The Rockets’ season was a big success — so too must be their offseason

Houston Rockets 2014-15 season James Harden

When this past summer’s grand plan to sign Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh fell apart and they opted to let Chandler Parsons walk away to Dallas, the Houston Rockets were universally mocked by NBA media and fans alike.

But on that day, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey calmly proclaimed something that very few could understand at the time.

“By this year’s playoffs,” said Morey. “We will be a better team than last year’s playoffs.”

He was right.

Despite dealing with significant injuries, the Rockets exceeded expectations by winning 56 games, landing the 2nd seed in a brutal conference and making it to the West Finals. They put the 2013-14 disappointment behind them and got back on track. They did this largely because of the greatness of James Harden.

Morey deserves a lot of credit as well. Replacing Parsons with Trevor Ariza was a boost to the defense. Unloading Jeremy Lin was both a plus on the court and on the cap, allowing the Rockets to later add Corey Brewer. The additions of Josh Smith and Jason Terry played major roles in how far the Rockets got in the playoffs.

The last time the Rockets were in the Conference Finals was the first year for ClutchFans — 1996-97 — so I know well how long it’s been since they advanced this far. This was a hell of a season. I am proud of what they accomplished.

With that said, it’s clear the Rockets have weaknesses and while the future is bright, the window to contend with Dwight Howard can’t be too big. If the Rockets are to win a title with Dwight in his prime, they must fill holes and take a step forward in 2015-16.

Team Needs

Above all else, the Rockets need a point guard.

Yes, this series might have been different with a healthy Patrick Beverley defending Stephen Curry, but if Harden’s turnover-fest in Game 5 taught us anything, it’s that the Rockets desperately need a second playmaker — even when Beverley was healthy, that need was still glaring. A point guard that can shoot, defend and attack the basket should be a top priority, but those are not easy to come by. Goran Dragic represented the ideal, but that ship sailed once he made it clear he didn’t want to return. Kyle Lowry or, to a lesser extent, Ty Lawson may be targets.

They also could use a power forward upgrade. The Donatas Motiejunas back injury really hurt as the trio of D-Mo, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith looked strong heading towards the postseason, but defensive rotations and shots around the basket were a problem for both Smith and Jones at times — particularly Jones, who may have played his last game as a Rocket.

The Rockets have two amazing superstars as their core, but they do have flaws to their games. Rocket brass has to cover those up with the right complements in their role players, with three-point shooting and defensive versatility being absolute musts for the rotation on this team.

Free Agents

The Rockets have plenty of their own free agents to worry about.

Brewer will be an unrestricted free agent, though the Rockets have Early Bird rights on Brewer and can offer him up to $8-9 million. I would be a little shocked if he gets more than that on the market. Josh Smith is also a free agent and while they would like to bring him back, what they can offer him will be tricky. Both Brewer and Smith were big parts of Houston’s success this season.

Beverley will be a restricted free agent, giving the Rockets the right to match any offer sheet he signs. Don’t be surprised if the Dallas Mavericks rear their head again here. Rookie K.J. McDaniels will also be a restricted free agent.

Jason Terry will be an unrestricted free agent and, according to a report, the Rockets want Terry back. I would not be surprised if this is a Francisco Garcia-style situation where the Rockets would like to keep Terry at veteran minimum prices.

Draft and Assets

The Rockets hold picks 18 and 32 in the 2015 NBA Draft. They simply can’t afford a pair of misses here. Their needs are clear, but need has never trumped Houston’s desire for value — they’ll take the best player available.

Both picks are trade assets. My feeling is that Jones will be on the trade block, given that he and Motiejunas are both a year away from restricted free agency and D-Mo has shown more development, particularly as a scorer around the basket and long-range shooter. If the Rockets feel confident in Josh Smith’s willingness to re-sign, that may also make Jones more expendable. Clint Capela could be a strong backup center for the Rockets next season, but he also has to have enormous trade value right now given the potential he has shown. For a team in win-now mode, that raises an interesting dilemma.

Still Hunting Big Game

Everything the Rockets do is about value, as illustrated by letting Parsons walk and signing Ariza. They have always believed that the best value contracts are rookies and max superstars, so you can expect the Rockets to exhaust all options pursuing the top free agents and trying to move up in the draft.

I’ve been told they will definitely go after free agent power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love, but as crazy as it sounds, I’ve also been told they will reach out to Memphis center Marc Gasol, also a free agent.

The most cap room the Rockets can get to by waiving everyone eligible is around $9-$10 million, not enough to chase a top free agent. However, as they proved last summer in shipping out Omer Asik and Lin — you don’t need cap room to pursue a max contract, you just need the ability to unload contracts to get there. In this case, that’s Trevor Ariza, but that’s not a bridge the Rockets want to cross unless they have to. What they need is a top talent to want to join Harden and Howard in Houston — the Rockets will do the rest.

If they are to be this fortunate, the more likely route would be a sign-and-trade here as the Rockets have some attractive trade pieces — namely Capela — that could appeal to teams if their free agent opts to leave.

MLE Conundrum

The Rockets are likely to operate above the cap, giving them their mid-level exception ($5.3M) to work with. The problem is they have three players they could use it on — Josh Smith, European point guard Sergio Llull and restricted free agent K.J. McDaniels.

The hope would be that Smith is willing to take less again (a non-Bird contract of $2.5 million) and that the Rockets can finally lure Llull, who could be a very good complement to Beverley. That may leave McDaniels out in the cold, though we will see what type of contract he receives.

Kostas Papanikolaou, who the Rockets used their MLE on last season, is a very good bet to be traded as his contract counts for $4.8M in trades but is not guaranteed for next season. The same applies to Pablo Prigioni and his $1.7M partially-guaranteed salary for next season. The two combined could bring back almost $9.8M in a trade.

Conclusion

The Rockets proved that they are among the best teams in the NBA, but it was also clear that there is a gap between them and the very best. The Golden State Warriors, who won 67 games (11 more than the Rockets), present a good model to follow as they made one significant change to their starting lineup — removing David Lee for the versatile and defensive-minded Draymond Green — and it filled a hole to complete their team, turning them from a poor defensive squad into the very best in the league.

The Rockets have the ability to make that same kind of leap with an addition or two to their roster, and this is the offseason where it needs to happen.

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