After failing to reach the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in five seasons, the Houston Rockets must be asking themselves what more they can do in their quest for an NBA title.
Maybe the answer is nothing. Maybe this is as far as this iteration of Space City's finest can go.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook are on the wrong side of 30. Mike D'Antoni's contract is up. If there's ever a right time for an organization to reset, the Rockets might be staring it in the face.
And they aren't alone. Whether it's a full-scale demolition and Process-style restart or a more narrowly focused redirection, five other teams should consider sweeping changes today in search of a better tomorrow.
We're talking about substantial alterations, so we'll leave out clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, who arguably need to reshuffle their supporting casts but probably won't touch their core stars. For these six squads, major moves are needed to eventually improve their fortunes.
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Since Harden skyrocketed to stardom his first season in Houston, 2012-13, the Rockets have been searching for his sidekick.
Dwight Howard had three seasons to prove he was up for the job, but Houston bookended first-round exits around a five-game loss in the conference finals, and the big man was allowed to walk in 2016 free agency.
Chris Paul got the next crack in 2017, and Houston immediately won 65 games and pushed the defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games in the conference finals. The Rockets weren't the same the next season and followed 53 wins with a second-round loss to the Warriors.
That meant Paul was out and Westbrook was in, a change that eventually propelled the Rockets to move Clint Capela in search of maximum spacing. But Houston was even less threatening (plus-2.7 net rating this season, plus-4.8 last year), and it couldn't muster much resistance in its five-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.
Westbrook was unreliable. Eric Gordon was never himself (that, or this is his new, declining version). Harden was left on an island, which produced some absurd statistics (third straight scoring title; this one with 34.3 points per game) but didn't put this team on a championship level.
The Rockets could opt against any boat-rocking and continue making playoff trips, but those have never been the aim. Championship dreams have driven this team's moves, but they have never felt further from reality.
"It's easy to say the Rockets need to add pieces, much harder to say how they might actually go about it," The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote. "Houston has no cap room, no 2020 draft picks, no willingness to spend into the tax and no young players that anybody wants. You might say this Rocket has run out of fuel."
Resetting probably means trading Harden, and maybe that's too dramatic for Houston to consider. But he isn't getting younger and is moving closer to his chance to enter 2022 free agency (player option). If the roster isn't salvageable around him, would the Rockets trade him to correct it?
Soon, the better question might be: What other choice do they have?