Is the 2019-20 season championship or bust for the Houston Rockets?

PJ Tucker #17 and Eric Gordon #10 help up James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
PJ Tucker #17 and Eric Gordon #10 help up James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Should the Houston Rockets’ front office decide to break up roster if they fail to reach their goal of winning a championship next season?

The Houston Rockets haven’t been shy about their pursuit of an NBA championship. Of course, every team in the league wants to win a chip, but Houston is one of the handful of teams that is willing to take the risks necessary to actually get it done.

Back in the summer of 2016, Kevin Durant‘s decision to take his talents to the Bay Area sent shock waves throughout the NBA. The Warriors won 67 games in the 2016-17 season, the most in the NBA. In the postseason, they swept their first three opponents and out dueled the Cavaliers, who still had mostly the same core from their 2016 championship team, in just five games to win the 2017 NBA title. The Warriors finished the postseason 16-1, dominating their opponents at a level the league hadn’t previously seen since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers.

With an impending dynasty forming in Oakland, many managers around the league seemed content to hang around until the Warriors couldn’t afford to keep all of their stars together or until Father Time caught up to their core.

The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, went all in and traded away a large portion of their team for star point guard Chris Paul. They also picked up forwards P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute in the  offseason, and Houston’s beefed up roster proceeded to win a franchise-record 65 games in the 2017-18 season. They managed to take the Warriors to seven games in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, but Chris Paul’s hamstring injury limited Houston in more ways than they could manage against the mighty Warriors.

Injuries also played a large role in Houston’s slow start to the 2018-19 season, but James Harden‘s heroics got the team back on track and the Rockets were red-hot heading into the playoffs. Unfortunately, Houston’s slow start to the season caused them to finish as the fourth seed, and they ran into the Warriors in the second round, where they lost in six games this time around.

With the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths following a very disappointing season, the Rockets knew they had to add new life to an older core. Daryl Morey made a deal with the Thunder and essentially swapped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, extending Houston’s championship window by a few years.

While the Houston Rockets will look much different at the point guard position, most of the team’s core from last season will return and the team’s goal still remains the same. This season, the Rockets won’t be aiming to take down the Warriors at the top of the hill, however, they now have to contend with multiple teams in the Western Conference. The Lakers and Clippers are the obvious challengers, but the Utah Jazz also look significantly better on paper, and they could really take a jump if Donovan Mitchell can take his game to the next level.

Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker and James Harden have been together for a few years now, and you have to wonder how many times this group can strike out in the postseason before the Rockets start to consider their options.

If Houston comes up short of winning a championship or at least making the Finals next year, everyone is going to be looking for a place to lay the blame. Houston’s slow start last year made Carmelo Anthony the scapegoat, and their struggles against a Kevin Durant-less Warriors in the most recent postseason made trading Chris Paul for a younger, more athletic point guard an easy decision.

If the Rockets come up short again next year, who will get the blame? Barring some sort of catastrophic collapse from one of Houston’s star players, my guess is that Mike D’Antoni will get most of the criticism.

The top three teams in the west, which is Houston and the two teams in Los Angeles, are fairly even talent wise. For that reason, along with the fact that Harden and Westbrook still have a lot left in the tank, I can’t see Houston trading away either of their superstars after next season if they fail to win a championship.

However, many media analysts think Mike D’Antoni’s style of basketball can’t win championships, which is a stigma he’s had since his days coaching the Phoenix Suns in the Steve Nash era. Not to mention, he’s not a coach who excels at making adjustments over the course of a playoff series, which can definitely keep a team from succeeding.

The Houston Rockets fired D’Antoni’s coaching staff after last season’s playoff exit. If the Rockets have a similar end in 2020, you’d have to assume that D’Antoni’s head will be the first to roll. This upcoming season isn’t championship or bust for Houston’s core players, but I think it is for Houston’s head coach.

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That’s just the way it works in the NBA. Very talented teams win championships because of their star players, and very talented teams don’t win championships in large part due to an inept coach. Of course, that isn’t always exactly the case, but perception is reality, and that’s the viewpoint of most around the league.