There may not be a franchise in the NBA that has, in recent years, understood the urgency that is required to try and win a championship better than the Houston Rockets. No, they were never able to ascend to the sport’s mountaintop, but it was never due to a lack of trying.
With Daryl Morey at the helm, Mike D’Antoni on the bench, and James Harden routinely putting forth displays of hyper-efficient brilliance on the offensive end of the floor, Houston spent years all-in. The team constantly searched for a superstar to put alongside Harden — first it was Dwight Howard, then they acquired Chris Paul prior to the 2017-18 season, and after two years, decided to swap him for younger superstar in Russell Westbrook. Perhaps it would have worked out if Paul did not suffer a hamstring injury in the 2018 postseason, a moment that is going to go down as one of the great “What Ifs?” of this era, but with Morey, D’Antoni, and Harden in town, Houston did everything it could to achieve basketball immortality.
This is an admirable pursuit, to be clear. Not every team would be so ruthless in trying to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy, and for that, the Rockets deserve to be commended, regardless of whether the process paid off. The issue, however, is that the team’s obsession with the short-term meant that the long-term health of the franchise was flimsy at best.
Entering this season, the Rockets had the fourth-oldest roster in the NBA. Their salary cap situation was abysmal, and even after moving Harden, the team is hard-capped. Draft picks, the mechanism through which teams can acquire talent for a low price, were few and far between due to Morey’s wheeling and dealing for players who could help win right now. Houston did not make a draft pick in 2019 or 2020, and the only player it selected in 2018 (De’Anthony Melton) was traded to the Phoenix Suns following Summer League. The last player drafted by the Rockets to appear in a game for them was reserve big man Isaiah Hartenstein.
Their draft capital going forward was a bit of a jumbled mess, with picks and pick swaps popping up intermittently over the coming years as Morey tried to find creative ways to get talent around Harden. Ironically enough, while his most well-known disciple — former Sixers executive Sam Hinkie — prided himself on having the longest view in the room, the Rockets did not have that luxury, because they had an MVP candidate in his prime and an understanding that there are not a lot of people like this who can be a member of a championship contender.
Again, it cannot be stressed enough that these were not poor decisions, but like all choices, these had consequences, and the chickens came home to roost this year. Morey and D’Antoni both left the franchise, and while they were able to make some interesting moves this offseason and turn Westbrook into John Wall and a future first-round pick, none of this was enough to convince Harden it was worth sticking around. The entire franchise had been built around Harden, with him dictating, either directly or indirectly, everything that it has done in recent years. It should not come as a surprise, then, that his departure came because he wanted that to be so.
Building a franchise around the transcendent gifts possessed by one person did, obviously, mean that moving on from him would mean to something of an identity crisis. There is something scary about moving into such uncertainty — this was James Harden’s team, which played in a manner that looked to maximize what Harden can do — but there was an equally exciting opportunity available, too. Houston had options for how it wanted to move forward, with reporting indicating that the two options they were considering were a trade from Philadelphia that would center around Ben Simmons or the pick-heavy package from the Brooklyn Nets they ultimately chose.
There have been plenty of reports around what other teams may or may not have offered/been asked to include, but there is something fascinating about these being the final two offers that Houston considered. Think about every single report about what the Rockets wanted: proven star, young talent, draft capital. Simmons and any combination of picks and youngsters from Philly (Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, whatever) hits every single note. Simmons, in particular, is the ace in the hole, a 24-year-old defensive maestro with the metronomic ability to keep an offense humming. Surrounding him with shooters — something that Houston does have plenty of right now — and putting him in an uptempo system like new coach Stephen Silas wants to implement would be legitimately exciting. Add in that he is under contract through 2024-25 and he gives the Rockets a tentpole to build around for the foreseeable future.
What’s fascinating is how Houston opted to go with a blank slate over having a known commodity in Simmons. Perhaps they had an issue with the very real limitations he has on offense. Or perhaps they did not want to bring on board a big-money player right now — Victor Oladipo, the centerpiece of their deal, could theoretically be that, but he also might be a rental, as he can be a free agent at the end of this season, so there are outcomes where he plays out his deal before moving on or gets moved before the deadline. Or perhaps they were hell-bent on getting someone from Philly that the Sixers refused to give up — Marc Stein of the New York Times made it sound like there were major conversations that occurred around Maxey. But ultimately, the Rockets decided to build up a war chest of draft picks that put them a step behind a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, which have been building up their stash of selections over the last few years (and owns a number of Houston’s selections in the near future).
It puts forth some sort of vision in the post-Harden future, one in which Houston is in control of how things play out. Of course, the Nets crashing and burning — particularly as Harden/Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving get older — would help here considerably, but even if that does not happen, they’ve put themselves in position to hop into whatever conversation might pop up about a disgruntled star who wants to seek greener pastures. There’s also the possibility they just let things play out, and they use this treasure trove of picks to build a team for one of the league’s most highly-regarded young coaches in Silas.
More than anything, this trade marks a stark shift in priorities for the franchise. For years, the noble pursuit of trying to become the best team in the NBA meant having things revolve around the brilliance of one player, one coach, and one executive. Organizational decisions were made based on the belief that the absolute best thing for the Houston Rockets was to put James Harden in the center of everything and trust that Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey could do enough tinkering that it would all pay off. Now, the franchise has decided that the post-Harden future can be almost anything it wants to be, which has to be both exciting and terrifying all at once.