The end of an era: Houston braces for life after Harden

James Harden brought a ton of joy to the Houston Rockets’ fanbase as he blossomed into a superstar beginning with his arrival in 2012. Despite never having won a title, nor even making it to the NBA Finals during his eight-year tenure, his nuclear scoring abilities and offensive prowess made Rockets basketball fun to experience once again. Many believed Harden would remain in Houston the rest of his career, and it’s evident that he did too, at one point. However, things went downhill, fast; the Beard decided that it was time for a change of scenery due to some issues with ownership. After an eventful offseason and beginning to the 2020-21 campaign, the 8x all-star finally got his wish, as Houston dealt him to Brooklyn to play with former teammate Kevin Durant. 

Social media was torn on Wednesday evening as various basketball media members attempted to justify whether or not it was the right move for the Rockets. In reality, only time will tell; Houston’s path to a rebuild seems inevitable at this point. The days in Clutch City may get worse before they get better. Rockets’ fans need to understand that. So let’s break down what the future looks like in Houston.

In return for Harden, Houston brought in a haul of Caris LeVert, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four first-round picks, and four first-round pick swaps. The organization then immediately flipped LeVert and a second-rounder for Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers. From a player standpoint, the package simply is not what fans were hoping for. Oladipo will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason; it is no secret that the 28-year-old will be seeking a max deal. Exum and Kurucs could find niches as role players in Stephen Silas’ system, but even that isn’t certain. 

Oladipo does however, keep Houston competitive this season; he cannot be traded again until March 4th, but could then be flipped to a team with title aspirations in exchange for assets before the March 25th trade deadline. I personally don’t think Oladipo will get a max contract in Houston, nor does he deserve one. To be clear, Houston did not receive a cornerstone prospect in the deal, but did ensure that they’ll be players in the next two free agency periods.

Since taking over as the Rockets’ GM in the offseason, Rafael Stone has made it no secret that his mission is to stock the draft assets farm. What makes this trade acceptable, is the amount of picks that the team is getting in return. Houston has every Brooklyn pick (or the right to swap) until the 2028 offseason; at that point Harden and Durant will be 38 and 39, respectively. Of course, that’s assuming that everything works out for the Nets and that they remain up until that point. If one thing is for certain, it’s that nothing is ever certain in the NBA. Brooklyn is banking on Harden getting them to the promised land, and for good reason. In fact, it is a must, considering that they have sold away their farm for the near future. 

On paper, the amount of picks is encouraging; not every pick will be in the lottery, nor in the 25-30 range. Stone could decide to use the draft to rebuild the squad, or package those picks to bring in quality players; my guess is that he does both, and takes an approach similar to the one Danny Ainge took after sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets back in 2013. 

Having a stockpile of assets bodes well for the organization’s future, as well as having cap flexibility. After the 2022 season, only Eric Gordon and Christian Wood will be on the books (as of right now), with John Wall having a player option. Turning down a $47 million option is unlikely, but will be interesting to see if Wall elects to pursue long-term security. Everything is fluid; nobody on the roster should be untouchable, except for possibly Wood. It seems likely that Houston will try to flip Gordon and PJ Tucker for assets to accelerate the rebuild.

Rockets’ fans need to be patient and enjoy having no title expectations for the time being. Have fun watching this team compete and although they aren’t contenders, the roster is talented. Things may get worse, before they get better. Stone and Silas have their work cut out for them and will be put to the test. The sun will shine on the Toyota Center once again, I can guarantee you that. Heartbreak Houston has become a real phenomenon, but today starts the process of reversing the curse. 

Written by Dalton Pence (@dpence_)

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