Biggest Needs for Houston Rockets During 2014 Offseason
Thanks to Damian Lillard's improbable three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left in Game 6, the Houston Rockets were dismissed from the postseason after one round. James Harden and Dwight Howard put in valiant efforts, but after falling behind early in the series, the road ahead was simply too steep.
It was a high-scoring, electric series that showed off the best of what Houston has to offer.
But it also revealed the slightest of cracks in an otherwise promising team. The Rockets will be back. The Rockets also have some work to do.
This is no time to blow things up, no time to sound any alarms.
If Lillard's three rims out, we're looking at a very winnable Game 7 in Houston. After that, anything would have been possible. All the same, the line between very good teams and legitimate title contenders is a thin one. This organization won't rest until it's primed to win close series like this one.
As Houston looks to take that next step, it will have a few needs to address.
Trading Omer Asik
Asik has one more season on his contract worth nearly $15 million. As an expiring deal, that could be attractive to any team looking to clear some salary off the books for the summer of 2015.
And besides, Asik is a fairly attractive asset in his own right. He can defend and rebound, and is strong enough to score around the rim. There's certainly enough to like about him that the Rockets could very well decide he's worth keeping around as an insurance policy.
But it's no secret Asik doesn't love being a reserve. In November of 2013, Ultimate Rockets' Jonathan Feigen cited "two individuals with knowledge of the request" claiming that, "with his starting job gone and playing time slashed, Rockets center Omer Asik asked to be traded."
It's unclear how vehement Asik has remained about that request. He certainly wasn't unhappy enough to force the organization's hand prior to the trade deadline.
But with his contract in its last year, better trade opportunities may present themselves this summer. The Rockets should look to either secure a starting power forward or a bench piece who will be happy with his role.
The bottom line is that Houston really can't afford to spend $15 million on a guy who's going to play 20 minutes a game and be bitter about it.
Acquiring a Spread-4
No disrespect to Terrence Jones. He's done an admirable job filling in as Houston's starting power forward, and he's still just 22 years old.
But here's one thing we know about Dwight Howard. He's at his best when he's surrounded by shooters, ideally four of them. That did wonders for his offense in Orlando, and it could yield similar dividends for his work in the post with the Rockets.
It's not yet clear Jones is the right man for this particular job. He made just 31 percent of his three-point attempts this season, so his ability to space the floor remains limited.
The other in-house possibility is Donatas Motiejunas. In theory, he can shoot the long ball, too, but he'll have to work on his consistency to get regular minutes.
Acquiring someone like Ryan Anderson (from the New Orleans Pelicans) might be a long shot. It would largely depend on the rest of Houston's offseason moves and where grabbing Anderson ranked among the team's priorities. It would also depend on whether the Rockets have anything New Orleans actually wants.
All the same, going after Anderson is the right idea. The 25-year-old has good size, and he's a knock-down three-point shooter. He's also pretty affordable, with just two more season left on his contract at about $8.5 million apiece.
If Anderson doesn't pan out, look for the Rockets to explore similar options. They may be able to make a smaller trade that gives them similar results.
Figuring out Who Runs the Point
Having two starting-caliber point guards is the kind of problem most teams would love to have. But it's not entirely clear that either Patrick Beverley or Jeremy Lin is the Rockets' point guard of the future.
Lin averaged 14.2 in 33 games as a starter and a respectable 11.1 points in 38 games off the bench. Beverley played all but one game as a starter. In all, he averaged 10.2 points during the regular season, but his real value lies on the defensive end.
In some ways Beverley is a better fit for the starting lineup. He doesn't need the ball in his hands and shoots the three-ball well enough to keep the floor spaced.
But the flip-side of Beverley being in the starting lineup is that the ball rarely leaves Harden's control.
By some estimates, that's probably not a bad thing. Harden can do a lot of things with the rock in his hands, including getting others involved. But Houston doesn't want the ball sticking, even if it's sticking with its best player.
The solution could be one of two things.
First, the club could rely on internal development from Beverley. He averaged just 2.7 assists this season, but it was just his second season after all. If his court vision improves, the Rockets could entrust him to run the offense a little more often. All of this assumes the ship has sailed on Lin starting full time, but that appears to be the case.
Second, Houston could look to acquire a more elite floor general—someone along the lines of Rajon Rondo. The organization was linked to Rondo in February, with ESPN.com's Marc Stein writing, "The Rockets want to acquire Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, according to sources familiar with Houston's thinking."
If there was indeed interest in February, it probably hasn't waned. Whether a deal could actually be worked out is another question altogether, but at the very least we have evidence the Rockets are looking to make a significant upgrade at the point.
One way or the other, that's not a bad idea.
Learning to Control Tempo
The Rockets learned an important lesson this season.
Having one of the best defensive players in the game doesn't mean you have a good defense. Houston ranked 23rd league-wide in points allowed, and there are a few explanations. Not all of them mean the Rockets are a bad defensive team, but making stops will almost certainly be a point of emphasis going forward.
A big part of the story is just that the Rockets play at a breakneck tempo, taking a lot of shots and giving up a lot of shots. That doesn't mean the defense is broken. In fact, Houston's opponents made just .443 of their field-goal attempts. That actually ranked better than esteemed defenses in San Antonio and Memphis.
All the same, there's a problem when the Rockets are giving up the kind of points they allowed in the first round against Portland. If it's not a sign of uninspired defense, perhaps it's a sign Houston needs to slow games down from time to time.
That doesn't seem to be within the team's repertoire at the moment.
The consequences of only having one gear are problematic. If the other guys are initiating offense before Houston's defense has the opportunity to get set, having someone like Dwight Howard around doesn't count for as much. Nor does Patrick Beverley and his ability to pressure the ball.
The adjustments Houston needs to make may be most philosophical in nature. There isn't a dire need for different personnel—there's a need for a new standard operating procedure. The Rockets have to give themselves options, namely the option to execute in the half court and play at a playoff pace.
Otherwise, teams like the Trail Blazers will continue to control the speed of the game.
Improving the Bench
Even with Jeremy Lin anchoring the bench for much of the season, Houston's second unit ranked just 26th in points scored according to Hoopsstats.com.
On paper, it looks like the Rockets have a number of options off the bench. Omer Asik is one of the best paint-defenders in the game. Donatas Motiejunas is starting to come into his own as a versatile big man. And there's a handful of solid swingmen including Francisco Garcia and Jordan Hamilton.
It's hard to say what the Rockets are missing, other than perhaps an increased willingness to actually make use of the bench. Houston's reserves averaged the second-least minutes in the league this season.
Of course one factor is that Houston just happens to have a very good starting five. You'd like to see those guys playing as many minutes as possible.
But you'd also like to see head coach Kevin McHale have some options.
Now that the Rockets are set to be a perennial postseason participant, getting the starters rest during the regular season has to become a priority. Even though the Rockets are a young team, they're still susceptible to wear and tear. They're human.
Don't be surprised if the Rockets attempt to package some of their young assets in pursuit of a reliable bench presence.
Beyond talent considerations, Houston could use another veteran—a leader who's been around the block and can add some locker-room leadership.