As the Houston Rockets' season ended in defeat, it was one that has to be looked at as a success.
Every year, the Rockets should look to improve on the last, limiting the mistakes and inching closer to the ultimate goal—an NBA championship.
After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons, the youngest team in the NBA proved that they are no longer “rebuilding.” As the No. 8 seed, they managed two wins against the No. 1-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder before packing up their lockers and heading home.
This year's experience will work wonders for the future of the team, but there are some adjustments that must be made for the Rockets to take the next step.
Control the Ball
Turnovers can make or break a game. The Rockets had trouble controlling the ball all season, leading the league in turnover ratio at 14.9.
That’s in large part due to the backcourt. James Harden led the league in total turnovers (295) and was second in turnovers per game (3.8), behind only Rajon Rondo (3.9) who played 40 fewer games than Harden. Jeremy Lin, on the other hand, was 10th in the league with 236 giveaways.
To get better in this area, the Rockets players must learn to trust each other. Their speed and fast-paced offense contributes to the turnover woes, but trusting each other and slowing the pace across half-court can help reduce the rate of turnovers.
If the run-and-gun offense had more structure, the turnovers wouldn't be forced.
Structure the Offense
In Kevin McHale’s system, there was no structured offense. He gave his team the freedom to shoot, but there was a lot of standing around the perimeter and in the corner.
As assistant coach Kelvin Sampson admitted to Zach Lowe of Grantland earlier this season:
We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays.' We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play.
The offense consists of isolation, the fast break and pick-and-rolls.
Understandably, the offense is centered around Harden. The point guard, whether Lin or Patrick Beverley, would take the ball up the court, dish to Harden and let him make plays.
When defenses started to pick up on Harden’s isolation-type offense, he began to heave cross-court passes—and it worked. Harden’s ability to read the defense enabled him to find the open man (often in the corner) for a spot-up three or in a position to drive to the basket.
That type of offense is seen here:
Though this style tended to be effective, a more structured set should be implemented into the offense this summer. That would lead to more quality looks and less turnovers from dangerous passes.
The Rockets need more movement without the ball, getting in position for a rebound or setting off-ball screens to free up a teammate.
Working on set plays and less isolation style will make the Rockets a more solidified team come playoff time. There needs to be less standing around and watching Harden.
Establish Post Game
Despite the shooting prowess of the young Rockets, there are going to be times when the shots don’t fall.
The majority of games, Harden was the leading scorer. When he shot under 35 percent from the floor, the Rockets were in trouble. In those 19 games, Houston was 4-15.
For those times when the scorers go cold from the field, the Rockets need a post player on offense to take some of the pressure off the outside shooters.
Asik is better at the pick-and-roll than he is posting up and Chandler Parsons would excel as a small forward, as he is often out-sized at the 4.
Without a first-round selection in June’s draft, the Rockets should look to sign a player who excels at the post game. Having the cap space to sign a top-tier free agent, one player that sticks out is Utah Jazz forward Al Jefferson.
Granted a small sample size, you can see the type of dynamic inside and post player Jefferson is in the clip below. Watch him post up and get to the rim against the physical Carlos Boozer at the 2:42 mark.
Though Jefferson is primarily a center, he and Asik could clog the middle. Plus, he is a scoring threat on the inside, averaging 16.4 points throughout a nine-year career, and a defensive presence on the boards, with a career mark of nine rebounds per game.
His most productive years came with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2007-2010, under then Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale (check out this blast from the past). With their experiences together, and Jefferson’s commitment to his craft, he could be the player to get Houston past the first round.
The post play is the one area for Houston that needs a personnel adjustment.
Improve Perimeter Defense
When you look at the offensive success the Rockets had this past season (106 points per game), they ranked 28th in the NBA in points allowed, with 102.5.
Asik has done very well defensively, becoming a presence in the middle with over one block and 11.7 rebounds per game, but that hasn’t been enough to yield great defensive results.
Tied for 16th in the league in defensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive plays rate, the Rockets need to improve the defense around the perimeter with the likes of Harden and Lin. Opponents had a true shooting percentage of 54 this past season.
To be more effective, the Rockets backcourt needs to fight through screens and contest open looks. With some success defending one-on-one isolation plays, it was the screens that were giving the Rockets trouble.
Improving this area simply takes practice and good coaching. Harden is plenty capable of becoming a respectable defender, as is Lin, they just have to devote the time in the gym.
Getting lateral quickness and being able to play tight, rather than a few steps off the ball to avoid getting beat on the first step, is what Harden and Lin have to work on.
If there’s one thing the Rockets guards need to focus on this offseason, it’s defending the perimeter and not allowing high-percentage, uncontested shots.
No matter how dynamic the scoring attack, if you don't play defense, you don't win games in late April.
Work on Team Chemistry
Everything starts with chemistry. This team has been taken apart and sewn back together in recent years. Chandler Parsons is the only player remaining from two years ago, and if you take that into consideration, the chemistry this past season was great, but there’s still room to grow.
The leader of the team, James Harden, told David Barron of The Houston Chronicle:
We have the summertime to get better. We need to hang out with each other, work out with each other, and just get better, We have the offseason to actually get to know each other and actually get to hang out and build from this.
Learning each other’s style of play is a crucial aspect to team success. A full offseason of getting better acquainted will lead to better results on both ends of the floor.
The Rockets are a young team that will grow up together. For them, perhaps the most important part of success is finding the right chemistry.
If all these areas are addressed, with chemistry being the key, Houston will gain a step in their championship quest. They will be a team poised to make it back to the postseason and advance past the first round.