Failure to Launch: Warriors Eliminate Rockets Again

Another grueling season, another date with the Golden State Warriors, and yet another postseason exit for the Houston Rockets. A year ago, we were asking, “What if Chris Paul didn’t get hurt?” What will the chatter this summer be? Following Kevin Durant’s injury in Game 5, and already without Cousins, the Warriors, down to just Curry and Thompson, were still able to send Houston packing. This was the most vulnerable the Warriors could ever be, and the series suddenly became ripe for the Rockets to take — only for the Rockets to simply blow it. This series loss further closes Houston’s window of opportunity to win a title, but General Manager Daryl Morey can reignite Houston’s championship aspirations with the following four guidelines this summer:

The Four Guidelines

1. Fire Mike D’Antoni: D’Antoni is a great offensive mind and his iso, three-heavy offense works hand-in-hand with James Harden, who is one of the greatest one-on-one players in the NBA. While that style of offense works in the regular season, in the playoffs teams adapt and adjust, making the iso style less effective. Outside his time with the Suns, Morey has built the Rockets to fit D’Antoni’s style, yet D’Antoni still can’t deliver when it counts. The Rockets could bring back Mike another season, but the result will still be the same: fifty-plus wins, and no trip to the NBA Finals.

Because the Rockets still believe they can contend, they need a veteran coach who will maximize the talent given, put a more consistent, more efficient, less iso-dependent offensive system in place where Harden and Chris Paul can continue to thrive. Meanwhile, D’Antoni has had trouble adjusting to opponents that neutralize his team’s advantages; he does poorly at changing his strategies to counter. The new coach will also have to be someone who can adapt and adjust.

If the Rockets elect to hire someone who is not experienced, they will have to choose someone who can instantly get the respect of the locker room. Otherwise Houston will find themselves in the same coaching disaster that they experienced in 2015–16. Regardless, losing to the Durant and Cousins–less Warriors at home is writing on the wall: It is time for a new coach.

2. Daryl Morey may need to change his approach: The best teams, coaches, and even executives have the ability to see what went wrong and make changes to better their situation the next season. Morey has always been aggressive, and did a tremendous job essentially rebuilding his roster on the fly during the season; but all the wheeling and dealing, acquiring assets, and utilizing analytics has only guided the Rockets to two Western Conference Finals series.

Maybe it is time for Morey himself to look at himself in the mirror and perhaps reinvent how he goes about building the team, perhaps changing the coach. Morey’s approach has delivered some success, but has yet to yield a championship trophy.

3. Lose the Obsession with the Warriors: Probably the biggest reason the Rockets choked this series away is the added pressure they put on themselves to beat Golden State. Whether it is Capela’s desire for the rematch, or the fanfare of “we were a hamstring away from a championship” last summer, the desire to get revenge against Golden State creates great drama, but also creates unnecessary pressure.

It is great to want to dethrone the Warriors, but dethroning them is not guaranteeing a title; that would require beating the best of the East. This summer, Houston needs to shift their focus entirely back onto themselves and lift the pressure of dethroning Golden State. After all, winning a championship proves you are better than not only the Warriors, but also everyone else.

4. Go Big or Go Home: The Rockets’ Big 3 of Capela, CP3, and James Harden are under contract together until the summer of 2022. This summer’s free agent class is headlined by Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but because the Rockets tied so much money to their Big 3, they need to create enough cap room to go big game hunting. Quite frankly, after last night, they need to: Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger, James Harden is running out of prime years, and the West is not getting any weaker. If Houston is unable to strengthen the roster, Fertitta and Morey need to consider the idea of blowing the roster up and rebuilding.

Final Thoughts

My view from last night’s Game 6 is that the lack of energy and intensity from Houston at home in an elimination game was disturbing. Houston’s overall performance last night was as embarrassing as two years ago when San Antonio blasted the Rockets in Toyota Center. Golden State was banged up, down to two all-stars, and the Rockets, at full strength at home, could not even push the series to a Game 7.

This summer is everything. A big summer can refuel another possible title run next year. On the other hand, if we get a quiet summer with no real change, the Rockets will find themselves back in the same boat they are in now: “Wait until next year.”   

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