Life was pretty good if you were a Houston sports fan in the summer of 2019.
The Houston Astros were rolling during the 2019 baseball season, a year that would end in a World Series appearance against the Washington Nationals.
The Houston Texans were coming off an impressive 2018 campaign that saw them win the AFC South, and were preparing for the 2019 regular season. That campaign would eventually lead to a second straight division title, and end with a valiant effort against the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs.
Then, the Houston Rockets were making some noise in the NBA offseason, plain and simple. They already possessed a former league MVP in James Harden, but had fallen short against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals a few months prior.
So, they did what any team looking to shift from a fringe squad into a true contender would do: they made a splash and got themselves another superstar.
That superstar was none other than Russell Westbrook, an eight-time All-Star at the time and a former league MVP in his own right, who had turned into the last remaining member of what many thought would be a dynasty with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook was traded to the Rockets on July 11, 2019, reuniting him with his former Thunder teammate Harden, and seemingly turning Houston into one of a few teams to beat in the Western Conference.
The Golden State Warriors had lost Kevin Durant to free agency and Klay Thompson to injury, so they were out of the running. The Los Angeles Lakers hadn’t played a game with Anthony Davis in their lineup yet, and no one truly knew how he and LeBron James would coexist in Hollywood.
Players like Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray weren’t game-changing superstars yet, but rather up-and-coming stars that were starting to positively impact their respect franchises.
If the Rockets were going to go for it, the opportunity was there.
Then, everything fell apart. And by everything, we mean everything.
Yes, the Astros went on to the World Series that October. But, they lost in seven games, and a massive cheating scandal followed shortly thereafter, rocking the organization to its core. Manager A.J. Hinch was fired, and the Astros turned from a lovable and talented team into every MLB team’s biggest rival.
Yes, the Texans went on to win the AFC South for the second straight season. But, they blew a 24-0 lead against the Chiefs on the road, and wound up losing 51-31 after a 51-7 run from Patrick Mahomes and company. They lost their chance to compete in the AFC Championship game, and the franchise was never the same again (we’ll get into that more later).
And yes, the Rockets went on to make the playoffs, even in a season postponed and shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, things never seemed to click properly between Harden and Westbrook offensively. They lost against the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals in five games, and fell in four straight after taking a 1-0 series lead.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, things got worse. A city full of sports superstars and perennial MVP contenders quickly turned into a place where no one wanted to be or play.
In March of 2020, the Texans traded superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
Hopkins himself had been selected with the 27th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, and had even increased in value in his first six years with the team. After the trade, however, he revealed a lack of a relationship between him and then-Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, and essentially forced his way out of the city by asking for a pay raise.
“There was no relationship,” Hopkins said. “Make sure you put that in there. There’s not a lot to speak about.”
Nine months later, another superstar got his wish when it came to getting the ol’ heave-ho out of Houston, and the situation was shockingly centered around a player who had only been around for a little more than a year.
Reportedly disagreeing with the direction of the Rockets, Westbrook requested a trade in an effort to take his talents elsewhere, and got exactly what he wanted.
In December of 2020, the Rockets dealt Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in a trade involving star point guard John Wall, ending the Harden-Westbrook era just 15 months after it began.
A month later, after reports initially indicated that Harden wanted to stick things out with the Rockets and see how it went, the situation quickly turned sour there, as well.
During a postgame press conference in the second week of January, Harden shared his feelings in a message that ultimately turned out to be his final goodbye as a member of the Rockets.
“I love this city. I’ve literally done everything I can,” Harden said. “This situation is crazy. It’s something I don’t think can be fixed. Thanks.”
He didn’t take part in the team’s practice the following day, and less than 12 hours later, he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster deal. A month after one of his former Thunder teammates left the Rockets, Harden was reunited with another in Kevin Durant, and fellow Nets superstar Kyrie Irving.
People like to say that bad things come in threes. In this case, that trio just happened to include three of sports’ biggest names across numerous sports. So, it you would think Houston’s fans were in the clear, right?
Amid all of the Harden drama, rumors began to swirl around the Texans’ equivalent to the former MVP: quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The 12th overall pick in a loaded 2017 NFL Draft, Watson has emerged as one of the league’s stars under center in his first four seasons, and led the Texans to two AFC South titles in that same span.
But, after that playoff game against the Chiefs, everything changed. The Texans traded away Watson’s best target when they dealt Hopkins to the Cardinals. The franchise fired O’Brien, the only NFL head coach Watson had ever known, midway into the 2020 regular season.
Then, when the organization began to work on its future and looked for its new general manager and head coach, Watson reportedly became frustrated because of the lack of input he had on the franchise’s big decisions. As a result, reports indicated that he may ask to be traded.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter said on January 10 that “after Houston traded Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last off-season, Deshaun Watson’s anger level was “a 2….This time, it’s a 10.”
That thought was seemingly confirmed by Watson himself, who later went to Twitter on January 15 and wrote “I was on 2 then I took it to 10.”
“If I’m @deshaunwatson I will stand my ground,” Johnson tweeted. “The Texans organization is known for wasting players careers. Since Jack Easterby has walk into the building nothing good has happened in/for the organization and for some reason someone can’t seem to see what’s going on. Pathetic!!!”
So, what led to all of these angry superstars? What changed Houston from a true superstar hub to a massive flub?
The respective situations for the Rockets and Texans are actually quite similar, specifically related to leadership changes and issues on both fronts.
Back on October 15 in 2020, the Rockets had general manager Daryl Morey resign from his post in the team’s front office. A little over two weeks later, the franchise hired Stephen Silas to be their new head coach.
Those rapid changes supposedly got the trains on the tracks for the respective departures of Westbrook and Harden, who, according to a report from ESPN in November, “expressed concern about the direction of the franchise.”
On the Texans’ side of the equation, it was O’Brien, the team’s head coach and general manager, who had direct issues with Hopkins, which led to his trade. Then, as O’Brien was fired and the team looked to move on, it was the same sort of concern about the direction of the franchise, and a lack of input, that reportedly began to worry Watson.
Culture and consistency are both key factors in a franchise’s success, and the best analogy would come back in the 1990s with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
The organization was able to keep its core intact during a historic stretch in the franchise’s history, complete with a specific culture created by head coach Phil Jackson.
But, as ESPN’s documentary entitled “The Last Dance” pointed out to basketball fans in 2020, that culture and all of those long-lasting relationships can begin to sour. Jackson’s relationship with general manager Jerry Krause began to dwindle, ultimately leading to Jackson’s departure from the team.
Krause’s relationships with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and company also began to fall apart, and in turn, one of sports’ greatest dynasties crumbled before everyone’s eyes in an instant.
The city of Chicago was never the same, with the Bulls failing to even make the NBA Finals in the 20-plus years since.
Fast-forward to the 2020s, and things sound eerily familiar.
The city of Houston fell apart because of that same sort of organizational inconsistency and a poor culture in the locker room, which apparently has been long-lasting enough for former players to want to speak out.
Head coaches were canned as a result, and general managers quickly became public enemy number one.
As a result, both the Rockets and Texans lost out on generational talents, and the two teams’ reputations took massive hits.
Yes, those are things that can be repaired over time through hard work and solid decision-making. But, for now at least, Houston may be designated as a “no-fly zone” for superstars, and may have lost out on its chance to become one of the premier sports cities in the process.