Images of Damian Lillard's epic shot to win Game 6 are going to be dancing through the heads of the Houston Rockets throughout the 2014 offseason. And unfortunately for them, that's going to last even longer than expected after a surprising and disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers.
So, what's next?
This was supposed to be a more successful year after the offseason acquisition of Dwight Howard gave the Rockets another star to pair with James Harden. Instead of another first-round exit, like the one the Oklahoma City Thunder gave them in 2013, Houston was supposed to compete for a championship.
However, "supposed to" doesn't mean a lot in the NBA, particularly during these topsy-turvy playoffs that have already produced five Game 7s without a single second-round contest in the books.
The Rockets were disappointing in 2013-14. There's no doubt about that.
But they don't have to be in 2014-15.
Goodbye, Kevin McHale
It's always a shame when a coach holds back an extremely talented bunch, and that's exactly what happened to the Rockets with Kevin McHale calling the shots.
Then again, "calling the shots" indicates that McHale is actually thinking about specific plays and not just running a playground offense, so perhaps that's not the best phrasing choice. Here's Grantland's Andrew Sharp on the same topic:
The Blazers and Rockets are pretty much even talent-wise, and every game has been close, but when you watch the Rockets in the fourth quarter, they just don’t run anything. Either they pound it into Dwight Howard in crunch time — forgetting that Dwight has never been dominant in the post like that — or James Harden dribbles for 10 seconds and then takes a crappy shot. This is how they’ve blown lead after lead in the fourth quarter for the past two weeks.
And that was published before an ugly fourth quarter reinforced Sharp's point.
Houston scored only 19 points during the final 12 minutes of its 2013-14 campaign, and it would've been far fewer if it weren't for the sheer dominance of Dwight Howard. For minutes at a time, the sole offensive strategy was letting D12 get the ball in the post, where he was going to back down LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez and either finish the play or end up at the charity stripe.
Seriously. That was it.
It was disgusting to watch, as there was no semblance of an attempt to call plays, only a desire to give Howard the ball. And when entry passes were denied, the only backup option was letting James Harden jack up an ugly shot in isolation.
To top things off, McHale didn't ask for his players to switch on a double-screen set by the Blazers during the final play, which allowed Damian Lillard to gain space for the game-winning shot. Chandler Parsons—who shouldn't have been on him after Jeremy Lin did a great job corralling Lillard during the fourth quarter—had no chance of catching up.
No one could have.
Hate to break it to the Hall of Famer, but that's not exactly coaching.
Not much he did throughout this season falls into that category, so despite the organizational support he receives, it's time for the Rockets to move on.
Trades to Improve Weaknesses
Unfortunately for those hoping to see some sweeping changes to the non-star portion of Houston's lineup, there just isn't enough money left in Daryl Morey's coffers for the general manager to make major splashes.
Morey has a thing for star players, and he's more than willing to get creative when doing so allows him to add to his celestial collection.
According to ShamSports.com, Houston has $62,726,649 committed for the 2014-15 campaign, so there aren't going to be free-agent acquisitions that make too many headlines. But the team could free up a significant chunk of cap room by trading Omer Asik ($8,374,646 in 2014-15) to a team with plenty of space and then do something similar with Jeremy Lin, who's owed the same sum of money.
At that point, Houston would have right around $46 million on the books, which is enough to spend on a few free agents who actually fit needs. And there are two of those needs, even if some fans of this squad will have their eyes set on star players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
The first is finding a stretch 4, one who can actually open up space for D12's post moves and Harden's drives to the basket. Terrence Jones showed flashes of potential, but he'll fit in best as an off-the-bench big rather than a player like Ryan Anderson who can actually scare defenses and extend them to the three-point arc.
But in terms of importance, finding a power forward for the starting lineup pales in comparison to shoring up the bench, which was unacceptably weak throughout the 2013-14 season.
Stephen Babb, writing for Bleacher Report, provides context for that deficit in the lineup:
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.
It really is strange to think about.
Houston could potentially use a lineup of Lin/Patrick Beverley (depending on who starts), Hamilton, Garcia, Motiejunas and Asik at the same time. That's not exactly a bad five-man squad coming off the bench, but it doesn't stand out, either.
This is where having Morey in the front office really helps, because he should be willing to package some of those players and acquire a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Truth be told, Houston doesn't have very many glaring roster weaknesses. And with two tradable assets and a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, it's in good shape to fix some of them.
Don't Lose Patience
Rome wasn't built in a day, and championships aren't usually won in just one season. There are notable exceptions, like the Boston Celtics when they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to go from worst to first in a single go-round, but the vast majority of squads adding a superstar don't tend to win championships in their initial season.
This season was still disappointing for the Rockets, but patience remains a virtue. D12 and Harden have quite a few years remaining on their current contracts, and this team is likely to be even more dangerous heading into the 2014-15 season.
Even if McHale is still pacing the sidelines and calling out shots for Lin and Asik, which would make it awfully difficult to add many new pieces except for the one incoming rookie, the Rockets should grow. Ronnie Brewer, Jordan Hamilton and Marcus Camby are the most notable names with expiring contracts, after all.
Ideally though, there are a few changes to be made to strengthen the roster even further.
But regardless of the offseason plans, Harden and Howard will have a better idea of how to work with one another after a full season of experience playing together. That has to be good news, even if the Rockets are still reeling from a premature exit.
As Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN (subscription required), "The underlying tension between Harden and Howard about how the offense flows (outside-in or inside-out) needs to be addressed ASAP, as a one-two punch isn't very effective when it's self-inflicted."
That's what the offseason is for, and it's a good sign for Houston that the largest obstacles aren't ones that need to be fixed by adding another star player or dramatically altering the roster.
The Rockets may have just exited in the first round, but that doesn't mean they'll do the same in 2014-15.