I’m sure you’ve all heard of Sisyphus, the former king from Greek mythology. Okay, maybe you haven’t, but his eternal punishment should sound familiar. For his misdeeds, Sisyphus was tasked to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down once he neared the top, for all eternity. That’s probably an accurate description of how Daryl Morey and the rest of the Houston Rockets feel right now.
For the past three years, they’ve relentlessly pursued one goal, and one goal only: beating the Golden State Warriors. Every time they get close, the boulder rolls back down the hill in some way. Last year, it was 27 straight missed threes. This year, it was Steph Curry going off for 33 second-half points without Kevin Durant. Morey has created a team with a perfect fulcrum in James Harden capable of hanging with anyone offensively and have just enough wings to survive defensively. But it all came crashing down in the playoffs once more, and the Rockets need to ask themselves where they go from here.
With Harden, Clint Capela, and Chris Paul all signed to big contracts, they have zero cap space other than a $5.7 million tax payer’s exemption to improve their team. They have no draft picks this season and have no contracts slated to come off the books in time to make a move. Even if Durant does leave the Warriors this offseason, it’s no guarantee that a core of Harden/Paul/Capela is good enough to beat just Curry and Klay Thompson. Harden was as good as he’s ever been this season, yet the ghosts of playoff exits past still linger. He put up great numbers in Game 6, but was responsible for two back-breaking turnovers in the last two minutes. He puts up MVP numbers in the regular season, but the sheer weight of his offensive load slows him down when the stakes are highest.
What do you do if you’re the Rockets? Harden is clearly a top-five player, but hasn’t shown the extra gear needed to take his team to a championship level. Paul’s contract is nigh untradeable and will pay him $44 million when he’s 36. Capela makes less money than him or Harden and still has room to grow as a player; trading him would grant cap relief, but would also take away their only young talent and potential wild card.
Completely blowing it up isn’t an option. Keeping the team as is doesn’t seem tenable, either. The only way for a capped-out team to get better is through hitting draft picks and finding role players on the margins of the league, similar to how they found P.J. Tucker a few years ago. The Rockets have no draft picks and don’t have enough money to outbid anyone pursuing free agents. Houston certainly can’t expect Harden to be better than he already is. Morey is one of the best GMs in this league, but he’s faced with a series of choices this offseason that will define his legacy and potentially alter the championship landscape of the NBA.