With NBA free agency underway, the end of the Houston Rockets’ chance at an NBA Championship is here. The team that was destined to topple the Golden State Warriors dynasty will never get close to the NBA Finals in the foreseeable future.
The Rockets wasted two golden opportunities to defeat the Warriors and advance to their first NBA Finals since 1995. In the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were 60 minutes away from the Finals, yet they fell in Game 7, and the Warriors ultimately won their second straight championship.
Last season in the Western Conference semifinals, it seemed like it was Houston’s time to finally knock off Golden State. After coming back from a 0-2 deficit in the series and Kevin Durant straining his calf, it looked like Golden State wouldn’t be able to walk away victorious. In the end, James Harden and Chris Paul failed to get the Rockets past the Warriors.
With the NBA landscape changing after Kyrie Irving and Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets, as well as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George heading to the Los Angeles Clippers, it ends the title hopes for the Rockets. It’s always a struggle to get out of the Western Conference, and with the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring Anthony Davis and other teams reloading, it doesn't make it easier for Harden and Co.
Although Houston posted a 14-11 record against Western Conference playoff teams, a number of those teams have great young players and cap space to get key players to help them in the future. Teams like the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have young foundations to compete in the conference for years to come, and even the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are on the rise as well. Houston has been quiet at the start of free agency, and its roster has an average age of 26.4 years old. Its core is getting older, and the team has no salary cap flexibility to land another star.
With news breaking that Houston will be trading Chris Paul to Oklahoma City, it leaves the Rockets in the same financial restrictions. Westbrook will be making 171.1 million over the next four years. With Harden and Clint Capela having massive contracts, it hurts the Rockets’ chances of acquiring another star.
Trading away Capela and Eric Gordon in hopes of acquiring an All-Star to help them make it out of the conference will only hurt the team. Gordon, Capela and P.J Tucker; all played well this season. Trading them away will limit the Rockets’ depth and put more of the load on Harden and Paul.
Although Westbrook and Harden have played together from 2009-12 and made the NBA Finals in Harden’s last season in Oklahoma City, the two of them on the same team could be detrimental to the team's title aspirations. Both players are ball dominant and need the ball in their hands every possession. Harden wouldn’t be the player he is today if he stayed with the Thunder. An argument over who should run the offense could destroy the team’s chemistry and cost head coach Mike D’Antoni his job.
Despite averaging 34.8 points per game in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden failed to perform when the Rockets needed him and Westbrook isn’t a good shooter, shooting only 42.8% from the field and 29.0% from behind the three-point line. Many experts, including Kobe Bryant, have stated that Harden’s style of play won’t win a championship.
Concerns should be raised about Harden’s usage in D’Antoni’s offense. With all the minutes he plays, it can lead to further injuries down the line. Harden is only 29, but he does have a history of missing games and burning out as the season progresses.
Next season, the Western Conference will be competitive as it always is. The Rockets will be in the mix for the top spot in the west, yet the season will end like the previous years, with them watching the Finals at home.
Contact Jason Clampitt at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.