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Where the Hell Do the Rockets Go From Here?

Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni are gone and Russell Westbrook’s mammoth contract isn’t going anywhere. Houston suddenly finds itself in an unenviable position, as does the team’s star.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“For me, it was just a great run.” That’s how Daryl Morey summed up his 13 years as the Rockets’ general manager—a tenure that ended, suddenly and surprisingly (although maybe not that surprisingly), on Thursday—in a postmortem phone call with ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “Personally, the timing worked for me,” Morey said. “My youngest son just graduated from high school, and it was just the right time to see what’s next with family and other potential things in the future. It just felt like the right time.”

No one can fault Morey for an earnest desire to spend more time with his children, or for needing to recharge after grinding for a decade-plus and enduring the longest (both literally and figuratively) and undoubtedly most stressful season of his career. But a month after another Rockets season ended earlier than they’d hoped, it seems at least possible that this “felt like the right time” to leave Houston from a competitive standpoint, too.

Morey told The New York Times that “he was not leaving because of a disagreement over the team’s strategy or direction,” and proclaimed in a team statement that he is “very confident [...] that the Rockets will continue to perform at the highest level” following his departure. That could be true. It’s possible that the elevations of former Morey lieutenants Rafael Stone (now Houston’s general manager) and Eli Witus (now Stone’s assistant GM) will maintain organizational continuity, and that they’ll carry on Morey’s legacy of contorting the collective bargaining agreement to their will, finding valuable contributors on the NBA’s margins, and riding a top-five-ish offense toward 50 wins and a top-four seed.

You’d be forgiven, though, for not sharing Morey’s professed faith, considering the sheer tonnage of the headache he’s left behind him.

This is a capped-out squad whose ownership has reportedly been even more skittish than usual about going into the luxury tax, whose starters will all be on the wrong side of 30 when next season starts, and whose reserve corps perennially consists of bargain-bin finds and reclamation projects. Thanks to years of future-be-damned moves, Houston has full control of only two of its first-round picks over the next seven years, and doesn’t feature a single player it drafted and developed; its lone youngish low-cost talent is Danuel House Jr., a decent role player who capped a breakout season by getting himself ejected from the bubble in the middle of a playoff series.

Zoom out to take it all in, and the Rockets’ picture becomes clear: The perpetual roster churn in search of the perfect team to fully optimize James Harden’s generational talent now has the team looking like the most landlocked franchise in the league. Morey once told our Rob Mahoney that “to be the best of 30 [NBA teams], you constantly have to keep improving, because no one else is staying still,” and he once told Zach Lowe that any team with a 5 percent chance to win the title in a season should throw everything it’s got into trying to do so. But be honest: At this moment, can you name any team that feels more trapped in stasis than the Rockets? And how confident are you that this Houston team has even that good a shot at winning it all?

Houston’s top six players—Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, and House—are on the books for $123.3 million next season. If next season’s salary cap and luxury tax lines stay roughly the same as last year’s models, the Rockets would already be within sniffing distance of the tax while still needing to fill out more than half of their roster. That roster, as presently constituted, famously does not include any centers, thanks to the on-the-fly restructuring that shipped out Clint Capela and ushered in a full-time commitment to small ball, a radical tactical shift that demanded even more out of the already indispensable Tucker. (The 35-year-old tank is owed a shade under $8 million next season on a multiyear contract that he has wildly outperformed; he would reportedly like an extension now, please and thank you.)

That roster represented the purest distillation of the beliefs that Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni held about their most-likely-to-succeed method of playing the game. It barely survived the Thunder in Round 1, and was promptly ushered out of the postseason by the Lakers in Round 2 once Frank Vogel decided his team should play its version of small ball, anchored by a dude who is extremely Not Small.

The executive who built that ill-fated roster and the coach he built it for have both left the building. Responsibility for steering it now falls to Stone, Witus, and Tilman Fertitta, the blustering billionaire who dropped a record $2.2 billion to take the Rockets’ reins in 2017, and with whom the buck now stops.

It was Fertitta whose persistent dismissiveness over D’Antoni’s contract helped contribute to the exit of the winningest coach in franchise history (albeit one who presided over four straight disappointing playoff runs). It was Fertitta who seethed after the Rockets sputtered out against the Warriors in 2019, bemoaning his team’s inability to seize control after Kevin Durant’s calf injury in Game 5 or stop Stephen Curry from dominating the second half of Game 6 to eliminate Houston on its home court.

“I’m a fighter. That’s my culture,” said Fertitta, whose cousins Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta owned and operated the UFC, who made his fortune as a “ruthless” dealmaker in the restaurant and casino businesses, and whose relative level of patience might best be summarized by the fact that he titled his book of business wisdom Shut Up and Listen!. “The longer I own this team, they’re gonna pick up more of my culture. We had ‘em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats.”

And after that series, it was Fertitta who, according to MacMahon, pushed for the 2019 blockbuster that sent out Chris Paul—the All-Star point guard who teamed with Harden on the 65-17 Rockets team that had the KD-era Warriors facing elimination before a strained right hamstring changed everything—in favor of Russell Westbrook.

“That trade was made because Tilman Fertitta wanted it made—he thought Chris Paul’s contract was the worst that he’d ever seen, in business or sports—and because James Harden wanted it made,” MacMahon told Lowe on Thursday. “Once Westbrook became available, they saw an opportunity that Harden and Fertitta wanted to pounce on, and they pounced on that.”

Despite Fertitta’s reported insistence that Paul had the worst contract he’d ever seen, Paul and Westbrook are actually slated to make the same amount of money this season and next, though Paul’s got a player option for 2021-22 while Westbrook’s is fully guaranteed; Russ’s deal stretches one year longer than CP3’s, with a $47.1 million player option for 2022-23. For the right to replace Paul’s deal with Westbrook’s, the Rockets gave up their first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and gave Oklahoma City protected swap rights on their 2021 and 2025 first-rounders.

Houston is more encumbered than any other team. And to the extent that that’s on Harden—whose idiosyncratic style of play and difficulties meshing with other top-tier talents have resulted in all those roster reshuffles and great big swings—well, that’s now on Fertitta, too.

From the sound of it, all parties involved expected “big changes within the organization if another playoff letdown came [Houston’s] way.” With two massive changes already made, the focus now shifts to the one organizational constant still standing: Harden, who turned 31 in the bubble, who is owed $85.6 million over the next two seasons, and who holds a $47.4 million player option for the year after that.

Say Houston doesn’t bounce back next season under a new head coach and with a somehow-reimagined roster. Might Harden start thinking about how much longer he wants to stay? Conversely: Might Fertitta, who didn’t own the team when Harden joined (and whose decisions may come to be influenced by pandemic-inflamed financial issues), and Stone, who wasn’t the GM that pulled the trigger, feel less bound to the Beard than the man who famously fleeced a rival for him?

There’s no such thing as “fair value” for Harden, the 2017-18 MVP (and three-time runner-up) and reigning three-time scoring champ. Though his regular-season brilliance continues to cast a towering postseason shadow, he nearly guarantees, by himself, a top-five offense and 50-ish wins. But if all of the fundamental underpinnings of the franchise are suddenly up for discussion, the biggest one can’t be held sacred and left untouched. It’s unlikely that dealing Westbrook is possible, much less net a positive return, and it’d be nearly impossible to play the style Houston’s built to play without either Tucker or Covington. Given the paucity of paths available to meaningfully improve this roster in the short or long term, it’s something that the Rockets’ new brain trust might have to consider—and, with the clock ticking until Harden’s opt-out, they might need to consider it sooner than they’d think. (Where else Harden might make sense is a pretty fascinating thought experiment, given the degree to which he’s become a sui generis isolation offense unto himself that everything else needs to be built around. What contender that Harden might be interested in joining would be able to comfortably fit him into its existing competitive infrastructure? And which teams that could build everything around Harden, as Houston has, would he elevate to better contending position than he has with the Rockets?)

Despite bringing back the core of a 50-win team led by two of the most devastating offensive forces of their generation, it seems like no team sits in a more precarious place right now than Houston. What comes next could set the trajectory for the remainder of Harden’s career, determining whether he ever again gets within hailing distance of the championship he craves. It will define Fertitta’s stewardship of one of the league’s 10 most valuable and 10 winningest franchises, and one of the 10 with more than one championship banner in its rafters; it’s his culture now, for better or for worse. Soon enough, we’ll learn if what “just felt like the right time” for Morey to leave was also the last chance for anyone to get out of Houston while the getting was good.