Houston Rockets in Need of A Culture Shift

By Salman Ali on May 12, 2016

The Houston Rockets are a very good NBA franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors are great NBA franchises.

What separates the Houston Rockets from consistently being in the same breath of these great organizations is not ownership, it's not front office management, and it's not facilities. It's culture.

Now, culture is a vague term that is often misused so let's try and define it as best we can.

These organizations not only demand excellence from front office on down to the video coordinator, they expect it. There's a certain level of professionalism, leadership, togetherness, and understanding of the ultimate goal that's extremely difficult to cultivate. It can only be crafted through years of excellence, work ethic, player development, and a human element that is missing from the Rockets.

If you ask a hundred different people what made the Rockets go from the Western Conference Finals to barely making the playoffs and getting ousted in the 1st round, you're likely to get a hundred different answers. That's because there is no one clear answer. It was a bunch of little things that led to one collective regression. This included a lack of a leadership structure, individual player regression, professionalism, being unprepared to start the season, lack of effort, and overall ineptitude. While recognizing that the Rockets are still a very good NBA franchise, we can still admit that these things don't exist in a self-proclaimed tier-one organization.

Even if you're of the opinion that the Rockets probably overachieved the previous year and did not have the requisite talent to compete (a notion I subscribe to), we can still come to the agreement that the team should have probably still performed better than they did. The lack of culture still exists.

Building that culture in an offseason can be difficult, but fortunately for the Rockets, they have the years of excellence part on their side. Ever since Leslie Alexander bought the team, the Rockets have been a winning franchise - this is an undeniable fact. As Daryl Morey always likes to let it be known, the Rockets "have the 3rd best record in the entire NBA over the last 10 years". This is something you can sell to your players, future free agents, and whoever the new head coach will be. The standards have been laid out, but the culture still has to be established.

The biggest key to establishing a proper winning culture is getting the head coach right. The organizations I listed all have excellent top-of-the-line coaches in Gregg Popovich (San Antonio), Eric Spoelstra (Miami), Rick Carlisle (Dallas), Brad Stevens (Boston), and Steve Kerr (Golden State).

The head coach is the man that keeps all the players in check and sets out the standard of hard work, effort, defense (as all of these teams emphasize), player development, structure, and discipline that is needed to succeed in the NBA. He also, more importantly, can connect and build a trust with the star of the team.

Popovich's relationship with Tim Duncan is iconic, the same could be said with Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, Dwyane Wade with Eric Spoelstra, and Steve Kerr with Steph Curry. This relationship is essential because the head coach is often the person that can best get through to the best player and there needs to be mutual trust between the two for success to be achieved

The Rockets haven't had such a coach in quite a long time - arguably since Jeff Van Gundy.

This is why it's so important that Daryl Morey and Leslie Alexander get this coaching search right. It's one of the two largest hurdles holding the franchise back from building a winning culture.

The second hurdle is James Harden.

It's possible to critic James Harden while acknowledging that he isn't the only problem with this team. However, it's fair to say that everything falls back on him. That's something that holds true even today. The best player has to catch a certain amount of the flack.

It's not a good look for a professional athlete to come into training camp out of shape.

This is true of athletes of all statures - from superstars like Harden to role players like Jason Terry. That's just something you cannot do. You are a professional athlete and to impede your ability to perform at your craft is deemed to be unprofessional. It also sends the wrong message to the players you're setting out to lead everyday.

It's not a good look for a professional athlete to not give near his full effort 100% of the time he or she is out on the field/court.

It's not acceptable to have your best player taking plays off on the defensive end of the floor. When your teammates are giving their full defensive effort, you have to return the favor. They shouldn't have to make up for your shortcomings, especially when your shortcomings are late rotations because you were ball-watching or trying to jab at the ball instead of staying with your man.

You have to be engaged at all times when you're out on the floor and when you aren't, your teammates start to lose trust in you and you enable them to stop trying and caring as well.

That's bad leadership.

Although a lot of players go out, the days of partying and celebrating should be behind James Harden. I'm in no position to tell a player what he should and shouldn't do in his free time, but it's got to be clear to Harden by now that he's in the prime of his career and has to take his profession just a little more seriously. When you're 26 and your team's in the position it's in, it's time to grow up and calm down a little bit with the partying. There shouldn't be a reason to party.

The problems may not all be James Harden, but they start with Harden because he is the best player and leader of this basketball team. For the culture of the franchise to be anywhere near the Spurs or the Warriors, it all starts with James.

He has to be 2014-15 James Harden, not next year, but for the rest of his career (or at least his prime). He can't show up the training camp out of shape, he can't take plays off on defense, and he has to set a better example and lead this team into a new era of Rockets basketball - where accountability isn't just encouraged, it's expected.

The front office has a lot of work to do to turn this mess around and build back up a winning culture, but so does the team's star shooting guard and it's going to be interesting to see how all of these dynamics play out over the summer.

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