Well, November 11th is surely a day Houston Rockets fans will want to forget. 

At this point, we’ve all seen the reports. What went from a franchise preparing for Free Agency on Tuesday is left brushing off ashes on Thursday morning. Wednesday was like throwing a propane tank in a dumpster fire of an off season for the Houston Rockets. Almost 30 months to the day since Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, Rockets fans wonder if they’ll even have an All-Star left on the team by Christmas. 

Back up to May of 2018 for a second. If you’re a Rockets fan, all was right in the world in May of 2018. The Houston Rockets, 2017 Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni, recently acquired Chris Paul, and 2018 MVP James Harden went into the famous Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Houston’s big three (Paul, Harden, and Clint Capela) are 52-7 in the regular season and playoffs (including the first four games of the Western Conference Finals) when all healthy enough to play.

In the regular season and playoffs, the Rockets are 4-3 against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. And one of those losses? Harden didn’t play in. So naturally, when Chris Paul rose up for the dagger with 51 seconds left, everyone assumed this was the moment. The Rockets looked like they were knocking off the dynasty. Paul is a great shooter from the elbow, he’d played great all game, and this was going to be the shot to put Houston up 3-2. 

Then, on the way up, Paul’s hamstring popped. The shot missed as he flailed. He hobbled out of the game. Houston won that night, but lost the series in seven games following the famous 0-27 streak from three (and a few Scott Foster moments). The moment was gone in the snap of a hamstring. 

Back to today, 30 months later, and the same franchise and its superstars (one not in Rockets red anymore, but his replacement is starring this show) are at the center of the news. Most of the reporting done by The Athletic includes explosive, scathing remarks about the 30 months since. Lots of the quotes have been thrown around out of context on #NBATwitter, but there’s plenty to oodle at in the report by Sam Amick, Shams Charania, and Kelly Iko

So, what the hell is going on in Houston?

The News

You could argue that Kevin O’Connor’s report over the weekend really was the beginning. KOC reported that the talk in NBA circles was that “Russell Westbrook could be had.” Teams like the LA Clippers and New York Knicks were interested in the 2017 NBA MVP. And while that’s not great for the Rockets, it’s not awful on its own. Westbrook had been in a physical decline since 2017. His game, predicated on explosiveness and hustle, is at the point where he needs to alter his focus. Plus, a major quad injury really dampened his NBA Bubble performance, and shed light on just what an older Russell Westbrook might look like. 

You could also argue that it started with Kendrick Perkins on The Jump, who bluntly put that Russell Westbrook and James Harden were at odds with management in Houston:

While Perkins isn’t usually one to break news, this felt significant for the Rockets. In 2011, Perkins was traded to Oklahoma City and played in the 2012 NBA Finals with Westbrook and Harden (and a guy named Kevin Durant). Theoretically, while Westbrook and Harden keep notoriously small circles, that Perk would know something about them made sense. 

But then it really started. While we could feel a news break coming, Shams dropped the Shams bomb that started it all at 7:11 PM ET:

And quickly, Charania followed by giving Houston quick reprieve just under 20 minutes later:

Rockets fans had their hearts flutter throughout the twenty minute window. Something was afoot.

At That Moment…

Rockets twitter was abuzz. Trade machines were being punched, Westbrook was as good as out, and James Harden was Houston’s knight in shining armour.

The team had gone all in on Westbrook, he didn’t like the fit, and thus it was time to jump ship. There had to be some sort of a way to figure out how to build something there. Plenty of teams could swap for a fun star. Teams like the Clippers have been publicly after a point guard. The Knicks need some starpower to persuade fans away from nearby Brooklyn. Detroit, Sacramento, and several teams could use a shot at a playoff birth. Who would the suitor be? 

Would it be a handful of role players? A young crew with high potential? Some guys who just needed a change of scenery? Maybe another star in his 30’s looking for a shot at a title? Maybe they- 

The New News

The Houston Rockets had more issues, it would seem, than just Russel Westbrook wanting out. The Athletic reported several key parts of the rotation were more than just “unhappy.” Key bench pieces in Austin Rivers and Danuel House were upset with their roles as catch and shoot guys; both felt like they deserved more touches. Key swingman Eric Gordon? He felt like his diminished and ever-changing role since 2017 made it hard to prepare. Glue guy and swingman PJ Tucker? He was “irate” he didn’t get a contract extension. Former players demanded apologies and questioned why Clint Capela and Chris Paul were traded in the first place. 

Consistently, players were upset that there was a lack of accountability for one superstar: James Harden. 

Since James Harden arrived in the fall of 2012, he has been the show. He is the offense, the scheme, the creator, and the culture. The bulk of these complaints aimed, at least tangentially, at “the beard.”

The report, which really just outlined the opinions of several Rockets, was damning. 

So, what do we make of it?

Again, this franchise is 30 months removed from nearly winning a title. The franchise is in ashes, and fans are pessimistic any phoenix is rising. But should things be so bleak? 

Houston’s roster needs work. Lots of it. With a perennial MVP candidate, they’ve finished in the second round of the playoffs three of the last four years. But with James Harden alone in red and black, history indicates they can be in contention. In 2017, as a point guard with no other All Star, Houston won 55 games. Charania and The Athletic maintain Harden is all in with Houston, at the moment, and that’s enough to give the Rockets a high floor, even if the rest of their roster lowers their ceiling. 

Further, the complaints from players are, well… interesting. 

Austin Rivers wants the ball more, but he only got his role in Houston after bouncing around four teams in a span of six months… including his own father trading him away for Marcin Gortat. Danuel House? House has shot three-pointers very well in Houston, but the Rockets are the franchise that built up and promoted the former G Leaguer. He became a national name after violating NBA Bubble protocols in Orlando, costing himself (and arguably the Rockets) a competitive shot against the LA Lakers in the playoffs. 

Eric Gordon? His role in Houston mirrors his health… he hasn’t had a completely healthy season since winning 6th Man of the Year in 2017. In the 2019-20 season, he suited up for just 30 regular season games. 

PJ Tucker’s beef is interesting in that, of the complaints outlined, it seems the most understandable. Tucker has watched other guys in his position get paid handsomely. “3 and D” players have become coveted, and ones that can guard all five positions even more. His importance to the team increased, and his salary did not. That’s frustrating… but he’s also 35. NBA teams are always reserved to offer a 35-year-old a contract extension, especially when their game is predicated on hustle and toughness. The body can only take so much of that. 

But PJ’s opinion? Well, per his instagram…

PJ Tucker’s feelings on the night, in consecutive Instagram stories

While former players like Trevor Ariza want apologies, and folks are scratching their heads at the move to small ball. While that makes sense, the move to accommodate Russell Westbrook’s playing style was always going to look silly when he left. And it appears that time has come. 

Houston is going to look different. In this painful and brief offseason, the Rockets have seen their head coach and general manager both leave for greener pastures on their own accord. D’Antoni chose to be an assistant coach in Brooklyn, Morey chose a new gig in Philadelphia, and it appears Russell Westbrook is choosing to be the floor general on a lesser team. In a hyper-competitive Western Conference, the Rockets need to make dramatic changes to really compete. Teams like the LA Lakers demonstrated with two great players, you can fill in the gaps with older, minimum deals for role players… and Houston is halfway there in keeping Harden. 

The league has also shown that with just one star, the Western Conference may chew your team up and spit you out in the first round. And while Harden is a uniquely talented star, the Rockets are also halfway there. 

The coming weeks will be tense in Houston. First-year coach and offensive innovator Stephen Silas has a lot on his hands, the description of Houston’s culture isn’t enticing to free agents in the hurried offseason, and people are still waiting to see if tenderfoot owner Tilman Fertitta will actually spend what it takes to build a contender again. 

All of that is uncertain, but one thing is certain: November 11th, 2020, was a day on #NBATwitter no Rockets fan will be able to forget for a long, long time. 

Follow me on Twitter @painsworth512 for more, and give our podcast “F” In Sports a listen wherever you listen to podcasts!

About Author

Parker Ainsworth

Senior NBA Writer, Co-Host of "F" In Sports and The Midweek Midrange. Parker is a hoops head, "retired" football player, and sneaker aficionado. Austinite born in Houston, located in Dallas after a brief stint in LA... Parker is a well-traveled Texan, teacher, and coach. Feel free to contact Parker- https://linktr.ee/PAinsworth512

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