There was very little doubt that major changes that were in store for the Houston Rockets following yet another disappointing exit in the playoffs.
Houston had quite a run, eliminating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round in an epic seven-game duel, and they seemed to be in a great position to mount an upset in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the Game 1.
Everything went downhill from there.
As a result, the first domino has fallen in the form of long-serving head coach Mike D’Antonio, who himself has opted to enter free agency as opposed to signing an extension with the Rockets. in hindsight, this seemed to have been a long time coming, and Houston’s embarrassing performance in the East Semifinals was a last straw of sorts.
Now that D’Antoni is out, what’s next for the Rockets? At this point, a major shakeup in the roster seems inevitable. The question is, how do Houston go about this?
The main problem general manager Daryl Morey is facing right now is the limited breathing room his team has with their salary cap. It feels like the Rockets are still one piece away from being a serious threat to the title — something that Houston superstar James Harden himself has indicated — but it’s virtually impossible for the Rockets to add a third star alongside Harden and Westbrook. Morey’s ability to maneuver around the salary cap has been nothing short of impressive, but even he is not this good.
Between them, Harden and Westbrook will earn $41 million apiece next season, and this in itself already eats up a huge chunk of Houston’s cap. Once you factor in Eric Gordon’s $16.9 million and Robert Covington’s $12.1 million, and you’re left with very little room.
Gordon himself, when healthy, seemed like the third star the Rocket’s so desired, but he has been inconsistent, to say the least. For his part, Covington has been tremendous since his mid-season arrival and has been a key cog in D’Antoni’s micro-ball system. Nonetheless, he does not look like the missing piece to the puzzle.
It is also worth noting that the Rockets don’t have much by the way of future assets. Along with Chris Paul, they gave up four first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder when they traded for Westbrook last summer. This limits Houston’s ability to include future draft picks in any potential blockbuster deal this offseason.
All this seems to point to a singular option for the Rockets. It appears that at this point, in order for Houston to be able to add a star to its lineup for next season, they will need to part ways with Russell Westbrook.
It may seem premature to some extent — after all, it has only been one season, and for the most part, a Westbrook-Harden partnership looked outstanding. Then again, what choice to the Rockets have? If they want to do a major roster shakeup (which they probably should), then trading away Westbrook seems to be the only viable option on the table. After all, Harden is still untouchable. Right?
The problem Houston will face, however, is how Westbrook has become somewhat untradeable. First off, if there’s anything we’ve learned this season is that the 31-year-old (he will be 32 in November) is past his prime. He can still put up the occasional gem, but there’s no denying that he is far past his MVP form.
To make matters worse, Westbrook still has three years remaining on his current contract, with a player option for the 2022-23 campaign. He is set to earn $131.5 million over the next three seasons, which is not exactly a contract that teams would be willing to take on at face value. As such, Morey will need to pull out all the stops in order to make a potential trade deal work.
Despite the challenges, however, this trade is still doable. The addition of Westbrook can make an emerging team into a serious threat to the title, or it could push a contender over the edge, making them a heavy favorite for the championship.
A superstar-for-superstar trade for Westbrook might pose a huge challenge, so the Rockets will also need to explore the possibility of a multi-team trade deal. They should also be willing to acquire two (or more) key, non-superstar pieces in exchange for Westbrook, so long as it makes the team considerably better. Houston may also need to part ways with some of their remaining assets, which is going to be tough, but necessary.
Houston’s decision to let D’Antoni walk is a clear indication that they intend to make major changes on the team this offseason — and rightfully so. At this point, it appears that a Westbrook trade to bring in some fresh faces might just present itself as the best move towards this objective.