It’s not unusual, here in the depths of the NBA season, for a team to slip into some mid-winter doldrums. For the Rockets, though, those doldrums come weeks ahead of the league’s trade deadline, which was likely to be a tense time for the team even when things were going well.
Houston’s last few games have not gone well, including their 10-point loss to Portland at home on Wednesday night. In that game, the Blazers handcuffed James Harden with double-teams, allowing him just 13 points on 3-for-12 shooting, while keeping Houston to 39.6 percent shooting. Adding some insult to that injury, Rockets castoff Carmelo Anthony shot 7-for-10 from the field, scoring 18 points with 12 rebounds.
After the game, coach Mike D’Antoni held an extended meeting with his team before addressing the media. The Rockets have lost three of four games and have not been very cohesive in doing so. Houston has been outrebounded, 49-47 in that stretch and has committed far more turnovers (14.8 to 11.3). Opponents have been shooting 45.1 percent to just 43.2 percent for the Rockets.
When he finally spoke to reporters, D’Antoni didn’t overreact.
“Every ship gets rocked sometimes,” he said in his press conference. “We’re getting rocked right now. Two weeks ago, if you asked, we were in a great place. It’s that delicate of a thing. You have to be careful. But we have veterans that will right the ship.”
Harden said the postgame chat might have been useful in that it helped players unburden themselves of some of their complaints.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of different emotions,” Harden told reporters, per the Houston Chronicle. “Everybody’s their own person. They feel some type of way about whatever is going on. So, you speak about it, get it off your chest.”
Rockets Examining Limited Trade Options
With just three weeks to go until the trade deadline, the Rockets have been very active in searching ways to add depth to a decidedly thin roster. And considering the difficulties Harden has had when facing committed double-teams from opposing defenses, Houston needs more help relieving the scoring burden from Harden.
But the Rockets are hamstrung by a lack of assets. They can’t move Harden or guard Eric Gordon and are unlikely to get fair value back for Clint Capela or P.J. Tucker. They could move Nene’s contract, which has the benefit of not being guaranteed after February 15—ideal for a team looking to save some money—but the Rockets also have their own luxury-tax issues to worry about.
Houston is about $300,000 over the luxury-tax line and needs to pare a bit off to remain out of tax territory.
The rest of the roster consists of players on mostly small contracts, from $3.5 million for Danuel House through seven contracts ranging from $1.4 million to $2.5 million. That makes it difficult for the Rockets to package together deals and match salaries for incoming players without involving a third team. It also means they’re much more likely to fill holes in the roster on the buyout market rather than through trades.
Russell Westbrook Deal Unlikely
Of course, the Rockets do have one other contract that could be dealt, but it is a mammoth and would require an upheaval of the team’s current structure: Russell Westbrook, who makes $38 million this year and is still owed $130 million over the coming three years.
There was some chatter, mostly unsubstantiated, that the Rockets would be willing to trade Westbrook who, at times, has struggled to fit in with Harden. But those struggles have softened lately and in his last 15 games, Westbrook has averaged 28.6 points on 47.0 percent shooting, with 7.1 assists and 7.5 rebounds.
Westbrook’s contract would be extremely difficult to move and making a deal to send him elsewhere would go against the driving philosophy of general manager Daryl Morey, who has long sought to consolidate assets to bring in star players rather than sending out stars to add depth.
Still, the Rockets have not been right lately. With the trade deadline looming, they’ll be looking to make changes for certain. Just how big those changes wind up being, though, is uncertain.