Unless they make some moves this offseason, the Houston Rockets risk failing to get off the launchpad.
Go back to this time last year, the team was coming off a 34-32 season. Then the Rockets acquired James Harden and were almost immediately transformed into one of the most exciting young teams in the league.
Harden has made the jump from very good third option on a talented team to bona fide star. He still needs to refine some things in his game, but it's apparent he can be a building block.
The problem is he's surrounded by some good to very good players, but not another star player. It's hard to compete for an NBA title without having two or even three big-name players.
That's why the pursuit of Dwight Howard is so critical. ESPN's Marc Stein reported earlier in the week that Houston look to be the frontrunner in the Howard sweepstakes.
ESPN reported in April that Rockets, widely seen as leaders in Dwight Howard chase, planned to shed Robinson so they can offer Dwight max— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 21, 2013
Should the signing happen, the Rockets would be getting one of the best big men in the game and making that necessary jump from playoff contender to title contender. The Western Conference is still a little wide open. You've got some great teams at the top, but each arguably has a major question mark.
There's plenty of opportunity for the Rockets to elevate themselves this offseason.
Here are two other teams that need to be aggressive in the free-agent market.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers started the offseason well, selecting C.J. McCollum in the first round, then Jeff Withey in the second. McCollum can be the scorer alongside Damian Lillard, while Withey offers some post presence.
In what would be a good move, NBA insider Brett Poirer reported an offer won't be extended to Eric Maynor.
Blazers will not extend backup PG Eric Maynor a qualifying offer, will become unrestricted free agent, via sources.— Brett Poirier NBA (@BrettNBA) June 28, 2013
That's the first step in what should be an active offseason for the Blazers.
Portland is in the same situation as Houston, except it doesn't have a player like Harden. Well, maybe it could. LaMarcus Aldridge is a very good player and still a bit undervalued for what he brings on the court.
However, you have to look at what the team has done in recent seasons with Aldridge as the unquestioned leader. The Blazers have been underwhelming to say the least.
The team has some flexibility this offseason and needs to surround Aldridge with a strong supporting cast to see where he can take them. His contract is up in two seasons, so the team needs to know whether it should commit another long-term deal to what will be a 29-year-old Aldridge.
For years, the Atlanta Hawks have been in a period of stasis. They would finish somewhere in the middle of the Eastern Conference and then get bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs. Rinse, repeat.
This offseason is very intriguing for the franchise, though.
At this point, it seems unlikely Josh Smith is returning. That would be good news, because the team needs to start over and build around a different core of players.
Atlanta didn't have a terrible draft. Evaluating it properly really can't be done, because you have no idea how their picks will turn out.
While you can say that about every team, the Hawks chose to draft younger players who are probably years away from really contributing. Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira are picks for the long term. They're not going to offer much next year.
With the kind of money at their disposal, the Hawks need to do something to address the wing and possibly center. There are a lot of good players available, and Atlanta has the money available to sign a top player like Andre Iguodala or could even settle for a secondary free agent like Tony Allen or O.J. Mayo, and then go in for a big man who can offer a stopgap until Nogueira is ready to step up.
Unless, they're completely writing next season off, the Hawks have to do something to improve their roster in the short term.