Mike D’Antoni has seen a number of close misses throughout his career, with his teams coming up just short of clearing the highest bar to claim an NBA championship.
Having been through that pain before, the Rockets coach knew that this most recent playoff exit — in which Houston lost to Golden State in six games — would rank right up there with the other heartbreaks. “This one’s gonna leave a mark,” he said shortly after his club was ousted on Friday by the Warriors, who took the series despite playing the final five quarters without injured superstar Kevin Durant. “This is not just something you get over with. I’m definitely not gonna get over it in this press conference, or tomorrow, or the next day.”
Regardless of how long it takes D’Antoni and the Rockets to move on from their playoff elimination, at some point Houston will have to decide whether it’s time to try a different route — in either strategy, roster construction or both — or to simply stay the course.
Some will undoubtedly argue that Houston is due for a change at this point, after having been bounced from the playoffs by the Warriors for the fourth time in five seasons. After all, the Rockets have long been the NBA’s biggest outlier in terms of strategy. No offense takes more 3-pointers, and no defense is more liberal in how often it switches — a strategy that hurt Houston on the defensive glass in Games 5 and 6.
But for as unsatisfying as it sounds in the wake of yet another loss to the same team, there may not actually be anything intrinsically flawed about the Rockets’ construction. They lost this year’s series by a total of 11 points over six games, with every game decided by 6 points or fewer — the first series in NBA playoff history to hold that distinction. Along the way, the Rockets also got to the line more often and snagged more rebounds. Houston shot more efficiently than Golden State and limited the Warriors’ fabled shot-making ability for most of the series. As much as James Harden and Co. are hearing it for not “stepping on the throat” of the Warriors late in Games 5 and 6, Houston played Golden State relatively evenly during these past couple weeks. The Rockets were just a few toss-up plays away from wins that would have left us with a totally different narrative about their season.
The challenge for general manager Daryl Morey — perhaps one he is uniquely suited to face — is figuring out how much of the Rockets’ playoff malaise is simply an artifact of winning bias (our tendency to explain things through the lens of the final outcome) and how much of Houston’s actual process does need to be changed. The cruelly ironic way the team lost last season, when the most prolific 3-point shooting team in NBA history missed 27 consecutive threes in a Game 7, already put to the test any belief that Houston’s luck would eventually even out. (We estimated the odds of that cold streak at 1 in 72,000.) Then there’s the seeming improbability of a player as great as Chris Paul — who, for the record, played a terrific game Friday — making only one conference final (and no NBA Finals) in his career. At a certain point, you have to wonder whether this is simply the unluckiest team ever or if variance ceases to be an adequate explanation for a team repeatedly coming up short.
After this latest crushing loss, there are a few factors that might be legitimate areas of concern for the Rockets. For one thing, the rate at which Harden gets to the free-throw line has declined in each of his past four postseason runs, by an average of 17.1 percent, even as the league’s free-throw rate has increased in the playoffs by an average of 5.4 percent in the same span.
Harden’s foul-drawing prowess is muted in the playoffs
Change in free-throw rate (FTA/FGA) between the regular season and playoffs for James Harden and the entire NBA, 2015-19
Harden FT rate
NBA FT rate
Harden still scored a ton of points this postseason, but with his trademark ability to draw fouls lessened, he went from an otherworldly combination of offensive efficiency and volume to a more terrestrial class of Hall of Famer.
Relatedly, the Rockets may also need to take a hard look at how backcourt-centric their offense has become. They got 79 percent of their scoring from guards or guard-forwards against Golden State, with $90 million big man Clint Capela notching only 8.8 points per game and rarely justifying his presence on the floor. (His plus/minus per 100 possessions in the series was -15.2.) The rigidity of Houston’s roles makes it easier for the team to fill a roster around the famously ball-dominant Harden, but it may also make the Rockets more susceptible to matchup difficulties in the playoffs. It doesn’t help matters when those supposed 3-and-D role players, who helped fill out a top-10 defensive unit during the regular season, can’t do much to slow down the opponent at the other end of the court — which was certainly the case in the fourth quarter of Game 6, in which Stephen Curry logged 23 points.
Houston suffers from its lack of bench depth, which could get even worse next year if Austin Rivers signs with a team that has more financial flexibility. Then there’s perhaps the most obvious issue: that the Rockets may need more creativity and firepower than Harden and an aging Paul can provide on their own as efficient 1-on-1 specialists. Houston tried to address this by signing Carmelo Anthony, but that experiment lasted only 10 games before the front office decided to cut bait. Still, finding a third high-level player who can create his own shot — or a fourth, depending on how you feel about Eric Gordon — would make a world of difference. But the Rockets likely lack the cap space or assets to obtain one.
Because of these deficiencies, it might feel futile for the Rockets to simply run it back again with a similar group and a similar game plan. But if they do, as things stand now,1 the Rockets would probably remain the Western Conference team with the best chance of knocking off the Warriors next season. The team doesn’t have much financial wiggle room to improve around its core, having committed $107 million to its top four players — Paul, Harden, Capela and Gordon — for 2019-20. But one underrated advantage of staying the course for Houston is that Golden State itself could be weakened if Kevin Durant leaves via free agency this summer. Even for a dynasty with unusual staying power, the Warriors can’t dominate the West forever.
For now, however, the Rockets are looking like this decade’s version of the ’90s Utah Jazz, a talented team that couldn’t quite get over the hump against an all-time dynasty. And the fear of that close-but-no-cigar stagnation continuing figures to leave both D’Antoni and Morey thinking of tweaks that would allow Houston to take the next step.
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