The Golden State Warriors once again sent the Houston Rockets home this postseason, with the James Harden-led franchise coming up short on a legitimate opportunity to topple this era’s NBA dynasty for a second consecutive year. Harden and Chris Paul have come the closest of anybody to defeating the Warriors in the Western Conference over the past two years and have been their stiffest rivals in the West. But this summer, as team officials such as general manager Daryl Morey have said publicly, Houston is set to do some soul searching.
Harden’s playing style — so dangerously lethal and effective in isolation — has led to tremendous individual success over the past two seasons. For the most part, it has been productive for the organization too. This season, the Rockets needed Harden to go on historic scoring binges amid injuries over the course of the season and amid fluctuating play from his co-star, Paul. Now, after that style of play failed to get Houston over that Warriors wall for a second consecutive season, executives around the NBA are wondering how the Rockets will adjust and how they could tweak the offense around Harden.
There was something of a clash of styles brewing throughout the Rockets season, with members of the team — most notably Paul — having spirited discussions with Mike D’Antoni about the offense and pushing for more movement, league sources told The Athletic. That type of fast-paced, ball-moving offense is what D’Antoni thrived with in Phoenix, and to the two-time Coach of the Year’s credit, he has adapted it in Houston to allow Harden to succeed in his game.
It’s an ongoing pursuit for Houston, the balance between more movement and isolation Harden, and some have pushed for more ball energy. Harden, of course, thrives best in isolation and dominating the opposing team as a lead playmaker and shot creator. Paul came from a similar system in Los Angeles, where he and fellow Clippers star Blake Griffin orchestrated the offense with the ball in their hands. Perhaps the Rockets coaching staff’s next great challenge will be integrating more ball and player movement.
In the playoffs, defenses can key in on specific tendencies from teams. Houston went to specific alignments in isolation, rotating between 2-2 and 3-1. A 2-2 alignment is when there are two offensive players on opposite sides of the court. A 3-1 alignment is when there are three offensive players on one side and one on the other. The 2-2 alignment is optimal for how teams defend Harden, largely because the floor is balanced and no extra defender can be sent to help on Harden or a shooter will be open as result, but the Rockets opted for using more 3-1 in their isolation possessions.
In the regular season, Harden scored 1.11 points per possession in isolation. In the postseason, Harden scored 1.04 points per possession in isolation.
Houston’s season ended in a 118-113 home loss in Game 6 to the Warriors, where Harden scored 35 points on 25 shots and Paul finished with 27 points on 19 shots. Paul bounced back from an 11-point performance in Game 5, when he shot 3-of-14 from the field, and had the ball in his hands in critical moments late in Game 6. Some would argue that is how it should work. Paul and Harden have exchanged turns leading the offense at times since Paul’s arrival in 2017.
But Harden and Paul had tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Sources said the verbal exchange between Harden and Paul was regarding the ball distribution throughout Game 6. By the time the remainder of the locker room was ready to talk, Paul and Harden had gone their separate ways, with Paul swiftly making his way to the postgame podium. The Rockets dispensed with exit interviews this year, so the media hasn’t been able to ask Paul or Harden about the disappointment.
Obviously, emotions run high after a season-ending loss and this can be common among teams.
“We can’t compare this team to last year, because we’ve had a lot of changes,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon told The Athletic in December. “More young guys, we just have to look forward to what’s next. Look how they’re playing, that’s how we used to play. Sharing the ball, getting up and down and attacking. We’re not doing that anymore.
“We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude?”
The Rockets have made good runs at toppling the Warriors the past two seasons. They nearly won in 2018 before Paul suffered a hamstring strain. Could this team run the same core back next season, add another piece to the organization, such as a much-needed wing player after losing Trevor Ariza last summer, and try to beat the Warriors if they lose Kevin Durant in free agency? Or do the Rockets need a systematic change going into the 2019-20 season?
Houston doesn’t have much space to sign major free agents and still owes $120 million over the next three seasons to Paul. The franchise also will likely discuss a contract extension with guard Eric Gordon.
The Rockets landed swingman Iman Shumpert at the NBA’s trade deadline after he made a strong impact on the Sacramento Kings’ culture and shot 36.6 percent from 3-point range prior to the deal, but his minutes fluctuated in Houston and he could have a viable market around the league’s mid-level exception. Houston had also targeted wing players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rodney Hood, Justin Holiday, Garrett Temple and Wes Matthews during the season, and could turn toward one of those using their tax payer’s mid-level exception.
For his part, D’Antoni has said privately and publicly that he wants to continue coaching. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said after the season that D’Antoni will return as coach, and the team stated during the season that it intends to extend D’Antoni this offseason.
Harden is one of the game’s most potent scorers, a brilliant talent who has run into this generation’s best team, so fully moving away from his style of play is not prudent. Something has to give, however, and this became more and more clear to players as the season wore on. The coaching staff will need to continue to develop layers to the offense and pitch this to Harden, Paul and the rest of its core players.
Houston is entering its summer of truth.
— Kelly Iko and Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic Houston contributed to this report.
(Top Photo: Getty Images / Art by Adrian Guzman of The Athletic)