For the second year in a row, Sisyphus pushed the boulder halfway up the mountain only to see it knocked back to the bottom by the Warriors. The Rockets were ousted from the second round of the playoffs on Friday, as the Warriors took Game 6, 118-113. Last season’s Western Conference finals loss stung because of the way things played out in the series’ last game: The Rockets were up in Game 7 and improbably missed 27 straight 3s. This one hurts because of what came before: Kevin Durant suffered a calf strain in Game 5 that knocked him out for the rest of the series. Golden State was down its best player, and Houston still couldn’t get over the hump.
It’s another “good job, good effort” season for the Rockets, whose title expectations seemed more realistic entering these playoffs than any team not named the Warriors. Even after being up at halftime of Game 7 last postseason, this still may have been Houston’s best shot at dethroning its Western Conference foe. Instead, the boulder is back where it started. Here are three questions the Rockets will have to face as they head into the offseason:
Can the title window stay open?
Had Houston lost a seven-game series against the Warriors at full strength, it would be easier to envision the third time possibly being the charm to make it out of the West. But the fact that the Rockets couldn’t take down a Golden State team that had been taken to six games by the Clippers and didn’t even have Durant in the lineup for the last game calls that into question. Any window that Houston expected to have next season given the rumors that Durant may leave Golden State in free agency just got shut again by the team that would be “left over.”
So, where does Houston go from here? James Harden just put together his best season—another MVP-worthy campaign in which he scored 30 points or more for 32 straight games—but the Rockets have nothing to show for it. Now, even if the Warriors lose KD this summer, the West will be up for grabs like the East was this season in the wake of LeBron’s departure, only filled with a deeper pool of talented teams, and up-and-coming ones, too. There will be room for the Rockets to pounce, but they’ll be countered by the Nuggets, Jazz, LeBron’s presumably better Lakers, the Blazers, Thunder, and of course, the Steph Curry–led Warriors.
The Rockets aren’t exactly in a flexible position, either. They’re projected to be $14 million over the cap, which would give them the sixth-least cap space of any team. They have avenues to be creative (would they ever use Clint Capela as a trade chip?) and add rotation players—we know Daryl Morey thrives in this mode—but big changes or improvements are likely off the table. After another disappointing end to their season, it’s back to the drawing board for the Rockets.
Is another role-player reshuffle in the offing?
Houston’s roster is a fascinating look at how good a team can be with one current All-Star, a former All-Star, and a bunch of role players. The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency last summer, and many thought the building would crumble. Instead, Morey bode his time and replaced each of them with players that wouldn’t ruin Houston’s ecosystem. It took some time—and included a rough 11-14 start to the season, as well as a Chris Paul hamstring injury—but eventually, the Rockets had a thriving rotation and, really, a better team. Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, and Iman Shumpert, who were part of the playoff rotation too, are all set to be free agents this offseason.
Rivers is arguably the best of those three. He’s not afraid to take his own shot, which has at times been the perfect attitude for the Rockets’ system and at others too aggressive. But that’s the Austin Rivers Experience for you, and it’s one Houston needed. Shumpert came alive in the second round of the playoffs, hitting eight 3s, but it’s unclear what he has left in the tank. The same could be said about Gerald Green, who played only 43 minutes in the Warriors series.
I would imagine the Rockets will try to bring Rivers back on an affordable deal. Then again, we all thought the Rockets would re-sign Ariza and Mbah a Moute last season. Houston’s system undoubtedly makes role players look good, and as a result, they command more money on the open market. But what if they’ll only be this effective inside this system? Maybe staying together, at least in Rivers’s case, is mutually beneficial.
Will Danuel House re-sign?
House is the only upcoming restricted free agent on the active roster, and after being relatively unknown before this season, he quickly added depth to Houston’s tattered wing department in the regular season. House averaged 9.4 points per game and shot 41.6 percent from deep on over four attempts. He was extremely valuable as a shotmaker around Harden, and in 2019, making shots will keep you in the league regardless of any other flaws in your game.
I’m sure other teams will extend offers to House, if only for the sake of putting Houston—which, for now, has only the midlevel exception to offer House, since it only holds his non-Bird rights—in a tough position to match the deal. And given the Rockets’ cap limitations, they may have to let him walk. But one thing is certain: Morey will once again have to work the fringes for role players as new owner Tillman Fertitta appears keen on avoiding the luxury tax next season. Even it that’s what it comes to, though, another deep playoff run could still be in the works. The Rockets still have one of the best players in the league in Harden, and if they can put the right players around him, they should be right there again next season.