The Houston Rockets enter the playoffs with a bit of a limp. Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, the most critical pieces of their defense, have both missed significant time with late-season injuries.
Whether their health is what it needs to be to get them past their Round 1 matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers—or further—will soon be seen.
But if they’re too banged up, or if the Rockets stumble for other reasons, what will it tell us about this Houston squad in terms of the bigger picture? What questions do the Rockets need to answer in the second season?
Is their defense good enough for a championship run?
The Rockets’ defense is better than you think, but it’s still pretty far from the top bracket of stoppers in the league.
Dwight Howard has made a mammoth difference for the Rockets. Last year without him, they were 18th in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage. This season with him? The Rockets are seventh. Something tells me this is more Howard’s doing than Terrence Jones’—D12 leads the league in defensive real-plus minus among players averaging 30-plus minutes per game.
But Howard is usually overstretched helping out on slashers, cutters and roll men Houston’s unfocused perimeter defenders let through. From Bleacher Report’s Dylan Murphy:
Howard's ability to anchor the defense at the rim has somewhat hidden the poor perimeter defense. Yet the reverse is also true: Houston's inability to keep ball-handlers in front has taken away from Dwight Howard's ability to protect the basket.
Will their attention beyond the paint ratchet up for the playoffs? If it doesn’t—and doesn’t do so a lot—it will spell out an obvious weak spot for these Rockets and one that needs addressing this summer.
Do they need a third star?
Chandler Parsons has been a perimeter stalwart for Houston and an essential personality in its path back to NBA prominence. He also raised his scoring average in last year’s first-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, surely a good sign for the team going into these playoffs.
But whether Parsons is the man Houston needs in the long run is a question still unanswered. His second trip to the postseason is sure to shed some light on Parsons’ value in terms of championship pursuit. And if he doesn’t come through big for the Rockets, it might mean an increased likelihood of the team chasing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.
Is Kevin McHale the right coach for this team?
McHale’s coaching ability is hard to judge; roster consistency has been hard to find in Houston, where general manager Daryl Morey is always wont to make splashy player changes.
But we do know McHale has amply empowered James Harden in his rise to superstardom, has won more games every season and has a synergistic relationship with Morey. He’s happy to implement the principles decided upon by the GM through countless hours of mining through advanced, idiosyncratic metrics.
But will any of this matter if the Rockets don’t make a deep run?
How long must Houston last for this season to register as a success? The best guess here is McHale’s job is safe so long as the Rockets dispatch the Blazers and are only eliminated by the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers. All are overdogs with home-court advantage over Houston, with the Thunder and Spurs having significantly more collective postseason experience and success as well.
If Portland thwarts the Rockets? McHale’s seat will start to get pretty warm.
Which youngsters and role players are for real?
Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin and Donatas Motiejunas have the most on the line in terms of job future with their current club. Jordan Hamilton isn’t far behind.
The Rockets have something close to their ideal core in Harden, Howard, Parsons and Beverley—a great mix of offense and defense, selflessness and athleticism overwhelming enough to take over games. But they also need something else to win multiple tough series.
They need lesser-known players to make opportune shots, stay on a defensive string and generally execute when shrewd teams like the San Antonio Spurs can draw up bevies of plays to force the Rockets into options three, four and five on both ends of the floor.
If any of their role players are exploitable as weak spots in the postseason, the Rockets will find out soon.
How far are they from an NBA title?
This is the question underlying all Rockets-related questions. Bringing in one of the game’s best centers was certainly a move in the championship direction.
"I want to win a championship and it’s easier said than done," Harden said about Howard, via The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "Him being here is definitely the right step.”
But just how much of a difference Howard makes toward the obvious goal of a title will only be known once the Rockets take to the playoff parquet. The Rockets are facing long odds to win it all this year, but the potential to do it next year is something fans will be looking for.
One pundit, former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, thinks they're ready now. Picking them to win it all this year, he had the following to say on an ESPN broadcast:
They play fast, they score easily, and they have a talent in James Harden who is as hard to guard as anybody not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. They have a center who gives them a force in the paint, who can rebound, and then they have one of the best competitors in Beverley; I just love his mentality in attacking each and every opponent. I think Houston has as good a chance as anyone to come out of the West.
Regardless of whether Mr. Van Gundy's take is sagely, one thing is clear: the Rockets move in only one direction now, and that's closer and closer toward the Larry O'Brien trophy. There are no dips into paths elsewhere. The 2014 playoffs, however they play out, mean Year 1 of the Rockets' title run in earnest.