Unlike some of the other teams that might face uncertain futures in the wake of a first-round loss, the Houston Rockets' greater plan likely won't be altered much if they ultimately fall to the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs.
Even though the raised expectations brought on by Dwight Howard's arrival may be putting some pressure on head coach Kevin McHale and general manager Daryl Morey to find ways to make the Rockets a championship contender right here and right now, most have the ability to be realistic and understand that typically that's not how playoff success is attained in the NBA.
More often than not, teams climb the postseason ladder a few rungs at a time instead of leaping directly into the title picture. You would think that Howard and James Harden would be given more than a year to be at their best.
While a first-round loss would certainly be disappointing given the talent present on the roster, it wouldn't add much extra incentive to go out and get one more star. That's always seemed to be the plan anyway, as Morey has stockpiled assets and has once again waited patiently for the right player to become available.
Really, it might be the other way around from what you'd naturally think. Failure wouldn't seem to change Morey's mind that he needs a star, but real postseason success (read: a finals berth) with this current group might make him consider whether a third star is necessary, especially if that star wasn't necessarily a complementary talent.
As it stands, based on comments Morey made to Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated earlier this year, it doesn't seem like much will change:
"We feel very comfortable that our two top players are what we need to be a championship team," said Morey. "And we do need someone to step into that third role. We don't have our third-best player on a championship team yet, and we need one of younger guys to develop into that -- or potentially make an addition, whether it be this year or in free agency this offseason."
Could (Chandler) Parsons be that player? "He's definitely got the ability to be the third-best player on a championship team," said Morey. "He's played like that many times. The tough transition is whether you bring that level every night."
While Parsons has had some nice success against Portland this postseason, the consistency hasn't quite been there. With his contract set to expire after next year, so long as his team option is picked up this offseason, the time to strike and get a third star might be now while the Rockets have the cap space to do so.
Houston will have room this offseason, but dealing the expiring contracts of Omer Asik or Jeremy Lin and delaying Parsons' payday one more year will have to be done in order to sign a max guy like Carmelo Anthony outright.
That's certainly possible, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports explains here:
Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.
If a player with the talent of Anthony wants to come play with Harden and Howard, it seems like a given that Houston would be amenable to that, regardless of what round the Rockets bow out of the playoffs. The rich can always get richer, after all, especially if limited assets are needed to acquire said player.
If the Rockets decide to hang on and trade for a star, perhaps for a true power forward or a star point guard, they can go that route as well. With Parsons, draft picks, expiring contracts and young players like Terrence Jones to dangle, Houston can put together one of the most enticing packages in the league regardless of what a team is looking for in return.
Point being, Houston is in the driver's seat here, and acquiring a third star seems like a given at this point.
What might not be as guaranteed, and what might be the only significant change based on a first-round loss, would be the future of head coach Kevin McHale.
McHale hasn't had the option on the fourth year of his contract picked up yet, which means he could be out after this season. Here's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com with more on the situation:
Although there is no guarantee he would survive a first-round exit...sources told ESPN.com that the prevailing feeling in team circles is that McHale "deserves more than one season with this group." McHale has strong support from high-profile Rockets such as Howard and forward Chandler Parsons, sources said, and it's believed general manager Daryl Morey and his front office also prefer to see this group -- which is the youngest team in the postseason with an average age of 25.7 -- grow together.
Sources say McHale likewise is regarded as a favorite of Rockets owner Les Alexander.
If McHale keeps his job, it would seem that Morey will deem personnel upgrades as the biggest avenue for improvement. Opinions vary on McHale, but it does seem fair to give him one more shot at making this pairing work, particularly if there's the opportunity to add even more talent. The Rockets haven't quite reached a "make or break" point yet, or at least it wouldn't seem.
Whether the Rockets acquire a third star through a free-agent signing or a trade is hard to say, but the hunt for that player seems certain, regardless of whether Howard and company are "going fishing" after the first round of this year's playoffs.