After losing to Portland in their final game before the All-Star break, the Rockets have lost six of eight and now find themselves below .500 (27-28) as the West’s No. 9 seed.
That means that a team that went to the Western Conference finals a year ago and opened 2015-16 training camp with championship aspirations could actually miss the playoffs entirely… depending on what goes down by next Thursday’s trade deadline.
“We’re broken,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he told his players after the Portland game. “Right now, we’re a broken team. We all can use this break to figure out how we’re going to impact change. If we don’t want to impact change, we need to be made aware of that, too, and we’ll go in a different direction. We can’t continue to go out and play this way.
“It’s easy to see. It’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”
Veteran guard Jason Terry came to a similar conclusion, albeit with even sharper criticism.
— Eric Ringering (@ringering45) February 11, 2016
On paper, the Rockets are a textbook example of a team that needs a midseason shakeup. The chemistry is clearly an issue, and the long-term stability of the coaching staff also remains uncertain. Though they fired Kevin McHale after just 11 games, his replacement in Bickerstaff holds only the “interim” title and does not have a significant contract. That means Houston’s front office, led by general manager Daryl Morey, could choose to go any number of directions.
There is also the reality that star center Dwight Howard can opt out of his contract after this season and potentially leave the franchise for no direct compensation. To that end, Yahoo‘s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that the Rockets are working with Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, to explore possible trades — making their road back to contention all the more uncertain.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, clarity may still take a few months to find.
WARRIORS, SPURS SET INCREDIBLY HIGH STANDARD
When looking at the Rockets, it’s important to remember that Morey swings for the fences. His goal isn’t merely to be “good” or competitive. Rather, each decision he makes is based on the probability of helping his team ultimately win an NBA title.
In the current Western Conference, that means competing with the historically great Golden State Warriors (48-4) and slightly less great San Antonio Spurs (45-8).
Sure, if the Rockets found better chemistry, perhaps this group led by Howard and the league’s second-leading scorer in James Harden (28.0 ppg) could recapture the form they had a season ago – when they beat the Los Angeles Clippers in a grueling seven-game series in the second round.
But after that series, the Rockets were easily dispatched by the Warriors in five games – showing just how far Houston still had to go. The move that was supposed to put them closer to the top tier was the offseason trade for Ty Lawson, but it seems abundantly clear now that he simply isn’t a good fit.
To get where Morey wants to go, the Rockets don’t just need better chemistry or a rotation tweak. They need a major infusion of talent, such as Harden’s close friend and pending free agent Kevin Durant.
Now a 12-year veteran, Howard has played through multiple back and knee concerns this season. Those are partly reflected in his 14.6 points-per-game average, which represents the second-lowest scoring mark of his career. It seems rather unlikely that he could be the No. 2 option on a team good enough to challenge Golden State.
He can still play a key role, and Morey would love to keep Howard at a below-max rate. But Harden needs more help to carry the load on offense – particularly during the 82-game regular season grind.
Beyond Durant, the power forward spot could also be a point of emphasis. After swinging and missing on Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge the past two offseasons, it is clear Morey would prefer to upgrade the position. The internal candidates of Terrence Jones and Josh Smith don’t appear to be viable options as a long-term starter, and while Donatas Motiejunas still could be, his ongoing complications after back surgery make hitching anyone’s wagon to him a risky bet.
Whatever the case, Morey’s approach to the upcoming deadline will be to optimize the chances of making a marquee acquisition in the future to place alongside Harden. No matter how unlikely, the only chance of Houston challenging Golden State in the years ahead is to think big.
With the 26-year-old Harden set to become a free agent after the 2017-18 season, Morey is fully aware that the clock is already ticking to build a true contender around him.
MAINTAINING OFFSEASON FLEXIBILITY
Could the Rockets move all their bigger pieces now, such as Howard and Lawson? Of course they could. But between Howard’s $22.4 million cap figure and Lawson’s $12.4 million, they represent a combined $35 million in cap savings once they presumably become free agents in July.
That’s the type of money that would allow the Rockets to be in the picture for Durant and many other star free agents. As a result, trading Howard for role players on longer-term contracts likely isn’t in the cards. Moving Howard for the aforementioned “second star” would be ideal, of course, but it is hard to see Houston landing that type of return for a 30-year-old who is also a pending free agent.
A deal involving other expiring contracts is doable on paper. From a practical standpoint, though, it becomes a lot more difficult. For starters, many teams don’t have enough expiring salaries to approach Howard’s lofty cap figure. Additionally, the fact that Houston is up against a hard salary cap this season makes the math even tougher.
In terms of on-court value, we’re less than 12 months removed from when both Howard and Lawson played at a near All-Star level. In particular, Howard — even with his reduced athleticism — was outstanding during Houston’s playoff run. So if salary-cap realities force Morey to work within the confines of potential “rentals”, the odds are that Howard and Lawson would have the most upside among the players in most proposals. While Houston’s disappointing record may reduce the value Morey puts on the team’s remaining 2015-16 performance, it does not make it irrelevant.
As a result, where’s the incentive for Morey to make such a deal?
Morey will likely consider proposals that include expiring contracts and at least one future first-round pick. But it is unclear whether an aging Howard can command that price on the market. If not, Morey could opt to play out the season with Howard and roll the dice this summer, knowing that he would still have Howard’s cap space as a fallback plan, should the two sides not agree on price. The Rockets do like Howard, but not at the heightened “max” level — which Wojnarowski says he is seeking.
The key could be whether the Rockets and Fegan can find a destination with which Howard is comfortable enough to grant assurances of a new deal over the summer. Think back to the scenario that landed Goran Dragic with the Miami Heat last year. If Howard’s new team is confident in retaining him, perhaps that is one way the Rockets can extract the draft compensation to justify a deal.
It is also worth remembering that the Rockets keep their first-round draft choice this summer if they miss the playoffs. But if they are in, they lose it to Denver as part of the Lawson trade. While they would never outright tank with a healthy Harden, the draft situation may remind Morey that a slight upgrade to simply become first-round fodder at the hands of the Warriors or Spurs may not be worthwhile.
COACHING FLEXIBILITY MATTERS, TOO
A different option sure to be suggested is another change at head coach. Though Bickerstaff is beloved in Houston’s locker room, he remains very young and unproven at 36 years old. Moreover, he clearly has not improved Houston’s defense to the extent Morey had hoped when firing McHale.
Indeed, only the Sacramento Kings have given up more points per game than the 106.8 surrendered by the Rockets. (In an interesting twist, though, Houston is 5-0 in the last five games missed by Howard — having allowed nine fewer points per game in the process.)
Many fans in Houston are pining for the likes of Jeff Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau as a defensive savior. But here’s the tough reality. What if Durant – or any other potential star available – wants to pick his own coach? What about his former coach, Scott Brooks?
The fact that the Rockets can go into July with flexibility at the head-coaching position is actually a major selling point to players in the modern NBA – and even McHale admits it. In his appearance on TNT’s Inside the NBA earlier this week, McHale was asked about this season’s wave of coach firings — which have included himself, Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins, Cleveland’s David Blatt, Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek and New York’s Derek Fisher.
“If your name isn’t Gregg Popovich — rent, don’t buy,” McHale said. “There are so many players with so much pull inside the league. It’s just rough right now in the coaching profession.”
Even if the Rockets could lure a big name during the season, the reality is they likely aren’t catching the Warriors or Spurs this year. So before making the huge contractual commitment that it would take to secure an established coach, the logical play for the Rockets is to wait and see what summer brings.
MINOR MOVES LIKELY
Now on a longer inexpensive contract and without a rotation spot, McDaniels is certainly a candidate to be moved again. The same could be said for Jones and Marcus Thornton, whose contracts expire after this season and don’t seem to have long-term roles in Houston. If the Rockets could snatch a second-round pick rather than lose those players for nothing after the season, there are likely deals to be had.
Beyond those, if a team were willing to take Corey Brewer’s $8 million per year salary through 2018, it’s possible Morey could make that move to clear even more offseason room.
But the odds of a true blockbuster move – such as grabbing a headliner coach or trading Howard for the type of star that they crave – are low. If the Rockets are ever going to challenge the West’s top tier, an even bigger move is needed in July – and maintaining full flexibility is the best way to set the table.
Ben DuBose is a veteran sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for both SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to his NBA podcast.