With a 118-113 loss in Friday’s Game 6 in Houston, the Houston Rockets saw their Championship aspirations ended by the Golden State Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons.
Since acquiring James Harden prior to the 2012-2013 season in one of the most meaningful trades in NBA history, the Rockets have made the postseason each year. They’ve never advanced further than the Western Conference Finals.
On both those occasions (2015 & 2018) they were eliminated by the championship-bound Warriors. In 2013, 2014 and 2016 they failed to make it past the first round thanks to the Thunder, Trailblazers and Warriors respectively, and in 2017 they were beaten in 6 games by an ageing Spurs roster in the second round.
2018 and 2019 was supposed to be when it all clicked. GM Daryl Morey has been publicly bullish, particularly after last year’s heartbreaking 7 game loss to the Warriors, about the fact that Houston’s championship window is NOW.
The roster decisions they’ve made in the last two seasons reflect that position. This is a franchise hell-bent on winning a championship in the immediate future, whatever that ends up costing them in the long-run.
Unfortunately for Rockets fans, their window is closing rapidly. It may even be shut. Looking at their guaranteed money for 2019-20 is not pretty reading (age at the start of next season in brackets):
Chris Paul (34) – $38,506,482
James Harden (30) – $37,800,000
Clint Capela (25) – $14,896,552
Eric Gordon (30) – $14,057,730
P.J. Tucker (34) – $8,349,039
Nene Hilario (37) – $3,825,360
Harden’s 4-year $169,344,000 contract extension (through to the end of the 2022-23 season) was a no-brainer at the time, and remains so. He’s worth every cent of that (maybe more).
Eric Gordon had an excellent postseason (17.8 points per game, 40% shooting from three) and his contract also looks like a bargain. For large swathes of this season he’s looked like the second star on this team, and as Chris Paul continues to age poorly, there’s no reason why he can’t officially become that bona fide second option.
From there it starts to get iffy. Clint Capela signed a 5-year $90,000,000 last offseason, which at the end of the regular season looked like a perfect deal for both parties. Capela played 67 games, averaging a respectable 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds as Harden’s go-to foil on the inside.
Then the postseason rolled around. Utah and Golden State were able to suffocate Harden’s lanes to the basket, and consequently Capela’s points fell to just 9.7 per game. Against Golden State he was held to single-figure scoring in 3 of the 6 games, and didn’t score more than the 14 in Game 2.
The Swiss-born centre has no outside game to speak of. As demonstrated in the playoffs, he is almost solely reliant on those trademark alley-oops from Harden for his offense. Defensively, he is sound without being spectacular – one of the keys to Golden State’s Game 6 victory was the fact that Kevon Looney popped up for 14 points off the bench.
It’s fair to say, at this stage of his career, that Capela looks like a one-dimensional basketballer, which makes his $90,000,000 contract risky at best and short-sighted at worst.
Similarly, while P.J. Tucker has had an excellent season, at the age of 34 it’s hard to see him replicating it again next year. Nene is a decent back-up centre, but again his lack of outside game makes him an occasional liability.
Then there’s the ugly.
Chris Paul’s contract is an utter abomination, there’s no other way of putting it. The Rockets will still be paying him $44,211,146 in 2021-22 as a 36-year-old.
Given his injury history, and notable decline in play this year, there’s no guarantee he’ll even make it that long in the league. He certainly won’t be at the level we’ve come to expect.
So, where to from here?
Those contracts mean the Rockets are effectively hamstrung. At this stage they’re projected to be $14 million over the league salary cap next season, and are firmly in the bottom 6 teams for cap space. Danuel House is also a restricted free agent, and given his break-out regular season it’s pretty likely that the Rockets are made to fork out to keep him.
Needless to say, that means they’re not exactly in the position to sign the cream of the free agent crop.
Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, and Iman Shumpert (all crucial parts of the playoff rotation) are all free agents. Of those, Rivers and Shumpert are probably on Houston’s radar for re-signing. Green will be allowed to walk.
The lack of cap space means Morey is going to need to get creative. For example, the Capela, Gordon and Tucker contracts aren’t bad; there’s a chance another team sees the value in one or more of those guys.
Could Cleveland be persuaded to part with Kevin Love in exchange for Capela and Gordon?
If nothing changes this offseason, this roster will only get worse.
Any team with Harden is going to be competitive, but it’s hard to see a team with Gordon and an ageing Paul as the second options doing anything significant in the warzone that will be a reshaped Western Conference.
Houston’s win-now mindset may spell its longterm downfall.
Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds