For the Houston Rockets to remain a NBA title contender in the tough Western Conference, there are a few changes that will need to be made this offseason. General manager Daryl Morey has done a fine job of keeping the team competitive, but a little more tinkering could put them over the top.
Houston has been riding high in recent weeks. They've won 10 of their last 12 games, including notching their biggest win of the season in a 106-103 toppling of the defending champion Miami Heat on March 4. Since Jan. 28, the team is 12-2, which is the best mark in the NBA during that span.
The Rockets have enjoyed some individual achievements as well. Head coach Kevin McHale won Western Conference Coach of the Month for February, while guard James Harden earned Western Conference Player of the Week for Feb. 24 to March 2 (h/t to Jonathan Feigen and The Houston Chronicle for the news).
As of March 4, the team is 41-19 and are currently holding down the third spot in the Western Conference standings. They are also three games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the Southwest division crown.
Along with Harden, Houston has received extraordinary play from free-agent addition Dwight Howard, second-year man Terrence Jones and emerging small forward Chandler Parsons. Point guard Patrick Beverley is also continuing to blossom as the season progresses.
Still, a general manager's work is never done and this season has exposed some weaknesses that Morey will need to address this summer.
1. Fix The Second Unit
One of the Rockets' biggest issues has been finding scoring off the bench. For all of the depth the team has on paper, the river appears to have run dry on the second unit. Even before battling a knee injury, forward Francisco Garcia has been wildly inconsistent.
The same can be said for Omri Casspi with his 16-point outing against Detroit on March 1 being his only sign of life since mid-January. Omer Asik has shown recent improvement, but is still trying to get back into the swing of things after missing two months with thigh and knee troubles.
Jeremy Lin, once considered a possible dark horse for Sixth Man of the Year, has hit a bit of a shooting slump as well. In his last five games, Linsanity is nine for 32, including two of 10 from three. In fairness, he's been dealing with a back pain.
Still, his ineffectiveness hasn't gone unnoticed by his coach.
"We are going to need him to pick it up and play better," coach Kevin McHale said, according to Jenny Dial Creech of The Houston Chronicle. "There is no question about that. And he will. He is working hard and I think he will find his rhythm...we need to get him on a high note again."
The team acquired former first-round pick Jordan Hamilton from the Denver Nuggets at the trade deadline. In his first four games with his new team, the former Texas Longhorn has poured in 45 points. During that span, the 23-year-old is 17 for 34 (roughly 50 percent) from the field and seven of 17 from downtown (around 41 percent).
Whether the bench can turn things around this season remains to be seen. Regardless, it would be in the team's best interest to retool the unit this summer. Hamilton and Casspi are both free agents, while Garcia has a player option worth $1.3 million.
Hamilton has shown signs of being worth keeping around, but could have easily played himself into a starter's role elsewhere. The team also has some intriguing prospects waiting in the wings in the form of Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan. Both are more than capable of making an impact with increased playing time next season.
The Rockets should still add a proven body or two to give the bench a spark. A cheap option like C.J. Miles (currently with the Cleveland Cavaliers) or Anthony Morrow (currently playing for the New Orleans Pelicans) would be nice additions.
The second unit needs to be shaken up. Another factor to consider is the money owed to Lin and Asik for next season. Both are set to be paid nearly $15 million apiece for 2014-15. Assuming they aren't jettisoned elsewhere, the team needs this duo to become more consistent contributors off the bench.
Regardless, a reserve squad currently averaging 26.3 points per game (25th in the NBA, according to HoopsStats.com) needs an upgrade this summer.
2. Find A Quality Third Center
Speaking of trouble on the second unit, Houston's struggles aren't restricted to the perimeter. The center position has taken its share of lumps this season as well. Injuries have decimated the unit and the team has suffered up front when Dwight Howard is out of the game.
Beyond being frustrated most of the year with his role, Omer Asik has dealt with a myriad of injuries that have held him to just 27 games this season. However, Asik looks like Iron Man compared to fellow reserve big man Greg Smith. Smith has played in just 11 games and recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and is out indefinitely.
Smith is a free agent this summer and, given his health woes, seems like a long shot to return. There's also the issue of Asik's future with the team. The big man from Turkey has asked for a trade twice this season but remains with the team, much to his dismay.
There are pros and cons to keeping Dwight Howard's disgruntled backup. On the plus side, Asik is one of the best reserve centers a team can have. His defense makes life miserable for opponents in the paint and he's solid on the glass.
On the other hand, he has a hefty price tag and motivation is always key for guys who'd rather play elsewhere. Asik, when he hasn't been dealing with injuries, has looked aloof on the court. These next three or four months will go a long way in determining where Asik stands.
Of course, Asik could find himself in the team's good graces if he can manage to do this on a regular basis:
The Asik situation will have an effect on how the team addresses their issues at center. If they choose to hang on to him, they could fill Smith's void either through the draft or with a cheap veteran like Milwaukee's Ekpe Udoh or Dallas' DeJuan Blair.
If the team finds a suitor for Asik's services, they could ask for a big in return or use the money they've freed up on a more proven backup such as the Cleveland Cavaliers' Spencer Hawes, the Los Angeles Lakers' Jordan Hill or the Phoenix Suns' Emeka Okafor.
Either way, the team needs to add some depth up front. Howard has been remarkable all season (19 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game), but even Superman needs a breather every now and then.
Houston needs to protect its $88 million investment by bringing in someone that can stay healthy and is happy to play behind him.
3. Improve Perimeter Defense
Dwight Howard's presence (and Omer Asik's, to a lesser extent) has helped shore up the Rockets defense inside. According to NBA.com, opponents are shooting 35 percent against Howard in the (non-restricted) paint area. Asik is allowing just under 41 percent.
On the perimeter, however, it hasn't been as difficult for opponents to score on Houston. In recent games, opposing wings have done well against the Rockets. Here's a look at the last five games:
- vs. Miami Heat on March 4 (Dwyane Wade and Michael Beasley each score game-high 24 points. Beasley goes 4-for-7 from downtown)
- vs. Detroit on March 1 (Rodney Stuckey scores 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting)
- at Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 26 (Darren Collison shoots 8-of-14 from the floor and finishes with 19 points)
- at Sacramento Kings on Feb. 25 (Rudy Gay drops 25 points, while shooting 10-of-16)
- at Phoenix Suns on Feb. 23 (Goran Dragic goes off for 35 points on 14-for-20 from the field)
It's an epidemic that has been talked about all season. If there's a weakness that threatens Houston's immediate title hopes, it's this right here. Beyond Patrick Beverley, there isn't another consistent perimeter defender on the roster.
James Harden has shown flashes of defense from time to time, but he's still lacking in this area overall. The team had a decent defender in Ronnie Brewer, but chose to let him go to make room for Jordan Hamilton.
The team will have to live with what they have this season. However, this offseason, a priority should be placed on fixing the leaks on the outside. It's hard to imagine the team getting better in this area with the guys already on the roster.
In addition to finding some scoring on the bench, Morey should also look at whether he can bring in players that can defend as well. Someone like Phoenix's P.J. Tucker (effective field-goal percentage allowed: 48.1 percent, according to 82games.com) would be the right model to look for.
If Houston is going to get by the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers (two teams they've struggled with this season), they are going to have to make it harder for opponents to score on the wing.
The next few months will be telling for the Houston Rockets. The big win over Miami is a great momentum boost heading into the last few weeks of the season. The team showed great moxie and held the two-time champs at bay for most of the game.
Still, as has been said all season, the team remains a work in progress. They have a strong starting five with a ton of star power, but not much else behind it. If that isn't enough to bring Houston the championship they desire, this offseason will be crucial to the team's window as contenders.