The Rockets' heartbreaking failure to launch

Harden after loss: 'It's frustrating' (0:48)

James Harden explains how two bad halves in Game 6 and 7 doomed the Rockets and that they still had chances to win even without Chris Paul. (0:48)

HOUSTON -- So much went right for the Houston Rockets this season.

Their superstar pair of playmakers fit together phenomenally as James Harden and Chris Paul shared the reins of one of the most potent offenses in NBA history. Paul had no problems sliding into a co-star role after deciding to leave the LA Clippers to come to Houston. Harden had the best year of his career and will almost certainly be awarded with his first MVP trophy.

Center Clint Capela, who turned 24 this month, continued to blossom into the third star the Rockets needed to be a real title threat. He has become one of the NBA's best finishers, leading the league in field goal percentage (.652). He's an elite rebounder (10.8 per game). And his ability to both protect the rim (1.9 blocks per game) and defend on the perimeter is a crucial element to the Rockets' drastically improved defense.

Forward PJ Tucker, whose four-year, $32 million deal signed last summer looks like a bargain, has in some ways emerged as the Rockets' soul. He's the snarling face of the Rockets' switch-everything defensive scheme that helped Houston soar from 18th a year ago to sixth this season in the league's defensive efficiency rankings. The Rockets became a good enough defensive team to be a threat to the Golden State Warriors as soon as they signed Tucker.

The Rockets proved themselves right. They were good enough to win a championship.

However, with the Rockets a win away from knocking out the Warriors, they received a cruel twist of fate when Paul suffered a Grade 2 strain of his right hamstring. You will never be able to convince anyone in the Houston locker room that they wouldn't have headed to the NBA Finals with a healthy Paul.

"If we just had one more playmaker, we'd be playing on Thursday [in the Finals]," Houston guard Eric Gordon said. "It's that simple."

It's a "woulda, coulda, shoulda" that will haunt Houston perhaps forever, or at least until the Rockets celebrate the franchise's first title since the Clutch City days more than two decades ago.

But the Rockets have no question that they've found a championship-caliber formula with two future Hall of Fame playmakers, a high-rising big man who complements them perfectly and role players who fit like perfect puzzle pieces.

"We'll get back on the horse and we'll get these guys here pretty soon," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.

Aside from the unlikely scenario of winning the LeBron James summer sweepstakes -- and that would require some amazing salary-cap gymnastics by Houston general manager Daryl Morey -- there's no reason the Rockets shouldn't run it back with the same core next season.

However, the price for keeping this team together will soar this summer.

Three starters -- Paul, Capela and glue guy Trevor Ariza -- will be free agents. So will a couple of key reserves, wing Gerald Green and defensive stopper Luc Mbah a Moute.

Paul delayed becoming a free agent for a year, opting into the final season of his contract and forcing a trade from the Clippers. That allowed the Rockets to keep the midlevel exception they used to sign Tucker. Paul's potential reward: a five-year, $205 million maximum contract that would pay him $46.6 million in the final season, when he will be 37 years old.

Capela, who just finished the final season of his rookie deal, will be a restricted free agent. Morey has made it clear that Capela can't price his way out of Houston, but a rebuilding team with cap space (the Phoenix Suns or Dallas Mavericks?) might call his bluff and dare the Rockets to match a max deal.

It's a win for the Rockets if they can keep Capela with a deal in the range of Oklahoma City center Steven Adams' contract (four years, $100 million).

Ariza won't be nearly as expensive, especially in a market that isn't expected to be kind to older role players. The same applies to Mbah a Moute and Green. They could all return to the Rockets on deals that are relatively team-friendly.

But new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta is likely to find himself looking at a large luxury tax bill, potentially in excess of $70 million. Fertitta declared after buying the team that he'd be willing to pay what it takes to keep a contender together. The Rockets have eliminated any doubt that they fit into that category.

"I feel like this team is going to hold that championship up soon," Green said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't this year, but we're on the right path."

Houston's front office will deal with the price of continuing to contend for NBA titles this summer. Right now, the Rockets are experiencing the agonizing pain of coming so close.