First half summary: New coach Stephen Silas didn’t deserve this, and he certainly wasn’t expecting to lose two former Kia MVPs in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That’s not even taking into account all the drama that started with Westbrook’s trade request, followed by an uninterested Harden arriving late to training camp on Dec. 8, and immediately entering the league’s COVID-19 protocols due to his hard-partying ways. The situation reached a crescendo when Harden, who had been rumored to have asked for a trade, flat out told the media that the Rockets were “just not good enough” to compete for titles. The Rockets, who had previously sent Westbrook to Washington for John Wall, eventually moved Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that would land them Victor Oladipo.
Houston is now expected to rely heavily on budding star Christian Wood, who was playing at an All-Star level before severely rolling his ankle on Feb. 4. Wood returned to on-court activities at the end of February, but let’s be real here: his pending return to the floor won’t salvage Houston’s season because the Rockets are virtually a new team with a new coaching staff and no real star power. Houston needs more time to build chemistry between the holdovers and new additions such as Wall, Oladipo and Wood in Silas’ new system. The Rockets amassed a six-game winning streak in January, but they’ve lost too much ground in the rugged West to get back into playoff contention. It’s quite telling, as colleague John Schuhmann points out, Houston’s most-used lineup this season has played a total of 58 minutes and includes Harden, who was traded on Jan. 14.
Biggest question going into the second half: What’s Houston’s plan for the post-Harden era? The trades of Harden and Westbrook dramatically shifted the landscape for the future in Houston, sending the club into a major transitional state. Perhaps we caught somewhat of a glimpse of the Rockets’ plan under new general manager Rafael Stone when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Oladipo recently turned down a two-year $45.2 million maximum extension, which was the most Houston could offer before the end of the regular season. Oladipo, therefore, could be a candidate to move at the March 25 trade deadline.
It appears the Rockets are on the way to a rebuild and are acquiring assets. They received four first-round picks and four pick swaps in the Harden trade, and gained three first-rounders in trades involving Westbrook and Robert Covington, who was moved to Portland back in November for Trevor Ariza, the No. 16 pick in the 2020 draft (Isaiah Stewart), and a protected first rounder in the 2021 draft. Houston immediately traded Ariza and the 2020 No. 16 pick to Detroit for another protected 2021 first-round pick. Houston could wind up stacking more assets by wheeling and dealing once the trade deadline market picks up, as veterans such as Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker don’t appear at this point to be in the Rockets’ long-term future plans.
Playoffs or lottery?: Houston is headed to the lottery, as its second-half schedule appears to be a meat grinder with three remaining matchups on deck against the Utah Jazz, two against the LA Clippers and one set for the Lakers. But perhaps the lottery is where Houston needs to be once this season comes to conclusion, as it appears to be starting what could become an arduous process of pulling off a complete rebuild.
Wood is poised to become an All-Star, and Wall is finally fully recovered from injury and ready to serve as Houston’s floor general for the next few seasons. Stone has already uncovered some young talent for the Rockets in Jae’Sean Tate, who has started 21 games as a rookie and Kevin Porter Jr., a head turner so far in the NBA G League bubble that is expected to rejoin Houston after the All-Star break. It’s not like the cupboard in Houston is completely bare. Stone needs to pull off some moves to restock it, though.
— Michael C. Wright