In the playoffs, the Houston Rockets showed a glimpse of how excellent they can be for years to come. They are right on the cusp of contending for a title.
While they failed to advance to the second round, this was merely a first step for a team on the rise. Their spirited play offered evidence that the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers are arguably the only three teams better positioned for continued success in the playoffs in the years to come.
Anything can happen, of course.
This franchise, in particular, knows all too well how injuries can ravage dreams. Not long ago, the future looked even brighter for a Rockets team led by Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, two Hall of Fame-caliber talents whose bodies broke down before they could become a truly dominating duo in this league.
Given the current roster's potential, youth and salary, however, there appears to be nowhere to go but up. And if you add in arguably the most important ingredients—a roster-building strategy developed by general manager Daryl Morey and an on-court identity built by Kevin McHale—the sky is the limit.
They Have a Franchise Culture and On-Court Identity
The Rockets were the second-highest-scoring offense in the regular season and nearly became the most prolific three-point-shooting team of all time. (This year's Knicks barely beat them out for that title, shooting two more triples over an 82-game season.)
They put up 106.0 points per game, jumping from just 98.1 the year before. It was only the second season at the helm for McHale, but by spreading his offense and handing the ball to James Harden, he showed that he has what it takes to adapt his style of coaching to his roster.
Many traditionalists might say "defense wins championships" while decrying the Rockets' high-scoring, three-point-happy ways. That's fine. But more than adhering to an increasingly dated refrain ("live by the three, die by the three"), today's best teams forge an identity and stick with it.
It isn't hard to find examples. The Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies— the only four teams still alive—all play a certain way, and their identities are what have made them stand out from the pack as much as their talent.
Teams, coaches, players and writers are talking about team identity now more than ever.
But it's not just a buzzword.
An identity is something that is critical to winning. That has always been the case, really, but it stands out in the modern NBA and often proves the difference between talented teams and successful teams.
Here are just a few examples of people stressing its importance.
In Houston, Kevin McHale is starting to create something similar to what has developed in San Antonio, Miami, Indiana and Memphis. He has the lynchpin to make it work in James Harden, and he will likely be able to add wrinkles to his philosophy as more talent is injected.
The franchise also has a general manager who knows both how to get talent and how to ensure it is the right talent. Few headlines claimed him to be a genius when Morey targeted Omer Asik, but that signing was a critical move toward building this foundation for success.
Expect the team's identity to only become more solidified in the years to come, as Morey finds more players to fit the culture and McHale continues to shape the team's on-court style of play.
They Have a Superstar
James Harden is for real. The Thunder may yet win a title without him, but they have to be kicking themselves for letting him get away. It's possible that he doesn't get this good, this fast without spreading his wings for a franchise that gave him full freedom with the ball.
But maaaan, is this guy talented.
Harden will be challenging for the scoring title for the next decade. His 25.9 ppg were the league's fifth-highest total. Better still, his efficient approach to the game—doing his damage at the rim, at the line and behind the arc—means that his individual brilliance is unlikely to ever harm an offense.
Most important of all, he isn't just a scorer.
He isn't Carmelo Anthony (no offense).
Harden can facilitate and create as well as he can score. Mike Prada of SB Nation recently broke down just one of the ways that the Rockets have benefited from their superstar's uncanny ability to make the right pass.
This video, created by Prada, shows just how masterful the 23-year-old already is.
Harden remains a constant threat to score while never losing sight of where his teammates are on the perimeter.
This team has a superstar who can do it all. Whether they put him in the pick and roll, isolate him at the top of the key or run him off a series of screens, Harden is always in a prime position to make a play for himself or his teammates.
Defenses are having an incredibly difficult time stopping that—and he is only 23 years old.
Imagine what happens when he really figures this game out.
They Have Cap Room to Acquire Talent
Even with a promising core and a fully developed identity, the Rockets still have room to acquire another elite player. Dwight Howard is the prime target on this summer's free-agency market and Morey can offer him a max-level contract.
Right now, the Rockets have roughly $38.7 million in guaranteed salary committed for next season, according to ShamSports. Despite his non-guaranteed deal for the upcoming year, however, they are certain to retain Chandler Parsons.
But his salary is tiny, as are those of Patrick Beverly, Greg Smith and James Anderson, each of whom will likely be retained.
Keeping those four moves Houston's payroll up to around $41.3 million.
It can stay right there if they choose to not pick up Francisco Garcia's $6.4 million option (a near certainty) while letting Carlos Delfino and Aaron Brooks walk. (Both have non-guaranteed deals for next season.)
It will be close, but if the 2013-14 salary cap is set at right around $60 million, this will allow Morey to offer Howard (or anyone else) a max contract, starting at around $18 million per season.
With Parsons due for an extension in another two years, the team would have to be careful not to start spending too much beyond that level if it does in fact add a max contract. But even if it does, Houston could still add even more quality talent in subsequent seasons by using the mid-level exception. Throw in a low-salaried veteran to step in as a role player (think Ray Allen on the Heat), and this could become a fearsome roster that runs 10 deep.
No matter what pieces are combined, a team built around Howard, Harden, Parsons, Asik, Lin and Beverley should be able to make deep playoff runs for years. Even if Howard isn't the acquisition, insert any other big-name talent that Houston could pick up, and the same applies.
They Are Young
A few years ago, the league marveled at the Thunder's young talent. Now, the Rockets sit in a similar position (albeit without the overwhelming upside of having two sub-23 superstars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook).
Only one member of their core four (Harden, Parsons, Asik, Lin) is over 24, and the elder statesman (Asik) is just 26.
Look out Western Conference.
Compared to the Spurs, Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers, this is a team with staying power. Its core will grow together—as players and men—evolving into something greater than the sum of the parts.
High-profile acquisitions get the buzz; continuity, however, is often a critical component to building a contender.
The Rockets will have both.
By 2015, this team has the potential to grow into an absolute beast.
A lot can happen over the next three seasons to completely change the landscape of the league, but given the team's average age and payroll situation, I would project Houston as the fourth-most-likely team to win the 2015-16 championship (after only the Thunder, Pacers and Heat, presuming LeBron James is still on the team).
They Learned that They Can Compete
Given the constant media frenzy around the free agent and trading markets, it may seem like today's NBA champions are created through immediate talent injection.
If you look through the annals of league history, however, most title contenders are built by the sustained growth of a nucleus.
The Bad Boy Detroit Pistons had to get by Larry Bird's Boston Celtics before winning back-to-back titles. Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls had to wait for their 1990s dominance, first falling short several years in a row. Even the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers took four seasons to develop into a team capable of a three-peat.
A more-current example: the Pacers.
Two seasons ago, they lost a a hard-fought first-round series to the Chicago Bulls. Though it only went five games, and Chicago jumped out to a 3-0 lead, each of the first three games were within six points, and Indiana had an opportunity to win late in each contest. The team grabbed a victory in Game 4, finally overcoming its inability to finish in crunch time.
The series would end two days later to little league-wide fanfare, but playing tough with the Bulls, who were led by league MVP Derrick Rose, was critical for that team. Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson (in a spectator's role) all learned something about what it takes to win in the postseason.
There is no way to obtain that experience without going through it firsthand.
The next year ended with another unceremonious exit for the Pacers, as they got bounced by the soon-to-be-champion Heat in the second round. Now, however, they have shown further growth, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
It is a path that the Rockets, who lost a tough first-round series to the Thunder, can follow.
If Houston can land Dwight Howard this offseason, it might be able to even skip a step.
But no matter how the team spends its ample salary cap room, it is on the rise. That rise might be meteoric.
The future will always be difficult to project in this league, but there is no reason that this team can't be playing in the Western Conference finals within two years.