It didn’t take long for the Wrecking Ball of Consequence to come swinging into the Houston Rockets’ living room. On Sunday, less than 24 hours after the club’s season-ending defeat to the Lakers, coach Mike D’Antoni announced he wouldn’t be coming back next season.
The move was widely expected, given the tone and tenor of the reports that had piled up dating back to last year, but it might be more noteworthy than a typical resignation. The 2017 Coach of the Year was perhaps more intertwined with his team’s playing style than any other coach in the league.
All of which raises two key questions in Houston: What comes next for the Rockets? And is it worth it to consider dealing away superstar James Harden?
The club had already put some massive changes in the works over the past year or so that would make a teardown or on-the-fly rebuild more challenging than it would otherwise be. Maybe sensing the need to push all its chips in, Houston dealt Clint Capela and its 2020 first-round pick to acquire stud wing Robert Covington, who allowed the Rockets to fully embrace a terrorizing small-ball lineup, with ample switchability and perimeter shooting.
But there’s a more significant element making it tough to just hit reset on everything: the guy who more or less can’t shoot from distance, who the Rockets went all in on last summer.
Yes, we’re talking about onetime MVP Russell Westbrook, for whom the Rockets surrendered two first-round picks, a pair of pick swaps and an apparently rejuvenated Chris Paul. Houston also gets to take on the next three years of the soon-to-be 32-year-old’s deal, which pays $41 million, $44 million and $47 million. (Also trouble, albeit on a smaller scale: Swingman Eric Gordon, who’s 31 and coming off an injury-hobbled season, is set to make $17 million, $18 million, $20 million and $21 million over the next four years.)
Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 just before the NBA restart, then injured his quad and missed the first chunk of his club’s first-round series. So yes, there were circumstances that hindered his ability this postseason. But let’s not pretend that there isn’t a much larger, more concerning trend at play here.
Westbrook’s playoff numbers have been troubling for a while — we wrote about them last year, too. His lack of a reliable jumper from beyond midrange allows defenses to back away from him, daring him to shoot. For a sub-30 percent shooter from three, he’s taken the bait too often. The guard’s playoff win-share production rate per 48 minutes was cut in half three years in a row and is now underwater: from .208 in 2016, to .103 in 2017, to .052 in 2018, to .026 in 2019 to -0.04 now.
Westbrook did have shining moments during the regular season, just before the pandemic hit. For almost two months, from a few weeks before the team dealt Capela to a few weeks after it had fully leaned into that short-ball style, Westbrook was fantastic. He averaged almost 33 points per game on 53 percent shooting, taking full advantage of the abundance of space with which he had to operate. During that stretch, there was an unmistakable reduction in the number of 3-point…