistake. Rockets fan can spout “In Morey we trust” all they want, but it is best to keep expectations low as this offseason begins. Morey will have plenty of work to do to ensure that this team stays at its current level, let alone advance further to have a better chance of dethroning Golden State.
Looking at the Team
At the end of the 2016-17 season, most Rockets fans were generally okay with the season’s results and sports betting results, despite that disappointing defeat to San Antonio. Most NBA GMs in that situation would have been content to tinker around the edges and start the 2017-18 season with virtually the same team.
If Morey had done that, that resulting Rockets team would have been worse, especially given Patrick Beverley’s injury and Ryan Anderson’s decline. Instead, he took things to the next level by revamping the team, bringing in Chris Paul, and having an even more successful season.
But just like last season, the reality is that if the Rockets stand pat and bring in the same group, they are more likely to go down than up. Hero Sports noted that the Rockets were the fourth-oldest team in the NBA after the 2018 trade deadline. P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Chris Paul will all be 33 by the start of training camp. Even Harden will be 29 by that date. And in the meantime, the Rockets bench has no useful prospects who can serve as potential rotation players like the Warriors have in Jordan Bell or Quinn Cook.
Even keeping the same level of talent presents difficulties, particularly with Clint Capela and Chris Paul. The Rockets ownership has made very clear that they will match Capela at any price, which is good but will still be expensive.
Chris Paul is more difficult to figure out. Clutchfans reported that Paul is more focused on bringing LeBron to Houston than in his own free agency, which indicates that Paul will be back. But as great as Paul was for Houston and as tragic as his last-minute injury was, he does have a record of getting his hamstring injured in the playoffs. Morey has plenty of difficult decisions on how to keep Houston at the same level that it was at last year, and getting LeBron or George will of course be even harder.
The Ownership Problem
From a certain perspective, these may sound like good problems. Maybe the Rockets will not get another star beyond Capela, Harden, and Paul. But perhaps they can upgrade by trimming around the edges and getting younger wing players who are less likely to decline than Ariza (who is reportedly demanding 50 to 60 million in his next contract). Given how difficult revamping everything to bring in a star would be, making small moves would be a perfectly fine backup plan.
But an offseason which fails to fulfil fan expectations could sprout another potential danger. Even if Morey fails to bring in another star and walks into the fall of 2018 with practically the same team, his reputation and past success will still keep him in good standing with the Rockets fan base.
But what about Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta? Fertitta has said all the right things about being willing to pay the luxury tax and being a hands-off owner so far. However, the NBA is rife with new owners wanting to come in and make a splash to show they know how to run a NBA team. If Morey stumbles, will Fertitta resist the temptation to bring in his own guy?
The Rockets were immensely successful last season, but with great success comes great expectations and challenges. Daryl Morey has a great amount of work to do to ensure that Houston can stay at its same level let alone get another star like James, and Rockets fans should not expect the arrival of another star. There is no reason to blame Morey for failing to do what may in fact be impossible.