Daryl Morey's departure reinforces how cooked the Houston Rockets are as a contender

Do we think general manager Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni would tell the Houston Rockets, “Thanks, but no thanks,” if either believed there was a viable path to the NBA title in the near future?

Both had to have known the Rockets are cooked as a contender, and they leave them with little flexibility.

This Houston team was built to complement James Harden, playing a super small-ball style of play born from Morey’s brain and put into practice by D’Antoni, one of the great offensive minds in league history. Remove two sides of that triangle, and the roster construction collapses. That is their harsh reality now.

The Rockets still boast Harden, one of the greatest offensive talents of his generation, but the walls are crumbling around him. Houston has made the playoffs each year of Harden’s tenure, reaching Western Conference finals with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul as his star partner. Paul’s hamstring injury in 2018 cost the Rockets their best chance at a championship, but the relationship soured, and Morey pulled the trigger on a deal that stretched the odds of Harden winning a ring in Houston thinner than LaMelo Ball.

There is some question as to who bears most responsibility for trading Paul for Russell Westbrook. Based on everything we know, logic would suggest Morey and D’Antoni favored Paul, while Harden and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta pushed for Westbrook. According to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Fertitta called Paul’s contract “the worst he’d ever seen in business or sports.” Somehow, Fertitta is now saddled with a worse one, and it only cost his team two first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps to procure it.

Paul nearly ousted Harden and Westbrook in the first round with unheralded rookie Luguentz Dort as his most effective teammate in Game 7. The two years and $85.6 million remaining on Paul’s deal suddenly do not feel so cumbersome. They might even be trade-able to a team in need like the Philadelphia 76ers.

The three years, $132.6 million left on Westbrook’s contract looks every bit the burden it was when the Rockets traded for it. The former MVP’s game is not expected to age gracefully. He is a subpar shooter whose success is almost entirely predicated on explosive athleticism. His right knee has required a handful of surgical procedures since he originally tore his meniscus in 2013, and a left hamstring injury severely limited his effectiveness in this year’s five-game conference semifinal loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Rockets will bank on Westbrook’s 30 points (49.1 percent shooting), 8.2 rebounds and seven assists per game from the start of December to the suspension of the season in March. It was enough to earn the 31-year-old a ninth All-NBA nod. The Rockets were 27-18 during that span, owners of the West’s sixth-best record, and therein lies the problem. The ceiling for a Harden-Westbrook pairing is short of championship caliber, their hopes pinned to Houston’s shooters repeatedly catching lightning in a bottle.

Morey pushed all his chips in on the two former MVPs, trading 25-year-old starting center Clint Capela — a key component to the Rockets’ 2018 success — to open floor spacing closed by Westbrook’s inability to shoot. Likewise, Houston signed Eric Gordon to an extension that will pay him roughly $20 million in 2022-23. Plagued by injury, the 31-year-old scorer just submitted the least efficient season of his career.

The Rockets still have Robert Covington and Danuel House signed for the next two seasons and P.J. Tucker under contract for one more year. On paper, they are an intriguing collection of talent. In practice, they stood no chance against the Lakers, and we have no idea if incoming GM Rafael Stone and whomever he hires as the next coach will have the same philosophical ideals as Morey and D’Antoni.

The partnership between James Harden and Russell Westbrook hit its ceiling in the second round of the playoffs. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The partnership between James Harden and Russell Westbrook hit its ceiling in the second round of the playoffs. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Changes could be coming, but what changes are even realistic at this point? Houston’s draft assets are almost barren. The Rockets owe this year’s first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets, and the Oklahoma City Thunder control their first-rounders in four of the following six years (two of them are pick swaps). Even if the New York Knicks might be interested in Westbrook, as SNY’s Ian Begley reported, neither his contract nor Gordon’s will fetch anything close to equal value, at least not that can help Harden win now.

At some point, the Rockets will have to consider dealing Harden while he still holds significant value. He is not the easiest superstar to trade, because he is so entrenched in a system built around him. The fits as his co-star are few, and it is even more difficult to plug him into an ensemble cast. An entire roster has to be constructed in Harden’s image. Deals that may make sense for both sides are few and far between.

Would the Minnesota Timberwolves, helmed by former Rockets executive Gerrson Rosas, package this year’s No. 1 pick to pair Harden with Karl-Anthony Towns? Would Houston want the pick in a down draft?

Would the Denver Nuggets deal Jamal Murray for Harden? Or the Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons?

Would the New Orleans Pelicans swap Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and picks to partner Harden with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram? In any scenario, Westbrook would have to go, too. Probably Covington and Tucker as well. Maybe that is the best path forward for Houston, if a championship is the end goal. Blow it up, save the money now, and work toward acquiring a star duo that is not outside the top five.

Fertitta may be fine fielding a playoff team with a hard ceiling for the foreseeable future, what with his restaurant and casino empire hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but this is a team that needs to be torn down before it is built into a contender again. Morey and D’Antoni surely saw the writing on the wall.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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