With a mere $38 million in salary committed for next season, the Houston Rockets figure to be major players in free agency this summer. Already a team on the rise, the team could elevate to title contenders with a few solid moves.
The Rockets don't have many needs entering the offseason. They have a potential superstar in guard James Harden. Small forward Chandler Parsons is rising through the NBA ranks. The team also signed a couple solid role players last summer in center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin.
Houston also has a promising four-headed monster at power forward. They used the No. 18 overall pick on Kentucky forward Terrence Jones last June. The team also acquired Thomas Robinson, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft, from Sacramento midseason.
2011 draft pick Donatas Motiejunas and versatile backup Greg Smith round out the group. Royce White is also on the roster but has yet to play a minute of basketball for the team due to personal reasons.
With a surplus of young talent and a ton of cap space, the Rockets are in a great position to make some waves this summer. They could shore up the power forward spot by bringing in a proven veteran such as Utah's Paul Millsap.
They could use a few defensive-minded backups that could help a team that allowed a little over 102 points per game in the regular season, which was 28th in the league. The Rockets also gave up 105.8 points a night in the playoffs, which was second-worst among the 16 contenders.
With no pick in this year's draft until the second round, free agency is going to be Houston's main source of providing depth and upgrading the talent on the roster.
Let's take a look at the guys at each position that the team should target this summer.
The Rockets are pretty much set at point guard with Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. However, it never hurts to have a third guard on the roster in case of an emergency.
Shaun Livingston hasn't lived up to the hype since the Los Angeles Clippers selected him out of high school with the No. 4 overall pick in 2004. A steep learning curve and a gruesome knee injury have derailed a once-promising career.
In eight seasons, the rail-thin point guard has played for seven different teams. Last season, he split time playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards. For his career, he averages 6.7 points and 3.5 assists per game.
Still, Livingston did enough during his preseason run with the Rockets earlier this year to spark the interest of head coach Kevin McHale. The former Celtics legend told the Houston Chronicle back in March that he was pushing for Livingston to make the team.
"He's a great guy," McHale said. "Knows how to play. He's past so much of the stuff he had to get past as a young player to be a team player. He just has a whole vibe about him that's great. I was advocating very hard for his influence."
McHale will have another crack at the 27-year-old this summer. If the team chooses not to pick up Aaron Brooks' $2.5 million option, there would be an opening for Livingston to be the team's third guard.
He doesn't offer much from behind the arc as a career 20 percent shooter from the three-point line. However, he has great size for the position (6'7") and is athletic enough to defend multiple positions.
The team doesn't have a huge need at point guard, unless it chooses to get star-crazy and go after Chris Paul. Assuming they won't, they could do much worse than taking a flier on a kid that has already caught the coach's eye.
Coming off his best season since 2009, Corey Brewer will be an interesting name to watch this summer. He averaged 12.1 points per game on nearly 42 percent shooting as a reserve with the Nuggets this past season.
The former Florida Gator is also a pesky defender. He's averaged more than a steal per game every season except one (2010-11) throughout his seven-year career. He also finished ninth in steal percentage this past season.
At 6'9", Brewer has the size to play either shooting guard or small forward. He could be the chief defensive stopper off the bench for Houston, while being adequate enough offensively to give Chandler Parsons or James Harden a breather.
Brewer is sure to garner some interest from teams looking for a cheap starter at small forward that can provide solid defense. However, if he is comfortable as a reserve, he would be a great addition to a Rockets team in need of a solid defender.
With the team declining Francisco Garcia's $6.4 million option, there is suddenly a need for a sharp-shooting forward on their second unit. That's a job description that fits Kyle Korver to the tee.
Korver averaged nearly 11 points per game for the Atlanta Hawks last season. He also shot just under 46 percent from three-point land. For his career, he's a 42 percent shooter from behind the arc.
Like Corey Brewer, Korver can be used at either shooting guard or small forward. He's not a very good defender, but his reputation as a three-point marksman is solid enough to be worth a look. Korver could play his way into the starting lineup, a la Carlos Delfino last season.
At times, head coach Kevin McHale opted for a smaller lineup with Delfino and Chandler Parsons together. This summer, the team has a tough decision to make on the sweet-shooting Argentinian.
Delfino averaged 10.6 points per game with the Rockets last year, but had his season ended prematurely due to a fractured bone in his foot. The team must decide whether to pick up his $3 million option or look elsewhere for his replacement.
The 32-year-old Korver is a couple years older than Delfino, but has proven to be more effective from long range. With Garcia and Delfino potentially gone, Korver is the best shooter available on the open market.
With so many other scoring options on the floor, Korver could thrive in a Rockets uniform.
The first three names on this list were merely appetizers. It is now time for the main course. A numbers-cruncher like Rockets GM Daryl Morey doesn't go through the trouble to open up cap space so he can build a team of role players.
A team with this much money to burn needs to use it to find James Harden another superstar teammate. Hawks forward Josh Smith may be on the borderline when it comes to the term "superstar," but he brings a lot to the table that should interest the Rockets.
He has made the All-Defensive team once (2009-10) and has finished in the top 10 in blocks per game the past two seasons. He was fifth in defensive rating during the 2011-12 season and also finished eighth in steals back in 2009-10 (All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com).
Smith is also a factor on the glass, finishing fifth in defensive rebounds and 10th in total rebounds in 2011-12. That same season, he averaged a career-high 18.8 points per game, good for 10th in the NBA.
The former Oak Hill Academy star not only gives the Rockets a proven defender and rebounder, but also provides stability at a position with no consistent option. Houston can opt to stay put and hope one of their young forwards emerge, but it might be in their best interest to pounce on a marquee free agent like Smith.
Utah's Paul Millsap is another option, as is Portland's J.J. Hickson. However, neither have the defensive prowess that Smith has. The combination of Smith and center Omer Asik would give the Rockets one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league.
We can always debate whether he's worth a max contract, but there is no question that Josh Smith has a lot of attributes that would benefit the Rockets.
ESPN's Jemele Hill wants Howard to come to Houston. There were even reports that Howard's own girlfriend, Christine Vest, wanted her main squeeze to suit up for the Rockets (a claim she later denied).
There are certainly reasons for Howard to consider leaving Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant will be attempting to come back from an Achilles injury at age 35 (which he will turn in August). Pau Gasol and Steve Nash aren't getting any younger.
Plus, the team stumbled into the seventh seed this season before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Rockets, meanwhile, are a young team that put up a fight in the first round against the West's top seed in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Houston already has a fine center in Omer Asik, but even the most jaded Rockets fan won't use that as an excuse to pass on Dwight Howard.
Beyond being the best center in the league, Howard is also a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He has led the league blocked shots twice and been selected to the NBA's All-Defensive team five times.
He's also led the league in rebounds per game five times, including the past two seasons. He is the perfect superstar to not only take pressure off James Harden, but to fix Houston's deficiencies on defense.
There are obvious risks involved with signing Howard long-term. He's had health issues the past two seasons, with injuries to everything from his back to his shoulder. There are also questions about his character after all the drama that has followed him the last few years.
If he's willing to forgo the bright lights of Hollywood and be content in Houston, Howard can transform this Rockets team into an instant contender.