It’s nearly springtime in the Houston area. That means it’s time to start cleaning-out your garage and clear-out anything you won’t need for the upcoming summer.
For the Houston Rockets, this year’s garage sale has started early and will continue in the weeks ahead. By March 25 (the NBA’s trade deadline), it’s possible that most people will not recognize the Houston Rockets basketball team roster from just one year ago.
With the team mired in a 16-game losing streak (and counting), this season’s Houston Rockets are perfecting the art of “tanking” to improve the team’s draft position once this season mercifully ends. Houston hasn’t won an NBA game since February 4!
As of the writing of this article, the Rockets have only 11 wins this season (11-25) and have dropped into the #3 draft selection spot. Only Minnesota (8 wins) and Detroit (10 wins) are ahead of Houston as the competition heats up for the worst record in the NBA (and the statistically-likely #1 pick in the next player draft).
For a city whose basketball team has not endured a losing season since 2005, this woeful 2021 version of the Houston Rockets has been surprising to fans accustomed to winning. Rockets fans have been famous in preserving the team’s “Clutch City” mantra after winning back-to-back NBA championships in the mid-1990’s.
How did the Rockets go from a perennial playoff contender (44-26 last year) to a bottom dweller in one year?
- James Harden demanded out. The Rockets acquired the high-scoring Harden (aka “The Beard”) from Oklahoma City in 2012. The management of the team built a squad around Harden’s fast-break mentality. The Rockets became the first prolific 3-point shooting team in the league. If the team’s shooting percentage hovered around 40%, it made sense to take that many long-distance shots. However, in the playoffs, the other teams had time to adjust their defenses to make it harder for the Rockets’ best scorer (Harden) to get as many points. The Rockets made the playoffs every year while Harden was in Houston, but only advanced to the Western Division finals twice during the James Harden years. After last season, James Harden demanded to be traded. A few weeks into the 2021 season, his request for a trade came through as Harden was shipped to the Brooklyn Nets.
- The long-time coach was released. Though many of us observers would say that former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was more of a professional babysitter/cheerleader than a true “X’s and O’s” teacher, the Rockets’ coach and his star player (James Harden) got along swimmingly. The coach rarely tried to discipline either Harden or other Rockets players – both on the court or off. At the end of last season, the Rockets cut him (and his $5 million annual salary) loose, and D’Antoni resurfaced as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets (sound familiar?).
- Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey resigned. The general manager is in charge of draft picks, free agent signings, and payroll for the team. Though Morey was quite good at some tasks, he was (my opinion) a “deal junkie” who often made roster changes during the season just for the sake of tinkering with the line-up. His draft picks are now either out of the league or had been traded (by Morey, of course) to other teams (where some have flourished). Daryl Morey was hired to a similar position in Philadelphia and is off to a great start. His 76ers are currently atop the NBA Eastern Conference.
- Harden’s expensive sidekicks were jettisoned. Over the James Harden years in Houston, the Rockets spent a lot of money trying to build a team around him. NBA stars such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook were brought into Houston and eventually left the Rockets. James Harden’s unwillingness to share the basketball and trust his teammates caused a lot of angst on recent Rockets’ squads.
- The team’s ownership changed. Tillman Fertitta (a Houston-area businessman who owns the Landry’s restaurant chains), dropped a league record $2.2 billion to buy the Rockets in 2018. At this point, he probably wished he had not leveraged his wealth on the local basketball team. Fertitta has been downright unlucky in having to deal with massive pandemic-related losses both last season and into this year’s campaign, too. The pandemic also hit Fertitta’s restaurant chains in a big way, too. If that wasn’t bad enough, some of the Rockets’ players didn’t seem to like that their new chief was a supporter of former President Donald Trump. Though all player checks seem to be cashing just fine, one news source indicated that several Houston players wanted “out” due to their political differences with the new boss. With this team’s losing streak and a few disgruntled players with an unprofessional attitude, anyone volunteering to leave Houston before the NBA trade deadline of March 25 may have their wish granted soon.
Rockets’ rookie head coach, Stephen Silas (son of NBA great Paul Silas) believes his current team will start to win again once the team’s recent health woes finally improve.
“When we get back and we are healthy, in a position where will have enough guys to compete, we are going to be just fine. Once we get healthy, we’re gonna be good. I believe that.”
Sorry, Coach. The odds on the Easter Bunny being real are higher than the Rockets current chances of getting into the NBA playoffs this year (.1%).
Statistically speaking, the Houston Rockets are, quite literally, the team that can’t shoot straight.
The NBA stats show Houston (which takes an average of 40 long-distance shots every game) is also the worst 3-point shooting team in the league. The Rockets are hitting just 32.6% of their long-distance attempts. By comparison, the Los Angeles Clippers (with a record of 25-14) are converting 42% of their shots from long-range.
Instead of taking so many 3-point shots, it might be time for the Houston Rockets to reconsider their former long-distance strategy at least until the team acquires more accurate shooters.
Things aren’t permanently bleak for the Houston Rockets, though. In return for sending James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, the team gets the Nets’ first round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026. In addition, there are a series of pick swap options with Brooklyn which might bring Houston a gem or two.
As mentioned earlier, the NBA’s trade deadline is coming up on March 25. In the next week or so, NBA insiders expect the Houston Rockets to unload a number of their remaining veteran players – especially any with overpriced contracts. Given Tillman Fertitta’s inability to sell enough tickets during the pandemic restrictions at Toyota Center, his wallet may be in desperate need of a little relief.
Houston’s entire team rebuilding project (management and team) is now moving ahead at warp speed. If you are a Houston Rockets fan, it’s time to exercise a lot of patience.
As a classic pop hit reminds us, “I think it’s gonna be a long, long time!”