Russell Westbrook Wants Out But That’s Just The Beginning of Houston’s Problems

I feel like I have wrote this in each of the past two Houston Rockets off-seasons, but Houston has massive problems.

Just two months after the fractured departure of former Head Coach Mike D’Antoni and a month since former General Manager Daryl Morey shockingly walked away to join the Philadelphia 76ers, the Rockets core continues to fall apart.

One-time MVP and nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook has made it clear he wants out of Houston, just one season into the extreme small ball experiment alongside his friend James Harden.

Westbrook has informed team officials that he has been uneasy about the team’s accountability and culture, and wants to join a team where he can have a role similar to his prior, floor-general role in Oklahoma City.

Westbrook, sources say, has made it known for quite some time now that he would like to see significant changes to the Rockets’ culture. Specifically, his desire for more team-wide accountability, discipline and structure have been the focus of talks with team officials. Throughout the season, Westbrook was the consistent presence who kept Harden accountable and the two close friends had several verbal exchanges that sources described as “tense, but needed.”

Westbrook, who has three years and $132 million remaining on his deal, is seeking a new team, but it won’t be an easy transition to work out. His massive deal and slight decline in performance year after year will make any trade a difficult process.

Having a star player wanting out, just one year into his tenure, seems like it would be the largest issue the team is facing, but it is not.

In the same report that broke the news about Westbrook wanting out, had multiple core players for the Rockets being unhappy and frustrated with the team.

But how did a team on the cusp of a championship end up splintering into a toxic culture?

For years, the dynamic that existed between Harden, D’Antoni, and Morey was inclusive, transparent, and quite successful. The ultimate goal of winning a championship wasn’t achieved, but it would be a farce to declare that the past few years had been a complete failure.

Harden became an MVP and perennial All-NBA player. The team that won a franchise-record 65 games in the 2017-18 season would have been Finals-bound during that storied season if not for the infamous streak of 27 consecutive missed 3s against Golden State in Game 7 of the West Finals. Still, they were seen as legitimate contenders during these past few seasons.

There had always been whispers of unhappiness and tension, but it had always been kept under wraps with the core of Morey-D’Antoni-Harden. But the removal of these key components — D’Antoni departing for an assistant coaching position in Brooklyn and Morey becoming president of basketball operations in Philadelphia, you can see the shield crumbling.

With a new Head Coach and General Manager, it is now in question if the Rockets are actually capable of winning it all. As it pertains to both Harden and Westbrook, there is concern about the direction the team is heading in, specifically worried that the team may prefer a rebuild sooner rather than later, sources said.

With both stars still in the prime of their careers and the championship window that was once wide open now shut considerably, the idea of a rebuild quickly approaching is a huge turnoff.

Truth be told, this Westbrook development is merely the latest challenge in what has been a trying time for the Rockets. And he’s hardly the only player who has been struggling with frustration.

The pressures of winning a championship, fighting against a slew of healthy competition and their own career clocks, so to speak, resulted in a season that showed a lack of cohesion.

It was an uphill battle getting everyone on the same page at times, stemming from core issues facing key players. The 2017-18 season in which the franchise won 65 games saw a roster adopt a team-first mentality, but there has been a steady distancing from that, sources said.

For starters, P.J. Tucker, the undeniable glue of the team, has been irate over his contract situation all season long. Tucker, who signed for around $8 million a season back in 2017, has seen other ‘Three-and-D’ wings around the league receive paydays in less important situations than a key starter for a contender and believes he is worthy of a raise, sources said.

And to Tucker’s credit, he has been asked to do more than just about any player in his position in recent years. Standing 6’5″, Tucker had the unattainable task of stopping Anthony Davis over the course of a 7 game series, while having to hit 45% of his corner 3 point attempts. If you lose Tucker in the locker room, kiss any chance at a title run goodbye.

Eric Gordon, who won Sixth Man of the Year in 2017, endured a difficult season from an injury standpoint, but was also not pleased with how his role and importance had diminished since the 2016-17 season, sources said. The Rockets haven’t been consistent with how they’ve used Gordon, at times being a bonafide scoring option and other times an expensive catch-and-shoot option.

Gordon’s injures coupled with Danuel House’s rise has only heighten Gordon’s concern of his role going forward. The question of whether Danuel House or Gordon should start has been a talking point for two seasons, and it is getting too Gordon. The former 6th Man has stated on multiple occasions that he is not interested in coming off the bench at this stage of his career.

As we discuss Gordon’s frustration, we also have to mention House’s. He wasn’t pleased with his usage and involvement in the offense and has verbally challenged D’Antoni, Harden and Westbrook throughout the season. His January outburst in a road win against the Hawks was the first instance where House publicly lost his cool in that manner but this wasn’t an isolated incident.

Austin Rivers, who recently stated on “The Ringer NBA Show” that he would be declining his player option for 2020-21, also experienced a frustrating season. At times, Rivers was unhappy with his inconsistent playing time and utilization.

Rivers was barked at by Harden after the former MVP missed a free throw and blamed Rivers — who was standing up by the bench — for distracting him.

A large chunk of the angst, however, stems from a lack of accountability, sources said. During the January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates.

In a nut shell, that instance of Harden not accepting criticism and being accountable is how we needed up where we are. Look across every championship team and you will find that the best player welcomes needed criticism and is held accountable.

Former teammates have described the culture in Houston as problematic. One example cited was the case of Trevor Ariza, who left the team in 2018 in search of more money, but also more respect. The Rockets attempted to bring him back down the line but Ariza was seeking a verbal apology in which he never got. Former teammates also questioned why players like Clint Capela and Chris Paul were traded.

There have also been complaints about the team’s style of play, both from former and current players on the team, sources said. Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals was the highlight of such complaints, with the team missing 27 straight 3-pointers and not adjusting or incorporating any other offensive strategy.

So What Now?

The accelerated nature of what has been a unique season and offseason only puts Houston in a tighter spot. Westbrook’s addition fundamentally changed how the Rockets operated from a schematic standpoint, being so committed to him that the team sent young center Capela away to afford Westbrook more space to operate.

Westbrook has essentially thrown his chips to the center of the table and wants a resolution before next season, but what direction would Houston go in? More importantly, what does Coach Silas want to do? Do they revert to the 2016-17 method, using Harden as the primary ballhandler, the season where he led the league in assists? Or do they scour the league for a suitable guard who can play next to Harden and still give the Rockets an elite 1-2 punch?

Do the Rockets seek out a Westbrook for Jrue Holiday swap? Unload Westbrook for picks and salary cap relief? Or blow up the whole roster and rebuild around Harden, much like the pre Chris Paul experiment?

Only time will tell but whichever route they take will alter the trajectory of the franchise.

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