The Houston Rockets don't have many needs to address this offseason, but shoring up the defense should be its top priority. The team finished the regular season 28th in points allowed, giving up an average of 102.5 points per game.
In the playoffs, the Rockets' defensive struggles continued. They gave up 105.8 points a night to the Oklahoma City Thunder during their six-game series. That placed them 14th out of the 16 playoff teams in opposing points allowed.
The hope this offseason is that the team can make the same huge strides in development that they made last summer. With a couple of big moves, GM Daryl Morey transformed this Rockets team from a lottery franchise filled with prospects to a playoff contender.
The risky signings of center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin worked out well. Asik averaged a double-double in his first season as starter, contributing 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds a night.
As for Lin, he added 13.1 points and 6.1 assists a contest in his debut season in Houston while also averaging more than a steal per night.
The biggest move made by Morey in the past year was the deal that sent guard James Harden from Oklahoma City's bench to Houston's starting lineup. The acquisition of "The Beard" gave the Rockets its first true superstar since the days of Tracy McGrady.
Alas, there is more work to do.
The team has a logjam of promising yet unproven prospects at power forward. Rookie Terrence Jones flashed some potential late in the season, but didn't play in the final three games of the Thunder series.
His averages of 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game during the regular season leave a lot to be desired.
Fellow rookie Thomas Robinson, acquired in a midseason trade with the Sacramento Kings, didn't fare much better in the regular season (4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds a game). The No. 5 overall pick didn't even play a second against Oklahoma City in the first round.
Donatas Motiejunas and Greg Smith round out the foursome at power forward, but neither did much to establish themselves as the long-term answer.
The Rockets proved that they can hang with the elite and showed some heart by stretching their opening-round series with the top-seeded Thunder to six games. However, the team can't continue to wait on prospects to emerge in order to stay competitive in the West.
They need to use the considerable amount of cap space they'll have this summer (they have only $38 million committed for next season) to lock down a proven veteran in the frontcourt that can help them on the defensive end.
There is an understandable clamoring for Los Angeles Lakers center and pending free agent Dwight Howard to come to Houston. Signing Howard and moving Asik to the bench would give Houston a formidable defensive presence inside.
While not impossible, a potential acquisition of Howard seems more like a pipe dream. The Lakers can offer more money and it is hard for a young guy like Dwight to turn down the bright lights of Hollywood.
It's also not the right move for the Rockets. Asik may not be the all-around star that Howard is, but he brings some nice elements to the table. He's a capable shot-blocker and he can get after it on the glass.
He also made a big leap this season, from an afterthought on the Bulls' bench last year to a solid starter with the Rockets.
Like Howard, Smith is an excellent defender. For his nine-year career, he averages 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game, and, according to Synergy Sports, Smith held opponents to less than 38 percent from the field this season.
He also can help the Rockets on the boards, as he's averaged at least eight rebounds per game in all but one of the last seven seasons. With Asik and Smith playing together, the Rockets can own the glass and give their dynamic offense plenty of second-chance opportunities.
Smith would provide stability at the power forward spot and would take some of the scoring pressure off James Harden. He is an incredible athlete and doesn't come with Howard's litany of injuries.
With Smith in place, the team would be less reliant on Jones and he can be afforded more time to develop. The team could then use D-Mo and/or Robinson as trade chips to upgrade other areas such as a backup shooting guard behind Harden.
The quest to improve Houston's defense doesn't end at Smith though. The team could use another center behind Asik.
A nice under-the-radar move would be bringing back shot-blocker Samuel Dalembert as Asik's caddy. Dalembert didn't see a ton of playing time this past season in Milwaukee, playing behind guys like Larry Sanders and John Henson.
Still, he would be a relatively cheap addition who can come in, contest shots and grab a few rebounds. The Seton Hall product has averaged eight rebounds per game over the last 11 seasons.
He doesn't offer much on the offensive end, but the team has enough scorers to compensate for Dalembert's inability to put the ball in the basket.
The team could finish off its defensive re-tooling by adding a perimeter defender in the Tony Allen mold to backup James Harden. Lin and Harden are decent defenders and reserve Patrick Beverley is coming into his own.
Still, the team needs a Thabo Sefolosha-type stopper that can come off the bench and clamp down on opponents. Denver's Corey Brewer is a free agent this summer and he was among the top 10 in the league in steal percentage.
The Rockets have the kind of high-octane offense that can keep up with anybody. To go far in the playoffs, however, they will need to generate some stops.
This offseason doesn't need to be filled with big names, but it would benefit the team to add a few guys with a well-known defensive reputation.
Josh Smith would shore up the team's weak spot at power forward while also providing quality defense. Samuel Dalembert would give the second unit another big man that can protect the rim. A perimeter defender like Corey Brewer could bolster the defense off the bench.
Morey proved this season that rebuilding a team is as much about hitting a few doubles (Asik and Lin) as it is about knocking one out of the park (Harden). The team should follow that strategy once again this offseason to fix its leaky defense.
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