The Whiteboard: Are the Houston Rockets ready to start over?

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Every Rockets’ playoff exit over the last few years has come with rumblings about the future, about just how much rope Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni have, about just how far the Rockets are willing to explore their outlier path. And every year, they seem to sprint forward, sizing up the entirety of their chips that have been pushed to the center of the table and somehow finding a few more in their pockets to add to the pile.

Until this year.

The Rockets are still in the middle of their search for a new head coach and yesterday longtime general manager Daryl Morey announced he was stepping aside. Ostensibly, both of men left on their own. D’Antoni passed up a one-year extension before the beginning of this season and he announced he was parting ways with the team instead of pushing for a new deal when his expired a few weeks ago. Morey, similarly, made the decision for himself but it’s likely both saw the writing on the wall (I’m picturing floor-to-ceiling letters, screaming GET OUT, hand-scrawled in red paint made to look like blood).

Morey’s influence on the Rockets is usually, and reductively, described as “Moar 3s” and it’s true that the Rockets’ outlier shot-selection has been the team’s most defining feature over the past few years. But Morey had been the Rockets’ general manager since 2007. He acquired James Harden and Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, taking big swings at big stars that didn’t always result in home runs. But he also was incredibly successful on the margins, helping finding value plays in the draft, in free agency and trades — players like Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry, Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, Chandler Parsons. And helping to design systems that got the most out of more limited role players like P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Patrick Beverley.

What’s next for the Houston Rockets?

Morey’s influence has helped shape the roster, the on-court style of play and the organizational approach. The question now is which of those things will start changing first and how they affect the others.

Rafael Stone, previously Executive Vice President for Basketball Operations, will be taking over GM duties from Morey. Stone has been with the team since 2005, a tenure that predates even Morey’s (although he began as the team’s general counsel and gradually moved into roles on the basketball operations side). Eli Witus, who has been with the team in 2008, beginning as a statistical analyst, will be promoted from Vice President of Basketball Operations to fill Stone’s old role. All that is to say the new front office is very much the same as the old front office, with long time colleagues of Morey’s simply moving up a chair. It seems likely that rationality and evidence-based decision-making will continue to be huge parts of how Houston does business.

However, owner Tillman Fertitta is the wildcard. Rumors are that he pushed for the Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade (largely for financial reasons) and he could be an impetus for change. A new coach may not be comfortable rolling the ball out with the way the Rockets have played the past two years and even these front office holdovers may recognize it’s time to try something new. The roster has been so heavily tweaked for the small ball approach D’Antoni and Morey advocated for that it’s hard to imagine them playing differently and as well, without some big moves.

Trading Harden or Westbrook remains highly unlikely but not impossible and would imply that a huge transformation is underway. Both players have one more year on their contracts and then a player option for 2021-22 (which will almost certainly by picked up) so maybe the Rockets just start a slow movement for change now, looking at a timeline at least two years long.

The first dominos have fallen and the next big signal will be the coaching hire. Considering the timing of Morey’s announcement it’s possible that there was some internal disagreement about that decision, but honestly, who knows? Whoever that hire is will tell us a lot about how aggressive the Rockets might be this summer in changing their roster and rebuilding their offensive and defensive systems for next season.

The Rockets might not be ready to start over just yet, but they’re clearly starting something new.

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