The young, high-scoring Houston Rockets were able to bypass the developmental curve en route to their first postseason appearance in four years.
It wasn’t expected. This team had never played together and was looked at as too inexperienced to play competitive basketball. That is until James Harden came along and emerged as one of the NBA’s premier scorers.
A 45-win club, Houston will be returning the bulk of its core. The offseason will be a period of growth for the players, but also a time for general manager Daryl Morey to improve the weak areas from the year before.
Despite the successes of the young franchise, the Rockets dealt with growing pains throughout the grind of an 82-game season.
Heading into the summer, there aren't many questions surrounding this group.
Last offseason was about turning the franchise around, which included the signing of Jeremy Lin and the trade for Harden. This offseason will center around adding some crucial pieces to the core and getting better defensively.
We didn’t see much defense at all last season, as Houston ranked 28th in the NBA in points allowed at 102.5 per game.
More questions surround personnel and roster adjustments. While seven players are under guaranteed contracts, seven more have non-guaranteed contracts and one player has a team option.
This team is going to be strong for years to come, but Morey has to find an answer to a few questions before his Rockets can take the next step.
The Rockets face a tough decision with Carlos Delfino's non-guaranteed contract.
Seven players currently have non-guaranteed contracts and one has a team option. That leaves a lot of work for Morey to figure out what is best for the franchise.
There is no question Chandler Parsons' non-guaranteed $926,500 contract will be picked up, but others aren’t as simple of a decision.
The team option is on 6’7” shooting guard Francisco Garcia. According to Mark Berman of Fox 26 Houston (via Twitter), the Rockets plan to decline Garcia’s $6.4 million option.
After a disappointing regular season, during which he averaged just 5.5 points on 39 percent shooting, Garcia came to life in the playoffs, seeing increased playing time. In 27.7 minutes per game, he shot 44 percent (45.9 percent from beyond the arc) while averaging 10.7 points per game.
Though the option will be declined, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of Garcia’s return. Garcia has expressed interest in returning, but acknowledged it would be tough given the Rockets' cap room.
Searching for another star to pair with Harden, Morey needs to analyze his decisions carefully. He could trade some young talent in order to sign or acquire a star-caliber player. Non-guaranteed players Carlos Delfino ($3 million) and Aaron Brooks ($2.5 million) could be trade bait for a team looking to add depth.
The 30-year-old Delfino played exceptionally well this past season, averaging over 10 points per game and shooting 40.5 percent from the floor, but the Rockets need cap space. Parting ways with the veteran would benefit this team going forward.
The same could be said for Brooks. With Lin and the cheaper non-guaranteed option in Patrick Beverley, the 28-year-old Brooks may very well be looking for a new team this summer.
The other non-guaranteed contracts, all for under $1 million, include Greg Smith, James Anderson, Tim Ohlbrecht and Beverley. With the exception of Beverley, who saw an increased role in the playoffs, these players have had limited production in the NBA, but plenty of room for growth.
Due to Lin’s injuries, Beverley had his number called for extended minutes. He showed his ability to be a capable backup point guard throughout the postseason, in which time he averaged close to three assists per game with a few clutch shots that sparked the team.
Anderson, acquired midseason from the San Antonio Spurs, has yet to find his groove in the NBA, but his 13.93 player efficiency rating in 10 minutes per game could be enough for him to stick around on a cap-friendly contract.
For Morey, it would be wise to explore trades for any and all non-guaranteed players, but bringing back the players who will cost less than $1 million will leave room to sign that star player he’s seeking.
That means saying goodbye to Delfino and Brooks, as well as Garcia and Ohlbrecht, who had four turnovers in four total minutes last season.
McHale experimented with his power forwards, including Thomas Robinson.
When you look at the roster of the Rockets, four of the five starting positions are filled.
Shooting guard will be occupied by Harden for the foreseeable future, a player who averaged over 38 minutes per game and was third in the league in scoring, averaging 26.3 points per game.
Though he struggled with turnovers and wasn’t quite the player Houston envisioned when they signed him, Jeremy Lin is making over $8 million the next two seasons to run the point. With a team-friendly option for Patrick Beverley ($788,872) to back up Lin, the Rockets backcourt is set.
Omer Asik averaged a double-double for the season, 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds, and is expected to remain a key piece in the Rockets’ future success at the 5.
Playing Chandler Parsons as a swing 4, with most of his playing time coming at small forward, gives the Rockets a strong shooting presence at the 3.
If there’s a position that needs an upgrade, it’s the power forward position. After trading Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris at last season’s deadline, McHale went with a mixture of Donatas Montiejunas, Thomas Robinson, Greg Smith and Terrence Jones at power forward.
All are 22 years or younger with limited experience. The question for Morey is whether he sticks with his young players to develop them or look at the free agent market to sign a solidified 4.
Some names on the market include Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, David West and Paul Millsap.
It will be a difficult decision for Morey to make, but he must weigh the options. If he’s able to find cap space for Josh Smith, he shouldn’t hesitate to offer a contract.
Smith provides both offense (a career average of 15.3 points per game) and defense. He is a great shot-blocker with the capability of defending the post. Plus, he rebounds at a fairly high clip, with a career average of eight per game.
The Rockets should keep one of the young players, ideally Robinson who has great athleticism with a high motor, and sign Smith to pair with him. That would give Harden a star to play with and answer the power forward question for Morey and the Rockets.
The Rockets defense desperately needs improvement.
Defense is the main area that needs to be improved for the Rockets. Second in the league in scoring with over 106 points per game, they allowed 102.5 points per contest, third worst in basketball.
If the core players devote extra time during summer workouts to commit defensively, this question can be answered from within the organization.
For the perimeter players, simply getting a hand up will lead to more misses. The opposing shooters have been getting too many uncontested looks at the basket. Opponents had a true shooting percentage of 54 in 2012-13. No matter the team, not many players in the NBA miss open shots.
Houston was tied for 16th in defensive efficiency and ranked 23rd in the league in defensive plays rate, per HoopData.com.
The solution is for perimeter players to fight through screens and play tight on the ball. Kevin McHale is a defensive-minded coach. After seeing how poorly his team played, the summer should be dedicated to improving that defense.
As athletic as Harden and Co. are, a proven player with a solid defensive mind may have to be brought in to help guide Houston in the right direction.
Josh Smith could be that person.
Defense is a skill that comes with practice. This is a team of shooters on which defense comes second. To take the next step, defense must come first.
The players have to push each other, make each other better in practice and have that translate to games.
That’s how this question is answered. Good coaching and player commitment will lead to improved defensive numbers next season.
Is Dwight Howard the answer?
There are two ways to answer this question. Morey, who would have the cap space for a max-contract with some minor tweaks, could go with the position that needs to be upgraded, or go with the biggest name on the market.
Depending on the salary cap, to sign a top-tier free agent Morey must take a pass on some non-guaranteed contract players who don’t quite fit with Houston’s up-tempo, run-and-gun offense.
I touched on the power forward situation, and looked at Josh Smith as a player who fills the need there. He would be a quality, star-caliber player that could excel alongside Harden.
However, if the Rockets really want to make a splash and become title contenders, the free agent they must have is Dwight Howard.
According to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com,
The Rockets are a couple of minor moves away from having room to sign Howard; they have a team option on Francisco Garcia’s $6.4 million and Carlos Delfino’s $3 million is fully non-guaranteed, for example. If they chose to or needed to make a trade to create room, they have numerous attractive young players on tradable contracts.
Howard would fill multiple needs for the Rockets. While he has the reputation for being a headache, he just needs to find the right system.
McHale was one of the best post players in his NBA days and could mold Howard into one of the best post players today.
Howard has tremendous defensive abilities. He’s made the All-Defensive team five times and led the NBA in blocks twice, averaging over two blocks per game the last six seasons.
I still say keep Asik as the starting center and go after Smith, but Howard is going to be Houston’s top priority with Smith a mere consolation.
Really, whichever way Morey decides to go won’t be wrong, as long as he gets that star player he’s been seeking to couple with Harden.
Mike Muscala would be a steal with the 34th pick.
A question that will be asked until June 27: What player will the Rockets select with the 34th pick?
That’s the only pick the Rockets have after losing their first-rounder in the deal that brought Harden to Houston. There was no second-round pick either, until Morey sent Marcus Morris to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for their second-round selection.
With this draft, the 34th pick won’t be a game-changer right away. The Rockets will have to develop the player, something they’ve become accustomed to doing in recent years.
Since there is a plethora of young forwards on the roster, this pick should be used on a shooting guard or a center for depth.
A shooting guard, projected by NBADraft.net to be selected by Houston, is former Georgia Tech standout Glen Rice Jr. He played in the NBA D-League last season after he was kicked off the Yellow Jackets following a shooting incident at an Atlanta nightclub.
ESPN’s Chad Ford projects Rice Jr. as a mid-first round pick. He may be overlooked because of his off-court issues from the past and potentially drop to the second round. Because of his basketball talent, if the Rockets can be sure his issues are behind him, he could be a steal with the 34th pick.
Ford evaluates Rice as a great defender, quality rebounder and overall good athlete. As the Rockets are thin at the shooting guard position, Rice Jr. must be looked at as June 27 approaches.
If Morey chooses to go big, we could very well see Bucknell center Mike Muscala’s name called. At 6’11”, 231 pounds, Muscala can score from all areas of the floor. He has a great post game on the inside and he can knock down a long jumper on the outside.
Muscala is a strong paint presence, possessing the ability to shot-block (80 blocks last season) and rebound at a high clip (11.1 per game).
With a high basketball IQ and a knack for doing everything, Muscala may be the most polished big man in the draft. As Chris Dortch of NBA.com reported in late April, he was one of three Division I basketball players who led their team in points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots.
Muscala would be the pick to take here if he’s still on the board. Like we saw with the Hornets (Pelicans) selection of Anthony Davis last year, Muscala could shift to power forward in order to be an effective NBA player.
It all depends on what direction Morey wants to take the draft: back court or front court. For that, we'll get our answer on June 27.