There had been nearly two decades of changes and challenges, of successes and struggles for the Rockets. No season, however, had been quite like, or as difficult as last season.
For Tad Brown, entering his 20th season with the Rockets and 15th as CEO, there was no question about what season had been the toughest.
As with most of what 2020 has touched, he did not have to search his memories to pick the most difficult, leaving him happy to move on to a new season certain to bring challenges like no other.
“It without question was the most challenging professionally as well as personally for all the reasons everybody else is going through,” Brown said. “It’s been challenging, also very rewarding to see how everybody has responded; the staff, ownership, the players. Getting through last season was a remarkable achievement for the NBA and our organization.”
The tests did not end there. Mike D’Antoni stepped down as Rockets coach before the charter from Orlando landed. Daryl Morey, the Rockets general manager for nearly all of Brown’s tenure as CEO, left weeks later.
All that came while the NBA has put together protocols to try to hold a season among a nation-wide surge of COVID-19 cases and as Brown prepares for a wide variety of options to potentially have fans in Toyota Center in less than a month.
Even that comes with the knowledge that all the planning the NBA, teams and local health and governmental officials attempt can be subject to the virus’ ability to change everything.
“It’s going to be a challenge but one we’re looking forward to,” Brown said. “It’s very important that we continue to build proper infrastructure, especially to make sure that we’re following all safety protocols as directed nationally, as directed from the league, as directed from our local health professionals and city leaders and county leaders.”
Rockets Plan to Have Some Fans at Games For The Next 2020/21 Season
Fans will not attend preseason games at Toyota Center Dec. 15 and 17. Brown said it is premature to outline the protocols that will be in place for fans to attend regular season games, including how many will be allowed in
Toyota Center, because they can change repeatedly in the coming weeks. But preparations for a wide variety of scenarios have been ongoing for months.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Brown said. “We look forward to getting going, but it’s going to be with the highest safety protocols in place. It’s changing by the day and I think it’s going to be a fluid situation throughout the year. We are planning of having fans at games. So much of this is going to be based on the information we have as we go forward.”
The Rockets have been testing players and staff involved in workouts for weeks, following guidelines that will become required on Tuesday.
The league, according to a memo teams received on Saturday, will also require a long list of specialists, officers and managers to guide and oversee health and safety protocols including player and staff testing and tracing and arena and facility hygiene.
“We’ve got everybody in place,” Brown said. “It’s something Keith Jones (the Rockets senior vice president for basketball operations) and I have been talking about. We’ve been on this for five, six months, even before we got to the bubble in Orlando. We started thinking about what is going to be needed and over the course of months (have been) talking to the league and health professionals about what to expect when we get back into public facilities.”
The challenges have changed but did not just begin with trying to figure out how to host games during a pandemic.
In many ways, the difficulties of the Rockets 2019-20 season began with Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters, leading to the loss of sponsors and a considerable loss of income for the Rockets and NBA as a whole.
“Certainly, everybody supported Daryl and supports Daryl.” Brown said. “It was probably just the intensity of the response. That was what took everybody aback. That was something that I think was an intense moment in time. Once we got into the season … we just focused on basketball.”
For years, Brown and Morey had partnered in running the Rockets on the business and basketball sides, respectively. The lines between the third floor and basketball offices downstairs were often blurred, with Morey and Brown sharing decision-making.
Even in a smooth transition with the Rockets quickly elevating long-time executive Rafael Stone, Morey’s absence has been conspicuous.
“It is different,” Brown said. “Daryl’s a great friend of mine and he was an incredible business partner. We did everything together for 14 years. I miss him. I appreciate his decision. We’ll be friends for many, many years. When you’re together that many years, there’s a shorthand in communication and in decisions made organizationally.
“It’s different now, but in a good way. There’s a new voice with Rafael and a new voice with Stephen (Silas, the Rockets coach). I’m looking forward to seeing how they make their way within the organization and the league and take us to new heights.”
That remains another challenge. The Rockets begin training camp next week amid reports that star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook have wanted to be traded.
The Rockets have intended to have both with the team and Brown said he believed the additions and changes made will make the Rockets contenders in the Western Conference.
“We think we made some changes to where we’re going to be competing in the West,” he said. “And we need to continue to get better. Christian Wood I think is going to provide great flexibility for Coach Silas, for James, for Russell to open it up a little bit more. We’re going to look at everything to be a championship team. That’s what we’ve focused on from Tilman (Fertitta, the Rockets owner) on down.”
Even in a season sure to be unique, the goal remains to win the way through the difficulties. Though some steps — the reveal of a new “City Edition” uniform and uniform sponsor, training camp and the start of the season — are certain, last season’s experience indicates some tests will be unpredictable. But if nothing else, Brown can move on at least knowing the start of a new season means the previous one is behind him.