The Houston Rockets have run out of excuses. When they lost to the Warriors in 2015, it was an achievement to even reach the conference finals with Dwight Howard as their second option, after coming back from down 3-1 against the Clippers. When they lost to the Warriors in 2016, there was a 32-win discrepancy between the two teams. Last season, it was more complicated. The Rockets went up 3-2 on a mostly healthy Golden State team but dropped the final two games after losing star point guard Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. It’s hard to imagine they would have lost both games with Paul on the floor.
This time around, the Rockets have no answers. They took the Warriors to six games, rather than seven, getting only as far as the eighth-seeded Clippers did in Golden State's previous series. Houston faltered down the stretch in Game 5 despite an injury that knocked Warriors’ star Kevin Durant out for the game, and the Rockets again fell apart in Game 6, also with Durant out, and this time at home. If James Harden and this edition of the Rockets were going to a win a championship, this was the opportunity to get over the hump. Now that it hasn’t happened, the future looks murkier than ever.
Barring something totally unexpected, Houston will remain a competitive playoff team for the immediate future. Harden, the reigning MVP, is not going anywhere. He does, however, turn 30 in August. Chris Paul is of more concern for the franchise. Paul will turn 35 around this time next year, and he’s only one year into a massive four-year, $160 million contract. Equally as problematic as the contract is Paul’s recent performance. The nine-time all-star fell off on the offensive end this past season, averaging a career-low 15.6 points/game while shooting a career-worst 41.9% from the field. Additionally, Paul has missed at least 20 games in each of the last three seasons. The veteran still makes a major impact all over the floor; his assists ticked up this past season, and the Rockets went just 14-10 without him. Even so, the offensive decline was a reason Houston couldn’t play at the same level as a year ago and presumably isn’t going to get any better as the years roll on. Paul’s contract, which pays him $40 million per year for the next three seasons, essentially renders him unable to be traded, unless the Rockets were to land a similar contract in return.
For better or worse, the Harden-Paul duo will remain in place going forward, as will top big man Clint Capela, who re-signed on a lucrative five-year contract last July. But, the Rockets’ goal is not to just reach the playoffs. They have been there and done that, reaching the playoffs in each of Harden’s seven seasons but falling short of the NBA Finals each and every time. General manager Daryl Morey is hungry for a championship, but even he might be running out of options after years of bold moves.
Harden and Paul will make a combined $76.3 million during the 2019-20 season, more than $11M higher than their combined 2018-19 salary. For now, that makes them the highest paid duo in the NBA next season, even ahead of Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Oklahoma City. Capela is due to make nearly $16 million, while the final year of Eric Gordon’s contract adds another $14 million to the books for 2019-20. Those four contracts make it virtually impossible for Morey to add another star, which might be necessary to compete for a title, even if Gordon were to be traded. That is, unless the Rockets are content with running a four-man team onto the floor every night. There is no relief in sight beyond 2019-20, with Harden’s salary increasing to $40.8 million in 2020-21, $43.8 million in 2021-22, and $46.9 million in 2022-23. Paul’s salary will be $41.4 million and $44.2 million, respectively, in the final two years of his contract. Capela’s contract is also on the books for four more seasons.
As the salary cap increases, so do the Rockets’ commitments. Beyond Morey finding a gem through the draft or a trade, there is no way out of this playoff purgatory. One calming thought for the Warriors as they face Kevin Durant’s potential exit in July might be that the Western Conference teams who are perhaps one player away from title contention - the Rockets and Trail Blazers in mind - are largely stuck with what they have. Daryl Morey forever changed the Rockets as a franchise when he stole James Harden from the Thunder nearly seven years ago, but the defining test of his career might be how he can take his team that one step further with the odds stacked heavily against him.