The Houston Rockets’ 2019-20 season is over. Another year has gone and passed with the small-ball, (a.k.a microball) experiment going nowhere, and it didn’t matter that they bet all of their chips on the precious strategy. After all the hope it brought, James Harden, 31, and Russell Westbrook, turning 32 this November, are still ringless, and their primes are about to run its course.
As expected, questions are now being peppered around the franchise and the two superstars. They themselves probably have tons of concerns. They have to quickly know what they can do next, which area should they address first, and if they should keep banging their heads against the wall with microball.
Whatever it may be, there are four changes that should, at the very least, get some attention:
REPLACE MIKE D’ANTONI
Mike D’Antoni is a great coach. He is an offensive guru who can probably turn any point guard he likes into a productive facilitator, and maybe even a decent scorer as well. He can also squeeze a lot out of any shooter.
The problem, however, is his approach on defense – he has that classic, “The best defense is a great offense” mentality, which is really good when you’re hitting shots, but has a big downside since it will kill you fast when you can’t get quick buckets.
In D’Antoni’s four seasons with the team, the Rockets have only compiled one good defensive year – 2017-18, where they finished top 10 in points allowed and defensive efficiency. He and general manager Daryl Morey followed it up with letting their best defender, Trevor Ariza, go so they can sign the defensively-inept, but high-volume scorer Carmelo Anthony.
The Rockets will have plenty of choices in the coaching pool and ought to take a look at everyone: Kenny Atkinson, Billy Donovan, Tyronn Lue, Nate McMillian, just to name a few.
MDA is also in the final year of his contract.
TRADE RUSSELL WESTBROOK
This is seems unlikely because yes, the man is a beast, a speedster with an intimidating mean streak when he’s coming through the lane. It’s also hard to imagine the Rockets front office giving up on Russ after just one season. If they’re going to be honest, though, they’ll look straight at Westbrook for all the recurring mess.
In the regular season, Houston is -2.6 in offensive rating whenever Westbrook is on the floor, which is not exactly bad, except he’s a $230-million dollar man who’s supposed to make everyone better. The ugly numbers continued in the playoffs too as he’s at the very bottom of offensive and defensive ratings, and true shooting.
Also, look at how he performed facing elimination: 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting (2/6 FTs) in 36 minutes of play (-23 plus-minus). He had a similar line in Game 2.
GET A THIRD SCORER
It will be hard to shop Westbrook, a 32-year-old who has three years, $132 million left in his deal, so an alternative scenario is to find a third scorer by breaking up the supporting cast. The third guy could be someone who’s assertive and consistent enough to take some of the load off of Harden and/or Westbrook.
Eric Gordon showed that he had the capability to make his own shot, but wasn’t always consistent.
Gordon, Robert Covington, and Austin Rivers may be able to attract some teams who are looking for offense, especially since they’re also hardworking defenders too, particularly Covington.
PJ Tucker will be another good sell. He’s pretty solid on defense, has a relatively good outside shot and also possess a good amount of playoff experience. The most attractive of all, though, is his expiring contract in 2021.
END THE MICROBALL EXPERIMENT
It’s just not a good idea. They’re giving up too much height down low and relying too much on threes. Although they’ve shown that they can make the playoffs with the style of play, and maybe take a first round series, the Lakers showed how easy it can be dissected and defeated.
Small-ball is perfectly fine as the Warriors have built a dynasty out of it, but this microball experiment is just pushing it into unnecessary levels. Microball lives and dies by the three, with seemingly no regard for any defensive structure.
Hopefully, the Rockets dial down on microball, get some size on the rotation, and wash away the hero ball style that Harden and Westbrook have become accustomed to.
The Lakers showed that having a balanced roster that also has big men to rely on when needed (like Dwight Howard and JaVale Mcgee) works better in the long run. The versatility to counter other strategies is paramount, and microball provides little chance for that.