What becomes a dynasty most?
That's the question the Houston Rockets are fortunate enough to be able to ponder now.
There are certain teams—the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers (this season being the rare exception)—who seem every year to have a shot at the title. To fans and players alike, there is nothing more gratifying and energizing than to know the playoffs are ahead before the season tips off.
The Rockets have built themselves quite a franchise, doing it on the fly to boot. And the city and fanbase are abuzz with excitement.
How can they keep the good vibes going? What's the recipe to becoming a contender year in and year out?
Ingredient: one superstar minimum
Rockets currently: one superstar
To me, the Spurs are the gold standard of a dynasty. Since the 1989-90 season—an unbelievable span of 23 years including this one—the Spurs have missed the playoffs just once, which was the only year they finished under .500.
The common denominator? One big-man superstar. The streak began when David Robinson joined the team. Tim Duncan entered the fold nine seasons later. They are two of the greatest big men the game has ever seen.
Since 1980, only one championship team—the 2004 Detroit Pistons—has not had a All-NBA First Team player on its roster during the four years preceding their victory. It seems to be an excellent indicator of success.
The Rockets have one superstar in James Harden. They are poised to get another by virtue of their massive cap room.
The Spurs have shown you can win with just one superstar if you help with several others who are top-10 at their position.
But one more superstar couldn't hurt the Rockets.
Dwight Howard might be a Rocket—but he's no slam dunk.
Ingredient: big-time acquisition
Rockets currently: pending
Is this acquisition mandatory? Not necessarily.
The Spurs didn't got this route. They stole Manu Ginobili as the 57th overall pick and then let him develop. They drafted Tony Parker late in the first round and allowed him to do the same thing.
The Lakers of course did, obtaining Shaq via free agency and then getting Pau Gasol in one of the all-time lopsided trades in NBA history.
With their aforementioned cap room, the Rockets will likely go after a high-profile free agent, most likely a big man. Two of the biggest names available this offseason are likely to be Josh Smith and Dwight Howard.
Here's my issue: While I wouldn't say no to either player, neither is a (pardon the pun) slam dunk like O'Neal or Gasol was. Both provide reason for doubt.
Smith doesn't seem to be able to restrain himself from shooting from the outside, and his jump shot, said politely, is not why he's a superstar. In addition, his long-rumored and long-denied attitude problem finally hit the fan with his suspension earlier this season.
Howard is a massive talent and could play at power forward with Asik at center. But he, too, has a questionable attitude, being almost as good at complaining, blaming, justifying and passing the buck as he is at playing ball.
My advice when going after either guy: Houston is a destination now, and netting Thomas Robinson gives the Rockets a player capable of growing into the power forward position. So, feel free to offer big bucks—but watch the years on the contract you offer. Things could go south with either guy, so it's important that the Rockets have an out.
Dynasties can be won by the right free-agent acquisitions, but they can also be lost by the wrong ones. Morey and the Rockets should tread with care here.
Ingredients: mine the draft for core roster components
Rockets currently: spotty
The Spurs drafted Robinson, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. The Lakers in general have not drafted well during their dynasty except for 1996 when they landed Derek Fisher and their franchise player, Kobe Bryant.
(Yes, Bryant was technically acquired through a trade, but since the trade was agreed upon prior to the draft, and since the Lakers actually told the Charlotte Hornets whom to select, it's fair to say Bryant was a Lakers draft pick.)
During Morey's tenure, the drafts have been less than stellar. Chandler Parsons being the exception, Daryl Morey has had more luck dealing his picks than selecting with them.
There's still hope that Terrence Jones, who tore up the D-League this season, will emerge now that he'll presumably get more playing time. Royce White is looking less like the power forward of the future and more like what we all thought he was prior to joining the D-League: a mistake.
The good news—sort of—is there is little chance to make a mistake next time: Houston has just one pick in the upcoming draft, a second-rounder obtained in the Marcus Morris trade. The following draft, Houston has a first-rounder and two second-rounders.
If Morey doesn't deal the picks, he'd be well-served to recall whatever he did to target Parsons and replicate it.
Rockets currently: cover your eyes
A wonderful old article on 82games.com boldly declares that no team has ever won an NBA championship without a top-10-caliber defender.
I'm not sure how you quantify "top-10 caliber," but since 1980, only two championship teams (the 2001 Lakers and our 1995 Rockets) have been lower than 10th in the league in defensive rating.
Right now, the Rockets are 22nd in the league.
This area absolutely must be addressed next season.
Omer Asik is a defensive force. Though to my eye Chandler Parsons' defense has taken a step back this season, if he can regain his rookie defensive form and improve on that, he might be an All-Defensive second teamer eventually. Although his defense in general is not exemplary, Jeremy Lin is top-10 in the league in steals per game and steals per 48 minutes.
Nothing merits praise outside of the above.
It's not a question of effort. Even when he is beaten, Lin is working feverishly. Harden is as intense on defense as he is on offense.
It's a question of results.
Coach Kevin McHale has been beleaguered by fans for his sometimes questionable substitutions and his half-court offensive strategy. He deserves credit for encouraging the team to score at will in transition and for giving them the green light to shoot from outside.
To me, McHale's real test will be whether or not he can get this unit to embrace defense. If he does, these guys can win, and keep winning, for a long long time.