After a 55 win regular season that rocketed (see what I did there) Houston from 8th in 2016 to 3rd in the Western conference this year, the Rockets were the darlings of the NBA. Mike D’Antoni went from the David Blatt black sheep squad to one of the best redemption stories of the year while bringing back the seven seconds or less offense (God knows we didn’t see it in NY or LA). The only reason he wasn’t THE redemption story of the year, was because James Harden aka THE BEARD went from being known for these kind of plays:
To POINT GUARD James Harden. A Rockets team that was fractured and irredeemable coupled with everyone’s favorite whipping boy Dwight Howard, transformed with a 3 point barrage the likes of which not even the Warriors have ever seen. Harden raced into one of the most fun MVP debates in recent memory as he traded triple doubles and eye popping numbers with former teammate Russell Westbrook. While his gameplay is not always aesthetically pleasing, Harden became one of the most marketable and fun personalities in the league:
But all these feel good vibes were wiped away in an instant in the last 60 minutes of the Rockets 2017 season (last 7 minutes of regulation & 5 mins of OT in game 5 and all 48 mins of game 6). All of the people who questioned the way the Rockets were structured throughout the year were proven prescient with Houston’s season ending meltdown. D’Antoni’s offense was spectacular in a season that was more up tempo than any in recent memory (hence all the triple doubles), but 4th quarter playoff basketball against Gregg Popovich is a completely different monster. When the Rockets needed a bucket down the stretch they gave Harden the ball at the top of the key with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, tried to run a screen & roll, and when that didn’t work Harden hoisted contested 3 pointers. So much for an offensive “genius”.
And while it’s usually unwise to overreact to one performance, the game 6 quit job AT HOME WITHOUT KAWHI LEONARD shows this team has vestiges of Dwight’s 10 year old composure keeping them from truly competing. Beyond that, while Daryl Morey has assembled an impressive array of shooters, let’s be real. A team with Harden and a bunch of good but not great players is not going to take down the Warriors. Changes need to be made in H-Town, but what makeover will give them a real shot at the title?
First, I’d get rid of D’Antoni. Harsh, I know, but that guy is just not championship material. The Rockets aren’t going to do that after a 55 win season though so I just have to work around it. Let’s head over to the trade machine and see if we can get Houston a secondary playmaker to help take the burden off of Harden (so he doesn’t have to play 43 MPG in the playoffs). The first place I’d look is to see if I can pry Paul George off the Pacers (obviously), but with other teams boasting sexier assets it’s unlikely the Rockets can win the bidding war for the Pacers star. The next place I’d take a gander is extremely controversial, but I’d trade for none other than Carmelo Anthony. Both teams will be under the salary cap, making a trade much more feasible. Something along the lines of Ryan Anderson and Sam Dekker/a future 1st round pick (whichever Houston values less) will likely be enough to get the deal done. While Melo has his faults, Anderson isn’t much of a defensive player himself and they had the same exact 3 point percentage on catch and shoot 3s last season (42.7%) with Carmelo’s being contested more often. Furthermore, Melo considered Houston in his 2014 free agency tour and even though he previously clashed with D’Antoni he has to realize this is a real chance to make it to the conference finals. Melo only has 2 more years on his contract, so it’s a relatively small risk for the Rockets to take.
Unfortunately, this still leaves the Rockets massively short of taking down the Warriors. For the next step I’d look to clear the space needed to sign Gordon Hayward, or somehow talk the Bulls into taking a pu pu platter for Jimmy Butler but both of those scenarios seem very unrealistic. The second trade I’d look to make is an Eric for Eric deal, that is Eric Gordon for Eric Bledsoe. Gordon was a revelation this year for the Rockets, and would allow the Suns to put more focus on Devin Booker which is their ultimate goal moving forward. With Bledsoe’s extensive injury history, it’s unlikely the Suns will be able to fetch a ton for his services and Gordon + Dekker/future 1st round pick (whichever doesn’t go to the Knicks) might be enough to get the job done (they might have to include another promising young player like a Montrezl Harrell). While Gordon is the better shooter and seems like a better fit in the Rockets system, Houston already has Lou Williams who does what Gordon does, but better, off the Rockets bench. Bledsoe offers a ton more on the defensive end than Gordon (saves 2 PPG more) and has the versatility to guard either backcourt position. Bledsoe gets to the line a lot (13th in the league with 7 FTA per game) which is another one of Houston’s core offensive tenets. Finally, Bledsoe would allow Harden to rest for stretches without sacrificing the playmaking ability that Houston currently suffers when Harden sits.
If the Rockets can find a way to clear some space beyond this (or if they go over the cap in the Bledsoe trade they’ll have the Mid Level Exception) to re-sign Nene and a great wing defender such as PJ Tucker (free agent) that’s a pretty scary 9 deep roster. Harden – Bledsoe – Ariza – Anthony – Capela with a Beverly – Lou Williams – Nene – Tucker bench. This year’s Rockets team was the best offense in the NBA, this version should be significantly better with actual post season crunch time scoring chops. Bledsoe & Beverly could give Curry fits in a hypothetical Warriors matchup, and with Ariza & Tucker they have 2 bodies that could at least give Durant a tough time. The future might be slightly sacrificed, but the Anthony & Bledsoe contracts would be up in 2 years at which point the Rockets can re-tool if the roster doesn’t mesh.
Hey Daryl Morey, DO IT.