May 28, 2015 at 2:07 pm

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.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 26, 2015 at 9:39 am

Game 4 Podcast: Rockets finally beat Warriors, but will Dwight be around for Game 5?

James Harden Golden State Warriors Game 4

Eight was just enough. After seven losses in seven games, the Rockets finally beat the Golden State Warriors in a contest this season, taking Game 4 at home 128-115 behind James Harden’s 45-point gem.

With torrential raining and flooding going on outside the Toyota Center late into the night, MK Bower and Clutch discuss Game 4, Harden’s big night and alleged partying with Drake before Game 3, the Stephen Curry fall and Dwight Howard’s potential Game 5 suspension.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
May 24, 2015 at 2:19 am

Podcast: Now and in the future, what must the Rockets do to beat the Warriors?

James Harden Klay Thompson Rockets Warriors

Games 1 and 2 were competitive. Game 3 was not and now, the Rockets find themselves in a hole that has never been overcome in the NBA, down 0-3 in the series.

MK Bower joins Clutch after the Golden State Warriors’ 115-80 Game 3 rout at the Toyota Center to discuss what went wrong for Houston, the series in general and most importantly, what the Houston Rockets must do from a roster standpoint to better compete against a team they are 0-7 against this season.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
May 18, 2015 at 12:21 am

Podcast: How Sweet It Is! Clutch City is Reborn

James Harden Game 7 vs. LA Clippers

We just witnessed history.

After Game 4, the Rockets were bruised, bloodied and down on the mat. Most thought they would stay there. Then Game 5 showed some life, Game 6 stunned the world and Game 7 finished the job.

MK Bower joins Clutch in a very loud Toyota Center after the celebration for the podcast they didn’t quite see coming — to discuss the legendary Game 6 comeback, all things Game 7, the return of Clutch City and the upcoming series against a 67-win Golden State Warriors team.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
May 17, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Clutch City Lives! Rockets pull off historic comeback, advance to West Finals

terrence-jones-game-6-clippers-2

I never thought I’d see it again, but it’s true: Clutch City is alive and well.

No one thought the Houston Rockets were capable of this after the ugliness of Game 4, but they shocked the world again. The Rockets capped a historic comeback, taking a third straight game with their backs to the wall, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 113-100 in Game 7 on Sunday to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

James Harden scored 31 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds while Trevor Ariza (22 points) hit 6-12 from beyond the arc. Dwight Howard added 15 points and 16 boards, Josh Smith scored 15 and Corey Brewer popped in 11 off the bench.

The Rockets become only the ninth team in NBA history to win a series after being down 3-1. It’s the second time in franchise history as the Rockets beat the Phoenix Suns in the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals after trailing 3-1.

The Rockets will play in the West Finals for the first time since 1997. They will take on MVP Stephen Curry and the top-seeded Golden State Warriors (67-15), with the series kicking off in Oakland.

We will be posting a podcast from the incredible scene at the Toyota Center later tonight.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 17, 2015 at 8:45 am

Houston Rockets Game 6 Comeback Video, as called by Craig Ackerman

Houston Rockets comeback Game 6 vs Clippers

The only shame of the legendary Game 6 on Thursday was that we didn’t get to hear the calls of Bill and Bull, but for local flavor and excitement, nothing beats Rockets radio voice Craig Ackerman.

I’m going to regret staying up so late to do this on Game 7 day of all days, but here are all the highlights of the Houston Rockets’ historic comeback synced to the audio calls of Ackerman and radio partner Joel Blank.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 15, 2015 at 5:24 am

The greatest Houston Rocket comeback ever

josh-smith-corey-brewer-game-6

I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. Like so many of you who stayed up to watch it, I’m still in stunned disbelief.

This was the greatest comeback in a single game I’ve ever seen from the Houston Rockets.

I know what that means. I watched this franchise bounce back from 20 points down to win Game 1 of the NBA Finals twenty years ago, but that was a first-half deficit with several more games guaranteed to follow. For these Rockets, there was no tomorrow.

To understand how great this comeback was, you have to first understand how truly behind they were. In the third quarter, the Rockets had one of those game-killing periods that they’ve coughed up far too many times in this series. They shot 5-25 from the field. They were 1-8 from three-point range. They had James Harden missing 15 of his 20 shots on the night. They were on life support. A two-point deficit at half had ballooned to nineteen with just over two minutes remaining in the quarter and, frankly, it looked iffy that the Rockets could even score nineteen the rest of the way.

This game, this series, this season looked over.

“We never quit,” said Dwight Howard, who scored 20 points and grabbed 21 rebounds. “We kept believing. There were some rough times out there, but as a team, we never gave up on each other.”

It started with Terrence Jones, who was less than 15 minutes away from a team exit interview that would include the word “layups” at least 146 times. Struggling all series, Jones awoke, scoring seven points in the final 2:48 of the third quarter to help the Rockets cut this thing to thirteen.

The Rockets, who have been blasted, belittled and buried by media and NBA fans as a team with no heart, then found their mettle. They outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the fourth quarter… in a road elimination game. Houston was 5-20 from three-point range before connecting on 8 of their final 12 triples. They held the NBA’s top-rated offense to 4-22 shooting.

Kevin McHale deserves a mountain of credit. Houston’s coach sat Harden most of the fourth because he found a lineup that was thriving — and he stuck with it while many were criticizing him for not putting the MVP runner-up back into the game.

“Those guys earned the right to finish that game, one way or the other,” said McHale.

‘Those guys’ included two players who had been mostly absent in the series — Corey Brewer and Josh Smith.

In the fourth quarter alone, Brewer scored 15 of his 19 points and Smith scored 14 of his 19. Heading into that quarter, the two were a combined 4-30 (13.3%) from three-point range in the series, but they connected on 5 of 7 in the final 12 minutes. Blake Griffin was a sizzling 12-15 for 28 points, but Smith and Howard joined forces to hold Griffin scoreless on 0-5 shooting in the fourth.

The Headband of Brothers got help as well. Howard was a beast in the middle. Jason Terry knocked down big shots. Trevor Ariza worked defensive rotations masterfully.

Before Game 5, the Rockets did not properly represent at all in this series the quality of team they were this season. That was the fear, that down 3-1, they would simply fold in a manner that would leave the impression of a massive gap between the two teams, that Houston didn’t belong on the same court with these guys. They refused to do that.

My wife will wake up soon and I’ll have to deliver the bad news — the vacation plans are on hold. There will be a Game 7 in Houston. I don’t know how that game will end, but I know what this victory means to this team, win or lose on Sunday. These Rockets were destroyed all series for being quitters. Forget that. They’ve got fight.

Video of the Comeback

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 13, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Rockets Christmas Day Uniforms for 2015-16 Have Leaked

Paul Lukas of UniWatch revealed this morning the look of the NBA Christmas Day uniforms for the 2015-16 season, including the cut/look of the jersey for the Houston Rockets. Here it is:

Houston Rockets Christmas Day Jerseys

It’s interesting — it’s an old-fashioned look that almost gives you a feeling of a retro Coke can.

Adidas also revealed a summary catalog of NBA apparel and upcoming changes (see PDF, page 38) for NBA teams this coming season, confirming our report in September that the Rockets will be getting two new alternate jerseys next year.

This Christmas Day jersey is not one one of those two alternates.

Posted in Houston Rockets |