The Houston Rockets put themselves on the verge of elimination after coming out flat in Game 4, showing very little fight despite trailing 2-1 in the series. While a fake fourth-quarter rally gave the Rockets a more “respectable” 10-point loss, the effort through the first three quarters was truly damning.
Now staring elimination in the eye with a win-or-go-home tilt on Saturday, the Rockets could look very different from the top down if they're indeed bounced by the Los Angeles Lakers in convincing fashion.
Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni is a free agent the second the Rockets season ends. While general manager Daryl Morey has said re-signing D'Antoni is the top offseason priority, an ugly playoff exit very well could mean the departure of the longtime coach.
However, plenty of blame will likely shift to Morey as well, the architect of a team that has yet to bring championship results.
Upon seeing that the James Harden show didn't bring any results besides highlights on SportsCenter, Morey decided to bring in Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017. His two-year stint next to Harden had its moments (they were so close to the NBA Finals in 2018) but ended in an ugly divorce after Harden reportedly gave an ultimatum, making the Rockets choose either Paul or him.
In response to that, Morey traded for Harden's old pal Russell Westbrook. While their dynamic proved dangeruss at times, their ability to play off each other has been dismantled by the Lakers.
The trade for Westbrook made sense at the time, considering his unhappiness in Oklahoma City after the Paul George trade and the matching salaries allowing for it. But in doing so, Morey took a massive gamble, hauling in an extra $47 million the Rockets will have to pay Westbrook, as he's likely to exercise that very lucrative final year of his five-year, $206 million supermax extension:
— Bruno Manrique (@TheSportsLede) September 11, 2020
Sure, Westbrook will be younger than Paul (37) by the time he finishes his big payday, but age means nothing if the results aren't there. Also, don't forget that Morey gave up two first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps as part of this deal. The general manager will now have to walk the plank knowing his head could be on the pike next.
An argument can be made that Harden has been the common denominator of all these playoff shortcomings, and that's a more-than-valid excuse. Yet Morey has never lost an opportunity to shower Harden with praise and laud him as the savior of the franchise. Reneging on those words would make him the ultimate hypocrite.
Harden shot below 20% for the eighth time in his playoff career in Game 4, tying Hall of Famer Bob Cousy with that ominous stat, according to ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry. His infamous poor outings in the playoffs suggest he's very much a key reason why the Rockets haven't reached the NBA Finals despite the consecutive scoring titles.
Any formula that has been tried around James Harden has failed, which could make him the bad ingredient of this mix. But in the world of professional sports, it's much easier to move an executive that hasn't lined out the right equation than the multimillionaire superstar player who won't get you equal return pieces in exchange.
One can argue Morey made his own bed. He has gotten out of the luxury tax in consecutive years by stringing deals to keep Houston from paying that extra money. But financials are only as good as the results the leftover money can bring.
Much like Westbrook, Harden has $41 million, $44 million, and $47 million coming his way during the next three seasons. Even if Morey was to do his roster shopping at the five-and-dime, the effect of keeping both superstars would be crippling, making his job that much harder.
Morey tied a knot around his head the minute he chose to trade for Westbrook, likely knowing this was an all-or-nothing move that could cost him his job. Going totally all in on small ball with the Clint Capela trade only further tightened the noose.
Moving a supermax contract is hard enough, but doing so with two of them could prove downright impossible unless the Rockets are willing to go into rebuild mode. Hello there, Oklahoma City.
If the Rockets are eliminated, it won't be long before Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta calls for a meeting with Daryl Morey, one that could be his last in Clutch City.
Morey has been a tireless worker in his time with the Rockets, a busy bee like no other at the executive ranks. But some mistakes just can't be undone, and playing GM like there's no tomorrow may just cost him his job.
The Rockets will look very different the next time they step on the court, and so will the people working behind the scenes.