Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey’s departures from Houston cast a wave of uncertainty over the Rockets, signaling a potential hard pivot for the organization after a disappointing performance in Orlando.
The trade machine was fired up in order to concoct deals for James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and some assumed the Rockets would abandon their small-ball experiment altogether. We shouldn’t dismiss the seismic departures of D’Antoni and Morey, but the panic surrounding the franchise’s future feels premature. New general manager Rafael Stone and head coach Stephen Silas appear well suited to continue the James Harden era in a similar style as their predecessors.
Stone is a natural fit to follow Morey after working with the Rockets for over a decade. He’s had a front-row seat to Houston’s three-point revolution, and in recent years, he’s helped lead the push toward the Rockets’ small-ball scheme. Silas is a natural fit for the roster and GM he now inherits.
Houston’s new head coach isn’t a Rockets acolyte, previously logging 20 seasons as an assistant coach with five different organizations. Yet Silas’s most recent stop in Dallas provides a healthy amount of insight into his potential tendencies. The Mavericks led the NBA in offensive rating in 2019-20. Houston was the only team to hit more threes. Dallas ranked in the bottom half of the league in mid-range shot attempts, and they often appeared downright allergic to post-ups. Constructing an offense around James Harden could mirror what Silas and the Mavericks did for Luka Doncic.
There will be some tweaks from what we saw in the D’Antoni era, which ultimately could propel the Rockets past the wall they continue to hit in the Western Conference. Houston is likely to pursue a legitimate center in free agency or the trade market. Even if a marquee name doesn’t arrive, there needs to be at least some threat at the rim on both sides of the floor. Doncic thrived with Dwight Powell last season, and Harden’s connection with Clint Capela was lethal in previous years. The Harden isolation is perhaps the most dominant play in basketball, but stylistic diversity is important, especially in the postseason. Silas’s experience and schematic intelligence should free up even more space for perhaps the greatest scorer of his era.
Silas now overtakes an impressive roster, though an imperfect one at that. Harden’s co-star oscillates between brilliant and maddening—at times in the same game—and the size issues are glaring, especially over a full season. P.J. Tucker will turn 36 in the 2021 playoffs. Eric Gordon’s contract is likely an albatross after a dismal 2019-20, and a host of future picks belong to Oklahoma City. Consider the limited flexibility and the aging core, and Silas’s title window will start immediately and potentially close sooner than expected. For a franchise with two MVPs, the path through the next decade is surprisingly complicated.
The Rockets transformed their franchise over a decade ago when they brought in Morey, and he brought Houston to heights unseen this century with D’Antoni and Harden in tow. Both Houston’s coach and general manager tailored their roster and scheme to their leading man, wringing every bit of talent out of rosters that were at times overmatched. The Rockets brought Golden State to the brink in 2018. They were the biggest threat to the Warriors the following season, and Houston even gave the Lakers a brief scare in the bubble. The Rockets’ excellence in recent seasons is as much a credit to D’Antoni and Morey as it is to Harden. Assuming their replacements will meet that standard is far from a sure thing.
The challenge ahead of Silas and Stone is now clear, as are the franchise’s expectations. Owner Tilman Fertitta continues to view his team as a leading contender, and Houston pushed its proverbial chips to the middle in the Westbrook trade. 2020-21 marks the last year of Tucker’s deal barring an extension. Harden can opt out after the following season. An uncertain future waits for the franchise. For now, they’ve found their replacements for D’Antoni and Morey, each of whom will tweak the team rather than overhaul it. This remains a title contender considering the Rockets’ superstar ceiling. Perhaps Silas can be the piece to bring Houston to its first Finals since 1995.