The Houston Rockets seem to be taking their first-round playoff exit in stride.
Dispatched in six nail-biting games against the Portland Trailblazers—including the finale, in which Damian Lillard sunk them with the shot of the playoffs thus far—the Rockets are facing a ton of doubt and dismay. But thus far, they’ve answered questions of what to do next with a confident calm.
“Very disappointing we weren’t able to advance," general manager Daryl Morey said in a recent interview with Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle:
We continued growing as a team, getting more experience. I felt the West this year, really anybody could win it. That makes it sting a little more. That said, we took a big leap forward. I think we can take a big step forward again next year and put ourselves in even better position and with a better team. Obviously, there is a lot of work for myself, for the players, for everybody, to win the West.
As disappointing as a first-round exit is on paper, it’s no cause for the Rockets to blow things up. Their best addition still may be a minor one, or even a non-addition. Maybe they just need to spend more time together in order to blur their separate needs and skill sets into something more holistic and talent-maximizing.
The Rockets’ struggles against Portland were frustrating above all because they lacked such team efficiency. They showed a lack of mutual comfort—call it chemistry—on both sides of the ball.
James Harden and Dwight Howard performed a high screen-and-roll in the closing moments of their 123-120 Game 4 loss that best demonstrated this. Howard stood directly in front of Harden at the perimeter, seemingly baiting defenders into being screened, while Harden dribbled in place behind him for up to six seconds straight.
It was a strange moment that unveiled a greater truth: Houston doesn’t know how to work together yet.
The Blazers had just that synergy in droves, and it’s not hard to see where their togetherness and shared intuition come from. From time, and through small adjustments made through smart communication.
Last summer, Portland made very minor tweaks to their roster. The biggest change was their acquisition of starting center Robin Lopez, a $12 million signing on a two-year contract—hardly a blockbuster transaction.
But Lopez has been an irreplaceable part of the Blazers’ success, consistently giving the team extra possessions with his 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Not to mention the relief he’s created for LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been freed up immensely by Lopez in this, his best scoring season yet.
But most of all, the Blazers trusted in their original investment and let the pieces fall together, empowering their personnel to reach their peak performance.
Morey’s words could easily be read to suggest that a similar approach is taking place here.
We also might expect that Houston will look for a player of Lopez's caliber this offseason. Perhaps Houston's weakest area (perimeter defense) will see new help from a mid-level specialist. Dwight Howard would, I’m sure, appreciate that—with the frequently frazzled Harden and Chandler Parsons letting defenders through to the paint so often, his defense was stretched tremendously throughout the season.
The key for the Rockets, Morey seems to believe, is to acknowledge these types of flaws without overreacting to them.
And since Morey will reportedly retain coach Kevin McHale, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, fans are sure to wonder whether the front office will somehow address the tactical deficiencies that often plagued the Rockets down the stretch of heated games.
A stronger, more complex sense of X’s and O’s will be necessary for the Rockets to advance deeper into the playoffs, and McHale’s offense consistently left much to be desired. Overly reliant on isolation actions and easy transition buckets, the Rockets playbook somehow mostly avoided what’s easily their best scoring option: the Harden-Howard pick-and-roll.
Will Houston do anything to ensure more engaged half-court actions are instilled, despite standing pat at head coach? Could they bring in an offensive coordinator to McHale’s staff?
Bigger than concerns about playing vision and role players, though, is perhaps the issue of what Parsons means to the Rockets. Parsons has only one year left on his extreme-value rookie contract, and Morey must decide how much to keep his stock in the wing man.
What sorts of extra contract baggage the Rockets take on this summer will say a lot about how the Rockets value Parsons, for whom they'll need to keep salary-cap room open if they intend to re-sign him for big money in 2015.
And the Rockets, regardless of how much they say they're standing pat, are always in the mix for available superstars.
They've been attached to the pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, per Marc Berman of The New York Post, and they're even thrown around as possible suitors for Rajon Rondo, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com. The odds are stacked against them in grabbing another big name, but it could still be their ultimate vision for the summer.
Morey's rational address means a wise, level-headed approach to a difficult end. But these Rockets just saw their first year as title contenders in earnest. They're not losing their patience, but maybe their front office isn't exactly telling us everything, either.
This offseason, their actions will let us know how content Clutch City really is.