Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
That makes for a sticky situation for a Houston Rockets team in win-now mode with a new head coach, and few assets available to improve the roster with the start of the 2020-21 NBA season a little more than a month away from tip off.
Earlier in the day on Wednesday, an ESPN report surfaced about Russell Westbrook and James Harden expressing concern about the direction of the franchise moving into the upcoming season. Hours later, Charania dropped the report that Westbrook has informed Houston officials that he’s uneasy with the Rockets’ accountability and culture, as well as a desire to return to a role similar to the floor general role he had over the first 11 years of his career in Oklahoma City.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) November 12, 2020
It’s too early to tell what this might mean for new head coach Stephen Silas, who replaced Mike D’Antoni on Oct. 28 as head coach of the Houston Rockets. While Charania and Kelly Iko reported that franchise centerpiece James Harden remains “locked in” for the upcoming season, it’s clear that Silas could be navigating choppy waters in Houston before the season even starts.
Interestingly, the most recent development doesn’t quite jibe with the positive vibe Silas gave off last week when discussing the conversations he conducted with the two former MVPs during the interview process.
“I kind of gave them my vision as far as how I wanted to play, and how I wanted them to be able to use their greatness in a way that will help the team win,” Silas said. “They were all about whatever’s best for the team to win.”
Silas mentioned that his plan for the upcoming season involved “tweaks” but not wholesale changes to Houston’s offensive system, which is heavily dependent on isolation with Harden. Harden and Westbrook led the NBA last season in isolation points, possession and frequency, and the Rockets ranked No. 1 in the league in isolation.
In addition to hiring Silas, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta recently promoted longtime staffer Rafael Stone to the position of general manager. Stone made it clear last week that Houston remains committed to chasing titles with both Westbrook and Harden serving as centerpieces.
Westbrook, who turns 32 on Thursday, is owed $131.5 million over the next three seasons with a $46.7 million option for the 2022-23 season. The 2016-17 MVP and nine-time All-Star, Westbrook struggled during the NBA restart after arriving late to the NBA bubble after contracting COVID-19. Westbrook also suffered a strained right quadriceps in August that further hindered his play.
Harden, meanwhile, is also owed $131.5 million over the next three seasons with a $46.9 million player option in 2022-23.
Complicating matters for Houston moving forward is its lack of assets to improve the roster.
In a trade advocated for last summer by Harden, a childhood friend and former Thunder teammate, the Rockets acquired Westbrook in a deal in which they gave up their 2024 and 2026 first-round draft picks, in addition to handing OKC top-10-protected swap rights in the 2021 and 2025 drafts. Houston further depleted assets in February when it acquired forward Robert Covington by giving up this year’s first-round pick and center Clint Capela.
The Rockets’ win-at-all-costs approach has led to few options when it comes to enhancing the roster, not to mention the club is also butting up against the luxury tax. Stone said last week that Fertitta is fine with spending into the luxury tax “if spending results in winning.”
“He reiterated to me upon being hired that his priorities are winning first, second, and ad nauseum, and money, not so much,” Stone said last week.
But if forced to grant Westbrook’s desire to leave Houston, things become much more complicated for a first-time head coach in Silas embarking on the upcoming season with little flexibility to improve the roster.
Silas pointed out last week that “you have to have multiple ways of playing,” which could entail “possibly having a bigger guy, a traditional type of center where you can roll to the rim, or duck in and do different things to where the matchups will be a little bit better and more traditional.”
Stone even mentioned a goal to “provide Stephen with a little more optionality.”
With Westbrook possibly out of the fold in Houston next season, the team certainly can acquire more flexibility, but the plans will likely change once again, while the franchise’s commitment to chasing a third title remains.
“For the last eight years or so, our goal has been to win a championship because we had James Harden,” Stone said. “We’ve still got James Harden. Our goal is still to win a championship. If you’ve got him, you’re halfway there.”
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