The Houston Rockets' two biggest problems last year were back-to-the-basket scoring and their overall subpar point guard play. When it comes to finding a back-to-the-basket scorer, the team is looking into solving that as soon as possible, with free-agent centers Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum on the market.
When it comes to addressing point guards of the future, the options won’t be laid out so plainly.
With a boatload of young forwards, the team will need to add a point guard in the near future if Jeremy Lin doesn’t improve significantly.
I believe that Lin will never improve dramatically and that the team will have to look elsewhere for a floor general to fulfill the organization’s championship aspirations.
Popular belief is that Lin will be starting next to Harden for the near future, but the bottom line is that Harden is eons ahead of Lin in talent and needs a better running mate to bring a ring to Houston. While Linsanity has rotted the brains of many disillusioned fans, the reality is that Lin is not a quality starting point guard in this league.
While Lin won’t have trouble finding 20-25 minutes per game in the league, his lack of foot speed, shaky three-point shot and inability to handle heavy on-ball pressure indicate that he’s more likely to find time on a winner as a reserve guard.
Additionally, Lin is a defensive liability.
Coach Kevin McHale was forced to insert reserve guard Patrick Beverley into the lineup down the stretch of too many games last year, especially against the better point guards in the league. Beverly (and Toney Douglas earlier in the year) also stole minutes from Lin in several games due to Lin’s offensive disappearing acts, which disproves the myth that Lin is an above-average offensive talent.
James Harden’s ability as a passer allows the Rockets to search for a point guard that doesn’t serve as a traditional pass-first guy like Ty Lawson or Rajon Rondo. Jeremy Lin led the team in assists this past season, but he played off the ball often due to Harden’s prowess in the pick-and-roll game.
Houston is built to ascend in the Western Conference with talented wings in Harden and Parsons, along with a bundle of talented youngsters and a ton of space under the cap. However, outside of Harden and Parsons, the rest of the starting spots are all up for grabs.
In the past two seasons, the team has undergone constant changes. But this season’s playoff berth, sparked by the trade for Harden in late October, shows that the team has the capacity to join the league’s elite in the near future. An upgrade at point guard will further the team’s case and show the rest of the league that the Rockets mean business.
If Daryl Morey’s moves in the last couple years have taught us anything, it’s that we should expect the unexpected. While the no-brainer option of Chris Paul would be ideal, Morey has contingency plans for his contingency plans.
Dozens of options will arise, but the quicker he decides to pull the trigger on a deal—whether it be in free agency or via trade—the sooner he’ll be able to build the rest of his squad with certainty.
Finding a backcourt mate for Harden is essential to Houston’s maturation as an offense. Last season, Houston averaged more possessions per game than any other squad and relied on its fast-break offense to create shots. If the team wants to take a step into championship relevance, it’ll need to find a guy that can push the tempo, spread the floor and defend the league’s elite floor generals.
When it comes to Ellis, you need to remove the stigma and think outside the box. I know what you’re thinking: This guy can’t be a point guard on a winning team because he’s either a shoot-first 1 or an undersized 2.
Let’s examine that first.
Ellis started out in this league with Baron Davis as his mentor. Ellis picked up on Davis’ charisma and understood how to play the confidence game with opposing guards. Davis was always the kind of guy who would play up (or down) to his competition, and Ellis understood that quality.
However, Ellis is and always was in much better shape than Davis, and his jumper has always had a higher release point (and better results).
Ellis’ next partner in crime was Stephen Curry. Curry's not a real PG either, so it made sense that the two could share the duties, right? Wrong.
The two didn’t coexist because they were both primary scorers. Even Curry’s success this year was in large part due to Jarrett Jack’s role on the team. Jack played down the stretch of most games for the Warriors, allowing Curry to run off 700 screens and slide the arc to reap the benefits of Jack’s penetration.
Ellis and Curry didn’t win enough games together. Ellis eventually got the boot over Curry for two reasons: Curry’s age and Ellis’ contract.
Next up, Brandon Jennings. Say hello to an enigma that someone will overpay for and miss the playoffs for four consecutive seasons with. Jennings’ game is all about rhythm, much like Ellis. Two volume shooters in the same backcourt wasn’t going to work.
Jennings and Ellis didn’t team up to make a splash and run through the Eastern Conference; they just so happened to be on the same team when their eyes started moving away from the court and into their future plans.
Ellis is now an unrestricted free agent after opting out of his deal. He’ll be looking for a new home this summer.
So, why could James Harden and Monta Ellis work?
For one, if you’ve seen Ellis hot, you know exactly why I’m fantasizing about this backcourt. But even when Ellis isn’t raining threes or rising up to rim level and hitting jumpers over taller guards, he’s still a lightning quick guard with a good handle.
Harden is the type of guy who can lead by example, whose will to win is infectious.
Harden would still be able to get his shots in a backcourt with Ellis. Also, due to Harden’s propensity for circle-area penetration, Ellis could play significant time off the ball, attacking from the wing and sliding the arc for spot-up triples.
Honestly, it would be really hard for anyone with a pair of eyes to tell me with a straight face that Lin does anything better than Ellis.
On a different note, the price still has to be right for this move to be made. If Ellis is looking for max money and four years, Morey will have trouble pulling the trigger.
However, if Ellis is looking for a two-year deal (ideally with a third-year team option), then we’re talking. If Ellis signed that deal, the Rockets would be able to shed three big contracts (Ellis, Asik, Lin) in the same offseason, just in time to extend their collection of youngsters to long-term deals.
Maybe Ellis will turn out to be just another Corey Maggette: a talented offensive player who doesn’t have much interest in winning.
But one thing that I know for sure is this: James Harden has the skill set and leadership skills to keep everyone on the court happy and keep everyone’s eyes on a ring. If you’re doubting his ability to adjust to Ellis’ game successfully—which would allow for mutual success—you’re doubting the one man who has everyone so excited in Houston.
If the Rockets spend big on a big man, it’s possible that they bring in a point guard to add some depth and fight for a starting job.
Jose Calderon would be a perfect fit for the team. His offensive strengths would work perfectly with the rest of the team. His modest defensive ability could be masked by Houston’s frenetic pace.
Calderon made over 46 percent of his three-point attempts last season, good for No. 1 in the league. Meanwhile, the Spaniard dished out 7.1 assists per game for two different teams while playing fewer than 30 minutes per game.
If Calderon is looking for a starting spot in this league, he may struggle to find one. Not many teams are looking for 31-year-old point guards to take over their team, especially ones with defensive troubles.
If Houston hasn’t dished out all its free agency money yet, the Rockets could provide a solution to his dilemma.
With Jeremy Lin starting and Patrick Beverley backing him up, the Rockets boast one of the weaker point guard duos in the game. With Calderon on board, the team’s defense won’t noticeably decline and the Rockets will benefit offensively.
Calderon possesses the rare ability to create seams to the basket and find both shooters and cutters with ease. When the ball is not in his hands, Calderon is a deadly three-point shooter, which will help space the floor for Harden to do his damage in the pick-and-roll game.
Much like Calderon, Jack would be a rental of sorts if Houston decided to take that route. If the team were to offer Jack a contract, it would likely be a one- or two-year deal, for all the same reasons it would offer one to Calderon.
Jack had an extremely successful 2012-13 season. Backing up Stephen Curry in Golden State, Jack averaged 12.9 points per game while dishing out 5.6 assists per game. Down the stretch of most close games, Jack was on the court next to Curry, allowing the young shooter to play away from the ball.
Golden State had its most successful season in what seems like ages, and Jack was a big part of the success.
So what does Jack bring exactly?
Jack is the quintessential gamer. Much like former Rocket Sam Cassell, Jack loves to play the game more than most. He has absolutely no quit in him and is a dream teammate.
Put the heart and fight of Jack next to a talented, composed gunslinger in Harden and you have yourself a winning combination. Jack’s not the kind of guy that is going to garner north of $50 million in free agency. He’ll likely have to make a decision, similar to Calderon, about playing in a playoff team’s rotation or playing big minutes with a lottery-bound squad.
The Warriors would be out of their minds to let Jack slip between their fingers, but if they can’t retain the guard, someone will be getting themselves a high-quality rotational player.
Jack doesn’t have the upside of the guys later on this list, but maybe he’s the newest version of Chauncey Billups. Remember, before Billups went to Detroit, he spent five years on three different teams, never scoring over 14 points a game.
Maybe Jack can be a calming influence on a team of youngsters. Maybe he finds a home in Houston next to Harden. Maybe he elevates himself to an All-Star level with an improved supporting cast. Maybe his leadership guides a young and improved Rockets team to a top-four spot in a shifting Western Conference landscape.
Stranger things have happened.
The former top selection of the 2010 NBA draft out of Kentucky has seen little success in Washington when it comes to the win column. Wall will be entering his fourth season with the team if he stays in Washington through this summer and will be a free agent next summer if he doesn’t sign an extension.
Since coming to Washington, Wall has seen the franchise go from bad to worse. During Wall’s three-year career, he has seen coach Flip Saunders fired, frustrating youngsters like Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young moved and an influx of overpaid, underperforming veterans brought in.
Going into last season, it seemed like the Wizards had a chance at a playoff spot in the East. Then, Wall went down and his team didn’t just stumble out of the gate; it tripped, took a detour, got lost and didn’t recover until Wall returned.
Washington did improve dramatically when Wall came back last year, but there isn’t too much about the franchise that would make Wall want to stay—outside of the team’s Bird Rights that could give him an extra year and extra cash on a max contract.
As the team is currently constructed, Wall will be starting next to youngster Bradley Beal, journeyman Martell Webster and a pair of overpaid bigs in Nene and Emeka Okafor.
To make matters worse, the Wizards have drafted poorly in recent years, with first-round picks like Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin failing to develop into starters.
So with the possibility of Wall leaving Washington, are the Rockets a decent fit for his services?
They certainly could be.
Wall’s game is a little rough around the edges, with his streaky shooting and his propensity for turning the ball over, but there aren’t five guys in the league who fly up the court faster with the ball in their hands than Wall.
Wall’s a legitimate 6’4” and has awe-inspiring ball-handling skills. Can you imagine the assist numbers he’d put up if he were surrounded by talented bigs, James Harden and Chandler Parsons?
Last year, Wall averaged 7.6 assists a night—and that was playing alongside Beal, Webster and a slew of random bigs. No one, aside from himself, was capable of creating their own shot with any frequency, so all of those playmaking abilities fell on him.
What did he do? He put the team on his back, shot the highest percentage of his career (44 percent) and upped his scoring to 18.5 points a game.
If Wall has serious interest in winning basketball games, he may decide that he doesn’t want to stay in D.C. If he wants out, Wizards GM Ernie Grunfield could look to move him before the season, just as Harden was moved before his fourth season with the Thunder.
The Rockets have a boatload of young assets to offer for Wall. Grunfield may need to take less than market value for a guy who is going to jet in free agency.
Wall’s jaw-dropping quickness and his ability to find the open man and create passing lanes would immediately elevate the Rockets' fast break to a new level. With Wall, Harden would be able to play a little more off the ball, using down screens to get his defender chasing him on the weak side, while Wall creates off the pick-and-roll on the strong side.
Sounds nice, right?
Irving just finished up his second season in the league. Last season, Irving shone the brightest of anyone from the NBA draft class of 2011 and showed the entire league why he was taken first overall a couple years back.
Irving improved his scoring from 18.5 per game to 22.5 per game and caught the eye of the NBA during an impressive stretch before he was injured midseason.
While Irving has improved, his team has stayed awful. Dan Gilbert’s crew out in Cleveland actually had a lower winning percentage in 2012-13 than the season before, which leads to questions about Irving’s supporting cast.
I don’t know if anyone remembers this, but a few years ago there was this amazing talent playing out in Cleveland who eventually left the team because management could not put anything that resembled a decent supporting cast on the floor.
I think a couple people were actually upset that he left and compared him to Judas for abandoning his cast of fringe starters to go to a nice warm place with a better roster.
Imagine if Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland brass screwed the pooch again?
If Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and this year’s first overall pick don’t do their part to change the losing environment in Cleveland, then there’s a chance Irving bolts after four years.
If the Rockets decide to stick with Lin for another two years as their starter and they’re unable to snag an expensive big, then it’s feasible that the team could be in the Irving Sweepstakes in 2015.
If Irving causes a big stir before or during his fourth year in Cleveland, similar to what Carmelo Anthony did in Denver, then Cleveland might be forced to move Irving. If the day comes when Irving is the new D-12, bad-mouthing his coach in front of reporters, then Cleveland may be forced to shop him out of fear that it won’t receive any compensation if he walks in free agency.
Irving is the least likely of the listed possibilities because it seems like the Rockets are looking to build a team that can contend in the next one or two years. However, if Morey struggles finding his second superstar as much as he struggled finding his first one, then the day might come when Irving seems like a possibility.
Irving and Harden would instantly make up the best backcourt in basketball, as both possess playmaking skills and scoring skills that no other team’s backcourt could match.