Free agent center Dwight Howard is the big fish Houston has been saving its money to reel in.
The offseason plan for the Houston Rockets is less about rebuilding and more about refining. With a young roster led by guard James Harden, Houston can become a fixture in the playoffs with a few more finishing touches this summer.
The biggest key for the team will be defense. Houston allowed an average of 102.5 points per game during the regular season, which was the third-worst in the NBA. They also gave up 105.8 points a night in the playoffs, second only to Denver as the postseason's worst.
On the bright side, the Rockets finished with the league's second-best scoring offense, averaging 106 points per contest. Harden evolved from a key reserve on Oklahoma City's bench last year to one of the game's elite starting guards.
Center Omer Asik proved to be a free agent steal, contributing 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game in his first season as an NBA starter. He also helped on the defensive end by blocking at least one shot a game.
Small forward Chandler Parsons emerged as one of the league's best bargains. He produced 15.5 points a night, while making just under $1 million for last season.
With just $38 million committed for next season (not including team options), the Rockets are in a good position to add to this young core. Big-named free agents such as Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and Josh Smith will all be in play.
To get a better understanding of Houston's offseason strategy, let's break down the most crucial decisions the team will have to make. These moves will be broken down in the order of importance, with the biggest move being saved for the grand finale.
The Houston Rockets are stacked at the power forward position with a collection of talented young big men. Rookies Terrence Jones, Thomas Robinson and Donatas Motiejunas are the most heralded prospects at the four.
There's also forward and backup center Greg Smith, who has an option for next season that would pay him just under $900,000.
As if that foursome wasn't enough, rookie Royce White figures to factor into the Rockets' plans at some point. So far, White's biggest contribution to the team has been agitating Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant on Twitter.
Whether they decide to stick with what they have or sign a proven free agent, the Rockets need to break up the logjam they've got going on. None of these young forwards can emerge in a cluttered frontcourt.
Jones and Robinson have the most potential of the bunch and the team should stick with them as their forwards of the future. D-Mo has a ton of upside as a promising Euro big man, but he is better served as trade bait.
Smith is a decent young backup at either the 4 or the 5, but the team has the money to find a better option. It would be best if they let him find greener pastures elsewhere.
As for White, he has no real trade value until he actual plays a meaningful minute of pro basketball. After battling with the team for a number of reasons stemming from his anxiety issues, the Iowa State product's rookie season was basically a wash.
With no first round pick in this year's draft, the Rockets should try to deal White or Motiejunas for either a draft pick or a player that can help in another area. The team could use a good perimeter defender as well as some depth at shooting guard and small forward.
With White, D-Mo or both gone, that would leave the lion's share of the minutes to Robinson and Jones. That will allow them a little more breathing room to make good on their vast potential.
Veteran shooter Carlos Delfino was a solid contributor for the Rockets this season. He averaged 10.1 points per game in the regular season, shooting 40 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc.
Pairing Delfino with Chandler Parsons in a smaller lineup was an effective strategy that forced defenses to pick their poison. Whether as a scorer off the bench or providing sweet shooting in the starting lineup, the Argentinian was a valuable asset.
However, after breaking his foot in the playoffs, Delfino's usefulness has run its course. The team must make a decision whether to pick up his $3 million option for next season.
With the 31-year-old needing four to six months to recover from his injury, this seems to be a very easy decision. Houston needs to bid him adieu and wish him well on his future endeavors.
Letting Delfino walk opens up more cap space for the Rockets to go after a marquee free agent. Also, while Delfino was an effective role player last season, his production can easily be replaced by a free agent such as Kyle Korver.
Korver averaged 10.9 points per game for the Atlanta Hawks last season. He also shot nearly 46 percent from the behind the arc. For the right price, he would be a nice addition as a shooter off of the bench.
If the team opts to stick with Royce White, he would be an intriguing option to replace Delfino in Houston's small lineup. The No. 16 overall pick has good speed and athleticism for a guy who stands 6'8" and 260 pounds.
Another option is former Denver Nuggets guard/forward and pending free agent Corey Brewer. The former Florida Gator doesn't possess Delfino or Korver's shooting acumen, but he's a pesky defender who could help the team on the perimeter.
The cheapest way to build a contender is to strike gold on your draft picks. Building through the draft has worked out well for teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
While the jury is still out on last year's draft, the Rockets did manage to get one of 2011's biggest steals by selecting Chandler Parsons in the second round with the No. 38 overall pick.
They need to hope for a repeat this year at No. 34.
Mock drafts have Houston going in a number of directions. NBADraft.net has Houston opting for former Georgia Tech product and current NBDL member Glen Rice Jr. DraftExpress.com thinks Bucknell center Mike Muscala is the better choice.
At CBSSports.com, Jeff Goodman has Houston taking Brazilian big man Lucas Nogueira, while Matt Moore chose South Dakota State point guard Nate Wolters.
If he manages to slide to them, Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. would be an excellent addition as James Harden's backup. A couple mocks (NBADraft.net and Matt Moore at CBS) have Hardaway Jr. going to Indiana at No. 23 overall, while others think he'll be taken at the top of round 2.
Hardaway Jr. shot the ball well at Michigan, especially from behind the arc. He converted 37 percent of his shots from the three-point line. He could fit in well playing alongside Patrick Beverley on the team's second unit.
North Carolina's Reggie Bullock is another intriguing option, if Hardaway Jr. isn't there. The Tar Heel small forward shot 42 percent from long range as a junior and averaged 13.9 points per game.
It goes without saying that picking up the option on small forward Chandler Parsons (and possibly locking him up long-term) is one of Houston's top priorities this summer. Equally as important is bringing back reserve point guard Patrick Beverley.
Beverley came a long way this past season, from playing ball in Russia to being a midseason addition by the Rockets to being the team's starting point guard in the playoffs. The former Arkansas product didn't register much of a blip in the regular season, contributing 5.6 points and playing around 17 minutes a game.
When starter Jeremy Lin went down in round one with a chest injury, Beverley stepped up. He scored in double-digits in four of the six games against the Thunder. He doubled his regular season scoring average, scoring 11.8 a game in the playoffs.
Beverley carved his niche as a tough defender. According to 82games.com, opponents shot 46.9 percent from the field against Beverley. He also averaged a steal per game in the Oklahoma City series.
While the Rockets have no need to pinch pennies, Beverley does represent a cheap point guard option capable of being a starter. Incumbent Jeremy Lin is set to make $5.2 million next season before jumping to $14.8 million for the 2014-15 season.
Beverley, on the other hand, has a team option for the next two seasons at the low price tag of just under $1 million. While he and Lin are a formidable point guard duo, Beverley's presence does give the Rockets leverage if they decide that "Linsanity" is becoming too expensive for their taste.
At the very least, Beverley has played his way into a bigger role for next season. Along with Parsons, it is important that Houston brings him back into the fold.
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey didn't spend so much time clearing cap space so that he could spend it on mid-level role players and picking up options on cheap reserves. He saved his money so that he could bring another big name to Houston.
Dwight Howard, even with all of the headaches that come with him, is the best player on the open market. As alluring as the bright lights of playing in Hollywood may be, coming to Houston makes too much sense for both parties.
Howard called his first season in Los Angeles with the Lakers a "nightmare". According to ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin, the big man also became frustrated with playing for Mike D'Antoni, saying that he felt "marginalized" by the head coach.
If he were to return to L.A., he would be the anchor of an aging team that could be without star Kobe Bryant (recovering from an Achilles injury) for much of the season. "The Black Mamba" will be 35 when the season starts in October.
Point guard Steve Nash is 39 years old. Fellow big man Pau Gasol will be 33. This isn't a team built for the future.
The Rockets, meanwhile, are a young team in desperate need of a defensive infusion. Howard, for all the PR issues that have come about the past two seasons, is still a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
He has made the All-Defensive team five times. He's led the league in blocked shots twice. He's also a beast on the boards, leading the league in total rebounds six times.
While the Rockets have a promising young center in Omer Asik, he isn't the kind of all-around talent that Howard is. D-12 is the kind of athletic, two-way big man that you build your team around. If they can swing it, a Howard-Asik tandem would be quite the force on the glass and on the defensive end.
CBSSports' Ken Berger reported on May 19 that, of the potential suitors, Houston is said to intrigue Howard the most. Adding Howard to the core of James Harden and Chandler Parsons would give Houston a great trio to compete for titles in the Western Conference.
All of the pieces add up. The Rockets need another presence to shore up their defense. Howard is one of the league's best defenders. Dwight has an interest in coming to Houston and the team has the money to accommodate him.
This is why GMs work tirelessly to free up cap space -- so that they can fill it with high-priced, top-notch talent.
Houston shouldn't wait until next year's star-studded free agent class (LeBron James, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, among others) to spend big money. They have the chance to do something big right now and it starts with luring Dwight Howard away from Los Angeles.