James Harden was the key to a Rockets rebuild faster than any in recent memory.
The word typically conjures up images of a squad that fails to be competitive on a nightly basis, rings up 60 losses or more on the season, is riddled with locker-room dissension, fires its coach and roots for ping-pong balls in May.
The masterwork that is the Houston Rockets' current roster has changed all that.
When Daryl Morey was promoted to general manager in May 2007, the Rockets were still led by Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Few thought rebuilding was in the near future; indeed, the team won 55 and 53 games respectively in Morey's first two years at the helm.
But the writing was on the wall with his stars' health. Though the Rockets finished above .500 for the next two years, T-Mac and Yao both struggled with a myriad of injuries until Morey finally traded McGrady in February 2009 and Yao belatedly called it a career in 2011.
While both stars' contracts were on the books, Morey was constricted in creating a roster concomitant with his vision. Once Yao officially retired, Morey could begin rebuilding in earnest.
The roster Morey cobbled together for 2011-2012 was not enough to get them into the playoffs for the third straight year, and struck fear into no one either on paper or on the court.
We may have loved them in H-Town, but a rotation of Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons and Chase Budinger and Patrick Patterson and Samuel Dalembert had a very low ceiling, to put it kindly. Morey must have been aware of that, because he shook up the roster like an Etch-A-Sketch, essentially wiping it clean.
Only Parsons and Patterson survived into the next season. An 80 percent turnover rate in a year more closely resembles that of a fast-food staff rather than an NBA rotation. The team was unquestionably starting again from scratch.
But a funny thing happened on the way to rebuilding: these all-new Rockets were good. Sometimes really good. And their all-new strategy, defined by Morey's advanced metrics, focused on transition basketball, shots at the rim or shots beyond the arc.
Voila—instead of waiting for next year, these Rockets find themselves waiting for the playoffs to begin. And after the playoffs, they only have a second-rounder in this upcoming draft, but depending on whom they waive, the Rockets could have close to $20 million in cap space.
So if they're ahead in the rebuilding process, what moves could they make to get themselves to the top of the Western Conference?
The set positions
To me, there are only two on the team. James Harden is arguably the second-best shooting guard in the league behind Kobe Bryant (anyone who would rank Dwyane Wade ahead of the Beard must be enjoying the balmy weather in Magic City). He's not going anywhere.
Chandler Parsons is now generally considered one of the league's 10 best small forwards. Could the Rockets upgrade at the 3? Sure. But with Parsons' salary-to-play ratio, what are the odds? I'd say it's more likely that Omarosa will win The Celebrity Apprentice. (Hint: she just got fired.)
These two are locks to be on the 2013-2014 roster.
Omer Asik is in the running for both Most Improved Player and Defensive Player Of The Year. That's saying something. Morey's faith in handing him a starting position was absolutely rewarded.
Asik pulls down rebounds in droves, gives his man trouble everywhere on the court and literally transforms Houston's defense. According to 82games.com, the Rockets give up 105 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court versus 112.7 points while he's off—an incredible 7.7-point swing that proves how valuable Asik really is. He's finding his hands down low too.
At $8.4 million per season (his cap value), he's a comparative bargain.
Could the Rockets upgrade at this position? Yes they could. They'll have to move some assets around to pay Dwight Howard the $20 million a season he'd likely fetch on the open market. But Howard would give the Rockets a terrific scoring option down low to take some of the pressure—and double-teams—off Harden. In addition, Howard is a three-time Defensive Player Of The Year, so the Rockets wouldn't lose anything by parting with Asik's excellent defense.
The combination of Harden and Howard is reminiscent of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and could well make the Rockets best in the West.
Meanwhile, Asik could garner a nice piece in a trade, or several draft picks to replenish the Rockets' virtually-bare draft cupboard.
Howard could also play the power forward position (he's working on expanding his range), giving the Rockets a formidable defensive wall down low the likes of which haven't been seen since...well, since the Twin Towers. Were the Rockets to go in this direction, either Thomas Robinson or Donatas Motiejunas could groom under Howard, freeing the other to be traded for a pick.
It's no secret that Howard hasn't been happy with his Los Angeles Lakers, and the up-and-coming Rockets, with their loose style and happy clubhouse, might have sufficient appeal to sway Dwight into relocating.
Were I Daryl Morey, this is the deal I would focus all my efforts and energy on. With Howard, Harden and Parsons in the starting lineup, this team could start shopping for rings.
There are other options, but none nearly as attractive. For example, I love Josh Smith's game down low, but his attitude would be a toxic addition to the team. Further, Morey can't be much of a fan of Smith's advanced metrics, since he's determined to take too many outside shots.
David West is getting older and will likely ask for too much money; Al Jefferson is a defensive liability, the last thing this team needs; Andrew Bynum is a massive injury risk.
There are only two other options which excite me from the perspective of metrics: Paul Millsap and J.J. Hickson. I'm concerned how much Millsap will ask for on the open market, but he spreads the floor with his ability to play down low or beyond the arc, and despite being undersized he's a solid defender. Hickson is due for a big raise, but not big enough to dissuade Morey from being impressed by his advanced stats.
One more note (thanks to @james cao for raising the subject): I was a fan of Thomas Robinson's in college. If he's a gym rat this summer and perfects a solid 10- to 12-footer, I say by this time next year, the power forward position will have upgraded significantly with or without a signing, simply because of the progress Robinson will have made.
By any objective measure, Jeremy Lin's season rates an incomplete.
If you're a fan, you have to accept that Lin's shot has come and gone from game to game, and that—his expertise at steals notwithstanding—his team defense still needs work. If you're a hater, you have to admit that Lin has shown he can take over games, and he's reduced his turnovers while improving his three-point shooting month by month.
That's not even considering the idea that Lin thrives as a ball-handler, a role which was significantly reduced when he was teamed with playmaking 2-guard, James Harden, and undoubtedly impacted Lin's game.
Will Lin continue improving? No one knows for sure. But at this point, it kind of doesn't matter, because trading Lin and his $8.4 million salary would be a tough sale—unless maybe you're the Maloofs. And Lin's salary is way too much money to pay a backup.
If the Rockets were to find a taker for Lin, simply for Jeremy's box-office power and potential, it won't be to acquire Chris Paul. Though they'd have enough cap room, CP3 is not coming to the Rockets, simply because there's just not room in one backcourt for two such towering talents, and Paul knows it.
The Rockets might take a long hard look at Jose Calderon, however, if they need to save money at the point guard spot. Calderon is an unselfish, hardworking player whose metrics will certainly catch Morey's eye. His salary will likely decline to the $6 to $7 million per season range, which makes him a value over Lin, with generally superior stats.
The only drawback is Calderon's age. The 31-year-old is playing a position which is most impacted when a player loses a step. Overall, though, Calderon would be a nice fit for this team.
Unless Morey can make a pitch for the angels, though, Lin will remain the Rockets' starting point guard.
Here, Morey has found players who have either made the most of limited expectations or who intrigue because of their potential.
Those exceeding expectations include Patrick Beverley, a seeming journeyman plucked earlier this year from overseas, who has played stunningly well off the bench. His 16.21 PER ranks higher than that of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and even the starter Beverley often relieves, Jeremy Lin.
Carlos Delfino, obtained before the season with some persuading from Kelvin Sampson, has been a serious scoring threat in his relief role, while James Anderson has been eating up minutes at the 2.
Then there are the guys with upside. Power forward Thomas Robinson is last year's fifth overall pick. Terrence Jones, another 4, was a D-League All-Star. Center Tim Ohlbrecht led the D-League in field-goal percentage.
The likelihood is that Delfino might be waived, not because of his play—the Rockets would love to have him back—but because Houston might need the extra cash to sign Howard. Anderson will likely be gone for the same reason. All the others figure to return.
If Delfino doesn't come back, or the Rockets can't afford to bring him back, that'll leave a gaping hole at the backup shooting guard spot. My suggestion is to go after Leandro Barbosa.
Assuming his speed isn't robbed by his ACL injury, Barbosa can create his own shot, shoots the three at a .380 clip, plays solid defense and is coming off a $1.2 million contract with the Boston Celtics. He'll fit the Rockets' need as a backup to Harden at a bargain price.
The opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man say it best: the Rockets rebuilt better, stronger and most of all faster, than any NBA team in recent memory.
Last summer's demolition job built this team's core. This summer, it's about finishing the job. Choosing the right free agent, like choosing the right grade of sandpaper, just might make for a smooth ride to the Western Conference Finals or beyond.