Bold Predictions for Houston Rockets During 2013-14 Season
After making a series of splashes over the 2012 offseason, any thoughts of the Houston Rockets flying under the radar this summer just flew out the window.
With one superstar already in place (James Harden), a star-gazing general manager still running the show (Daryl Morey) and cap space to burn ($39.3 million in salary commitments, via HoopsWorld.com), Houston was already expected to be a major player in the 2013 NBA free-agent market.
But now that superstar free-agent center Dwight Howard has reportedly taken an interest in H-Town (according to what league sources told CBSSports.com's Ken Berger), it may be a superstar-or-bust approach to the offseason.
Last season was all about finding the Rockets' launch pad. Morey's savvy acquisitions helped snap the franchise's three-year playoff drought, meaning the emphasis of next season has shifted to escaping the realm of mediocrity.
That's never a small task in the always loaded Western Conference. But it isn't an unattainable goal, either.
Morey has the financial flexibility to continue adding impactful talent onto one of the league's brightest collections of youthful, productive talent. And he has a team of sharp, analytically inclined minds to help him identify where those dollars will carry the most weight.
When he has these kind of tools to employ, a splash seems inevitable.
But will those moves be more substance than style; and what will that mean to the franchise's standing in the West?
1. Dwight Howard Will Be a Member of the Rockets
There are plenty of reasons why Howard won't be Space City-bound this summer.
For starters all of the cap space in the world can't change the fact that Howard's most recent club, the Los Angeles Lakers, can offer more money ($118 million) and more years (five) than any of his other suitors (capped at $88 million for four years).
L.A. also has a rich championship history and the opportunities to feed all of Howard's off-court desires.
From Houston's standpoint, the center position isn't exactly an area of need. Omer Asik flourished in his debut Rockets campaign, tallying 33 double-doubles and finishing with respectable rebounding (11.7) and scoring (10.1) averages.
But there are several compelling arguments to be made about why Houston will be Superman's next home.
Remember Howard's first year in L.A. was a "nightmare" in his words (via David Leon Moore of USA Today). Even still he took home the fifth rebounding crown of his career (12.4 per game) and flourished in his first exposure as a secondary scorer (17.1 points on 57.8 percent shooting from the field).
Then consider the fact that Morey has spent years turning the franchise into a coveted destination for superstars and now has caught the attention of the most dynamic big man in the business. Or that Morey attempted to enter the Howard sweepstakes as recently as last summer.
Via Berger, it's believed that Howard would like to play alongside another 7-footer meaning a Howard-Asik frontcourt could be another selling point working in Houston's favor.
As far as the economics are concerned, leaving L.A. doesn't have to be the dramatic financial hit some pundits have made it out to be.
Still 27 years old, Howard may be interested in taking a shorter contract now (perhaps three years), then cashing in on another max contract while still in his prime. And don't forget that there are no state income taxes in Texas, another potential draw for bringing Howard to Houston.
2. Houston Will Have Multiple All-Star Game Participants
If Howard lands in Houston, then this seems to be a mere formality.
Both he and Harden finished among the top-four vote-getters at their respective positions in the 2013 All-Star balloting (via NBA.com).
But Harden's presence alone doesn't make the Rockets such an attractive franchise.
Chandler Parsons finished 10th in the 2013 Most Improved Player award voting (via NBA.com), and showed enough signs of making another strong charge for the hardware next season. He's a prolific perimeter shooter (38.5 three-point percentage), versatile scorer (15.5 points per game, 48.6 field-goal percentage) and stat-sheet stuffer in the greatest sense (5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals per game).
Jeremy Lin's never been short on fan support, and nearly eked out a starting spot on the 2012 All-Star team. If his averages (13.4 points and 6.1 assists) take a slight bump, or even if they hold steady and Houston emerges near the top of the Western Conference standings, he'll be a threat for a roster spot once again.
And don't think that sharing a locker room with another All-Star hurts a player's chances to be selected. Of the 10 starters selected for the 2013 contest, eight of them had a teammate on the starting five.
3. Rockets Will Be the Best Texas Team
The Larry O'Brien Trophy has made four stops in the Lone Star State over the past 10 years. Even when it's found a different landing point, the path to bring it home has typically run through Texas.
Next season should be no exception. The Rockets and Dallas Mavericks each have substantial cap space to build around their incumbent superstars (Harden and Dirk Nowitzki, respectively), while the San Antonio Spurs have once again established themselves among the NBA's elite franchises.
So how will Houston rise above its intrastate rivals?
It starts and stops with the acquisition of Howard. Short of a Superman-swipe, the Rockets will be a slightly improved version of the 2012-13 group: an entertaining, young group of players nipping at the heels of the conference powerhouses.
But if Howard joins the fray, the Rockets will rise to the top of the Texas trio.
Despite this season's gaudy offensive totals (106.0 points per game), coach Kevin McHale is a defensive mind at heart. He knows how to tailor his rotations to lessen Howard's responsibilities on that end, thus maximizing his true effectiveness.
And this year-long exposure to a high-powered offensive juggernaut has left McHale well equipped to build a formidable force around Howard at that end. Parsons, Harden (36.8 three-point percentage), Lin (33.9) and Patrick Beverley (37.5) are all capable of pulling defenders away from the interior, as is Carlos Delfino (37.5), who holds a $3 million team option for 2013-14.
4. Houston Will Finish as a Top-Four Seed in the West
With or without a division crown, the Rockets will be staring at a top-four seed in the West.
As far as the Southwest Division title is concerned, the Rockets will have their work cut out for them. Two division peers, the Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, are the last two Western Conference teams standing in the 2013 postseason.
If the Rockets can hold off at least one of their division foes, though, they should be looking at home-court advantage in their first-round series.
The Northwest division houses the Oklahoma City Thunder and a horde of question marks. Key free-agent decisions for its other top teams (Andre Iguodala for the Denver Nuggets and Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap for the Utah Jazz) could swing their future direction.
The Pacific division promises to bring intrigue, with both L.A. clubs and the rising Golden State Warriors providing the entertainment. But the Lakers and Clippers have yet to lock up their respective faces of the franchise (Howard and Chris Paul), while the Warriors will have to prove they're healthy enough to be more than a one-year wonder.
The Rockets proved they're a playoff team without Howard this season and remained in contention for the sixth seed into the final week of the regular season. With Howard added to the mix, a top-four seed feels like a worst-case scenario.
5. Houston Will Win a Playoff Series
Save for a second-round trip in 2009, the Rockets have struggled to make any significant noise in the postseason since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were leading the charge in the mid-1990s.
Those Houston teams boasted rosters worthy of Morey's greatest dreams, surrounding multiple superstar players with a crowd of versatile role players. Rosters like Morey's current creation with the addition of Howard.
What makes a Houston-Howard marriage so intriguing is the variety of attacks they could throw at an opposing defense.
They could run a pair of bruisers (Howard and Asik) in a supersized package. McHale could downsize with a two point-guard look (Lin and Beverley) when he wants to force the tempo. No less than five different players (Lin, Beverley, Harden, Parsons and Delfino) could initiate the offense, six if Royce White can ever jump start his NBA career.
They're a potential defensive force with more offensive threats than most teams can imagine, a perimeter-based attack featuring the most explosive center in the league.
Winning a single postseason series sounds good enough for Houston right now, considering they have just one series win since 1997.
But Morey and Co. have laid the necessary groundwork to dramatically change the expectation level of this franchise, particularly if they can continue finding their magic touch this offseason.