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The Rockets’ title window might really be closed

Never say never, but upgrading this Rockets team is going to be a major challenge given its age and salaries.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Six Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

For the fourth time in five seasons, the Rockets suffered a disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Last season, they blew a 3-2 series lead, missing 27 consecutive threes in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals — one of two games that series Chris Paul missed with a hamstring injury. This time, they somehow one-upped themselves, losing a win-or-go-home elimination game on their own home floor to a diet Warriors team missing both Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins to leg injuries.

So what now? Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hinted toward possible changes coming to the roster.

“I have five great starters, and they’re all great,” Fertitta said, applauding their achievements of the past two seasons. “But if we can make this team better, we’re gonna make this team better. And that’s just a fact. ... It’s my job to make sure we put the best team we can put on the court next year.

“I can promise you, we’re gonna win some championships with James Harden. OK?” he continued. “Because we’re not gonna sit here. We’re gonna go to battle every year. We’re gonna have a strong offseason, and we’re gonna do whatever we can do to be a better team. OK? We are not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that.”

Harden himself also suggested the Rockets would make moves.

How will they do that? Good question

The only promise of Houston’s upcoming offseason is that the Rockets are capped out.

Houston has $115 million in guaranteed salaries committed to just five players on the roster: Harden, Paul, Clint Capella, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker. Houston had one of the best starting 5s in all of basketball, so you can understand its collective price tag. The Rockets are set to be a good team next year at the very least.

But NBA has projected its salary cap for the 2019-20 season at $109 million, which means the Rockets won’t be able to sign free agents outside of their mid-level exception and minimum contracts. The Rockets also don’t have a pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and they will likely lose key role players like Gerald Green, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert to other teams with deeper pockets. Houston also risks losing restricted free agent Danuel House, who gave the team a boost during the season, if another team makes a large enough offer for his services.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that all those players were acquired with limited resources this season to replace outgoing vets from the 2017-18 team, like Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Rivers was acquired well below market value after the Suns bought his contract out. Shumpert was acquired in a three-team trade with Sacramento and made $11 million last season. Green could return on another minimum contract and proved he can still catch fire from the perimeter when given the opportunity. House signed a two-way G-League deal with the Rockets, who then converted his contract for the remainder of the year.

Houston is certainly used to filling out its roster on a budget. It must do so again.

But Houston also faces another harsh reality: The stars aren’t getting any younger.

James Harden will be 30 this offseason and has a four-year, $169 million extension that kicks in next season. Chris Paul just turned 34 and has three years and $124 million left on his deal. The final season of that contract will pay him $44 million the same year he turns 37. The Rockets will need to be creative to find them help, and quick.

Daryl Morey is as creative a general manager as you’ll find in the NBA. He acquired Paul in 2017 despite not having cap space to do so, and nearly nabbed Jimmy Butler back in November. But the Rockets’ only real trade chips this time around are Gordon, Tucker, and Capela, who had a nightmare series against Golden State. They would never deal Harden, and Paul’s contract is ghastly. It doesn’t seem like the Rockets have close to the assets necessary to land a third star. Does Morey have another trick up his sleeve?

Barring a seismic trade, Houston will have Fertitta’s “five great starters,” plus whoever else they can get to fill out the roster. In that case, Fertitta said he hopes some of his culture rubs off on the team he’s owned for only one season.

“I’m a fighter, and that’s my culture,” he said. “And I think the longer that I own this team, they’re gonna pick up more of my culture. We had ‘em. We should have stepped on their throats [in Game 4], and cut their throat. It’s not let’s make a few shots and win. It’s step on their throat, and let’s take it back to Houston and end it in six.

“We’ll pick up a few Tilman-isms along the way next year.”

If Houston’s sole goal is to finally beat the Warriors, they’ll have some help. Durant could leave the Warriors in free agency, and Golden State won’t be able to replace him. Then again, the Rockets did just blow a chance to defeat a Durant-less Warriors team on their home floor.

Worse, the West isn’t just the Warriors’ show, either. The young Nuggets will only get better. The Trail Blazers are a team no one wants to see in the playoffs. The Thunder will have a chip on their shoulder after a first-round exit. LeBron James isn’t missing the playoffs two seasons in a row. The Clippers are the right max player (or two) away from becoming the West favorite. If the Jazz ever get Donovan Mitchell some help, they’ll be a tough opponent as well. You never bet against Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, and the Kings, Timberwolves and Mavericks are each wild cards next season.

Then there are the Rockets, who may very well bring back the same starting five, only a year older, with a bench not nearly as deep as this year’s.

The Rockets have an MVP in Harden and one of the league’s best general managers in Morey, so you can never say the window is fully shut. But if this version of the fully-healthy Rockets wasn’t enough to beat the short-handed Warriors, will they ever be?