What's Next for the Houston Rockets?

Joel C. Cordes@@bballJoelNBA Associate EditorMay 5, 2013

What's Next for the Houston Rockets?

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    Bigger things. Much bigger things.

    That's what's in store for the Houston Rockets going forward, but they'll still need to play their cards right to hit the jackpot.

    Already guaranteed to be media darlings the minute they stole Jeremy Lin in free agency from the New York Knicks, then heisted James Harden via trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets more than delivered on the hype. 

    Playing an infectious brand of run-and-gun, shoot first, second and third basketball, the youngling Rockets were fun to watch and even better to root for.

    That they recently took the wounded Oklahoma City Thunder to the brink of a seven-game NBA playoffs series before falling 4-2 in the first round was just icing on the cake.

    Heading into the offseason, Houston is young, talented, flush with cash and trade assets and poised to make the proverbial leap into real contender status before you know it.

    Don't blink, and hopefully they won't either.

Offseason Overview

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    Take a look at this for a moment. Then go to any of the other links Hoopsworld provides for the other NBA teams. 

    What jumps out? For starters, note the sheer number of players who wore a metaphorical Rockets uniform this year, even if they never actually donned one in a game (Royce White included).

    Much more importantly, start following (and comparing) the dollars at the bottom of the chart. The youthful Rockets may have been a little green during this past regular season.

    But this offseason? They're rolling in it.

    That's right, active all throughout the year, the West's No. 8 seed is already brimming with guys like James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, Thomas Robinson and, basically, the whole roster minus "fogies" like Aaron Brooks and Francisco Garcia, who haven't even touched their ceilings yet.

    Plus, they're all locked up for fairly reasonable contracts. And the Rockets have enough cap space to hand a max contract out or a collection of still-lucrative deals.

    Free-agency prizes like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith should all expect calls from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. If that doesn't work out, the money's gonna talk to somebody...

Draft Needs

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    All that movement this past year meant the Houston Rockets mortgaged their immediate NBA draft future. But not their long-term one. 

    With only a second-round pick for 2013, expect Houston to simply take a flier on the best asset available. Draft Express has them picking another backup point guard option, but really this is a crapshoot that still smells like roses. 

    Think about it: The Rockets don't really need more rookies right now. Their roster was so loaded with prospects this year that 2012 first-rounders like Terrence Jones and Thomas Robinson struggled to get playing time throughout their stints in red. 

    Fellow first-rounder Royce White picked the wrong team and time to initially refuse D-League assignments: His competition at the power forward spot was already struggling to get call-ups from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers anyway.

    Basically, the Rockets spent this year developing Jones, Robinson and NBA first-timer Donatas Motiejunas (who was drafted in 2011 and should bulk up into the backup center). Now proven that they can play, this next season is about figuring out who are trade assets versus building blocks.

    Here's to hoping Royce White can be part of that mix. 

    Houston will have second-round picks to work with the next couple of seasons, and the roster still has needs, but more youngsters isn't one of them. 

Trade Market

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    The Rockets have lots of decisions to make and lots of options with which to do it. But just ponder the questions they need to answer:

    Is Jeremy Lin their cornerstone point guard? He was solid and improving throughout the regular season, but struggled mightily due to inexperience and injury during the playoffs.

    His contract is pricey, but not exorbitant, especially for a glamour-position player who still has "upside." If Lin passes some you-know-it's-coming deep stat analysis from Houston brass, then they'll ride out the rest of his contract. But if he's expendable in their eyes, this is the offseason where takers will still be plenty. 

    The Rockets must also figure out whether they're comfortable with Patrick Beverly and/or Aaron Brooks as Lin's backups. They're both non-guaranteed contracts that could be waived, but they could also be swapped for similar needs. Both looked solid during the season's end.

    Finally, with the aforementioned logjam at power forward, the Rockets will surely move one or two of their assets. One would think that Royce White is done in a red uniform, but finding takers could be difficult unless his anxiety/attitude turns a tangible corner. 

    Terrence Jones has the most upside, but also the most question marks about his tweener game. Thomas Robinson and Motiejunas were high-end draft picks and will probably be given more time to fill out the roster.

    As power forward will likely be where the Rockets also look in free agency, expect them to move Jones and/or White if they can.

Free-Agent Decisions

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    This is where things get easier and more maddening, depending on how you look at it.

    Houston has a team option on Francisco Garcia and the aforementioned non-guaranteed pacts with Patrick Beverly and Aaron Brooks.

    All proved useful during the stretch run, but Garcia's deal is bloated from a previous bad decision by his former employers, the Sacramento Kings. Expect the point guards to be retained while Garcia gets a much smaller offer elsewhere.

    Chandler Parsons, Carlos Delfino and Greg Smith also have non-guaranteed deals, but they've already proven to be huge rotation assets and aren't going anywhere, especially on such reasonable contracts.

Free-Agent Targets

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    As mentioned, the Rockets can basically afford anyone. 

    Houston has previously tried to snag both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol from the L.A. Lakers. Howard should be listening to whatever the Rockets pitch him, and Gasol could be available for cheap if the Lakers amnesty him.

    Still, they already have center Omer Asik, who has blossomed into a double-double threat and one of the league's nastiest post defenders. He's no Howard, but the Rockets probably like it that way. Gasol makes more sense if surprisingly available.

    Chris Paul will get Daryl Morey's phone calls after another disappointing L.A. Clippers exit in the playoffs, and he'd be an intriguing/devastating backcourt fit with James Harden, but look for the Rockets to check their options around Lin first while addressing other areas. That is, unless CP3 is banging down their door to join.

    Instead, look for the Rockets to pursue Josh Smith and Al Jefferson, both of whom can play power forward alongside Omer Asik up front and form a HUGE front line when joined by Chandler Parsons.

    From a pace standpoint, the shot-blocking Smith makes more sense than the plodding Jefferson, but it depends on whether Houston wants the high-flying mercurial variety show versus the dependable low-post behemoth.

    If they want to spread the wealth, Paul Millsap and J.J. Hickson could fill the proven rebounding and grit departments while leaving some dollars to round out the bench or keep other options open. 

On the Rise

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    James Harden is already a superstar, though we don't yet know where his ceiling is at.

    Throughout this season, it's been clear that Chandler Parsons is about to join him in the stratosphere. 

    A stat-head's dream, the 6'9" Florida graduate is capable of efficiently playing either the 3 or a run-and-gun 4 while also being a defensive pest to all five spots in return.

    He can shoot threes with the best of them, but is also the occasionally hellacious finisher. No seriously, he's really good at it. Yes, I know you wanted another one

    Remember how he's basically playing on a minimum contract for the next two seasons? 

    The Rockets could bypass all of those free-agent power forward options we previously discussed and make a run at another glue guy, stud defender wing like Andre Iguodala, then move Parsons to power forward, though the logjam there becomes worse.

    Regardless of where he plays, Parsons is the NBA's best dollar-for-dollar deal and one of its rising stars. Just like the Houston Rockets.

Biggest Question Going Forward

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    How quickly can the Rockets make the leap?

    The NBA is littered with plenty of former Cinderellas who lost their slippers, their time or their guiding hand. For example, just last year the Philadelphia 76ers seemed like the next big thing.

    Where are they now? 

    In some ways, clearing the cap and starting from scratch is the easy, albeit painful part. Now that the Rockets appear to have hit the jackpot when it comes to the initial steps, the hard road begins.

    The Rockets have had a record hovering slightly above .500 for the past four seasons, even as they missed the playoffs the previous three tries. So, they're stepping ahead, but haven't actually jumped.

    How do they ensure that precious cap space is disbursed properly, adding the right "final touches" while still ensuring they keep all those youngsters when the initial deals are up? Chandler Parsons isn't likely to accept another minimum contract, after all.

    When adding that max contract or sum of its parts this offseason, how do they avoid spoiling the relatively pure chemistry that was concocted this year? One bad ego or a rash of selfishness could be contagious to a group that showed little susceptibility otherwise.

    Now that they've made a name, the media scrutiny and expectations will ramp up. Everyone is going to call the Rockets the next big thing.

    So will they be? And how do they deal with adversity when momentarily crumbling under pressure? These will be new waters to tread, and is Kevin McHale the right coach to lead them into the proverbial promised land?

    The hope is that McHale can continue his run-and-gun, overtly positive message while also learning to innovate with his rotations. One must hope the Rockets can follow the incremental path toward contention laid by the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the few Cinderellas to actually reach the ball.

Projected Power Ranking: 10

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    Houston finished with a 45-37 record and .549 winning percentage in 2013, good enough for the 13th-best NBA record and eighth spot in the West. 

    With the league's second-best scoring offense and third-worst defense, the Rockets are a dichotomy of terms. Playing at the league's fastest pace (courtesy of NBA.com media section), they take, make and give up baskets at a dizzying rate. 

    It's a formula that can be tinkered with, but may prove volatile when messing with the variables. Finding the right mixture to retain offensive identity while improving defensive prowess and interior scoring are tricky musts.

    Their cap space ensures substantial changes to the roster this offseason, even as the high-scoring core is likely to remain. 

    It's safe to assume the Rockets will stay among the league's point leaders, even if they dip slightly. One has to think their defense, especially if adding the likes of Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, will improve much more noticeably.

    As their already top-10 point differential widens, their wins should increase proportionately. Don't expect the Rockets to leap into the Western Conference elite already next season, but bypassing the L.A. Lakers, Denver Nuggets and even L.A. Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies could be within their reach.

    A West No. 5 seed and NBA top-10 overall ranking are well within their grasp.

    Big steps for bigger things ahead.