The Houston Rockets' grand small-ball experiment sputtered to an untimely end at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA's bubble playoffs in Orlando. Head coach Mike D'Antoni then announced he would not return to the team next season, and general manager/mad genius architect Daryl Morey quickly followed.
The Rockets have since hired Stephen Silas as their new head coach and promoted Rafael Stone to general manager. Owner Tilman Ferrtitta has made all the right comments about how the team is still very committed to winning with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. But, with the asset cupboard basically empty thanks to the machinations of Morey, the Rockets are currently stuck with a roster that tops out as a second-round playoff team with no tangible path to getting better. Harden and Westbrook apparently recognize this and have reportedly expressed their concern with the direction the franchise is going in. From ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim McMahon:
As the Houston Rockets navigate an offseason of major change, a new challenge is emerging for the franchise -- the uncertainty of former MVP guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook on their futures with the team, sources told ESPN. In the wake of the departures of head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, Harden and Westbrook have expressed concern about the direction of the franchise through direct conversations or discussions with their representatives and the Rockets' front office, sources said.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, recently promoted general manager Rafael Stone and recently hired head coach Stephen Silas have emphasized that the franchise remains committed to fielding a contender while featuring the two perennial All-Stars in their primes. However, the concerns expressed by Harden and Westbrook that Houston's window as a contender could be closing has left the organization fearful that the superstars' commitment to remaining with the Rockets could be wavering. Although neither player has requested a trade at this point, that scenario has become a plausible eventual possibility.
The two stars' concerns are very much valid. If the whole idea of small ball wasn't going to work after four months of rest, it certainly isn't going to work after a full season of wear and tear. Houston has no way to acquire a decent big man and will probably run with someone on a minimum deal, which does not usually work out for playoff contenders. The team they have right now is definitely good, but not good enough to win a championship, and after Morey traded away all of the franchise's draft picks, there are no young and/or cheap players coming to the rescue.
Houston, however, will be in no rush to trade their two best players. Shipping both of them out in exchange for a massive haul of picks sounds good in theory, but this year's draft is already next week and is severely lacking in star power. Westbrook is slated to earn $41 million this year, $44 million next year, and $46 million in the final year of his contract. Harden is in a similar boat, making $41 million this year, $44 million next year, and $47 million the year after. The Beard's absurd stats suggest he's worth that money, but Westbrook definitely is not after logging one of the most inefficient scoring seasons of his career. They're also both 31-years-old.
In order to trade them, the Rockets would have to find a team not only interested in paying over $40 million each of the next three years to players on the wrong side of 30, but are also willing to give up enough assets to make the trade worth it. That is a difficult combination to find, especially in the light of economic uncertainty as it relates to the cap due to the coronavirus pandemic. Harden and Westbrook represent two franchise cornerstones who could revitalize a dead organization (like, say, the New York Knicks), but at what cost?
As concerned as Harden and Westbrook might be about where the Rockets are going, it's going to be difficult to find somewhere else to go. But that doesn't mean Houston won't try. If your two best players are actively concerned that the team might not be good enough despite their individual prowess, the season has to kick off perfectly for them to remain happy. That feels less likely than Houston getting off to a middling start while adjusting to a new head coach, which means Harden and Westbrook could be shopped sooner rather than later.