Houston Rockets Don't Need Another Superstar to Take the Next Step

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 14, 2014

Jan 16, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) speaks with power forward Dwight Howard (12) and small forward Chandler Parsons (25) during the first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to tell the Houston Rockets to be patient at the plate, but someone needs to say it.

Star-gazing general manager Daryl Morey has helped his Rockets ascend the NBA's power rankings by taking home run hacks at the player pool.

The executive connected on a pair of moonshots these past two offseasons in perennial All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard. Slowing down the bat speed isn't easy after sending a few balls out into orbit.

That's especially true when the league keeps sending batting-practice pitches his way.

First, it came in the form of long-frustrated, apparently available Minnesota Timberwolves stretch forward Kevin Love. This is the same player ESPN.com's Marc Stein said "would complement Howard better than pretty much anyone else you could nominate."

With Love on the market and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander angling for "a terrific free agent," via Fox 26 Sports' Mark Berman, Morey seemed to be getting the green light. Luckily, it sounds like the GM hasn't liked what he's seen from the batter's box:

How is potentially missing out on Love, who really would work well next to Howard, a good thing?

Because these aren't the Houston Howards, they're the Houston Rockets. They're already strong where Love is strong and, more importantly, weak where the big man is vulnerable.

Apr 13, 2014; Sacramento, CA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) runs up the court after scoring against the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at Sleep Train Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 106-103.

"Love is not what they need," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote. "...The Rockets have been an offensive juggernaut since James Harden was acquired in 2012. Their problem is defense...They need a wing defender, not a scoring power forward."

Morey himself wouldn't disagree with that take. He's said the defensive end is where his team needs to see improvement:

Yet, the Rockets are reportedly in the running for another available offensive heavyweight.

New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's scoring champ in 2012-13, is said to have the Rockets on his radar and has mutual interest coming from Houston. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported the following:

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is leaning toward leaving in pursuit of immediate championship contention, and awaits the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign him in free agency, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

As re-signing with the Knicks continues to fade as his priority, Chicago and Houston have emerged as the clear frontrunners to acquire Anthony, league sources told Yahoo Sports. ...

Chicago and Houston front-office executives are working diligently on contingencies to clear the space to sign Anthony outright – or engage sign-and-trade scenarios with New York, sources said.

This shouldn't be surprising.

Stars clearly play a massive role in Morey's blueprint, as they should.

Teams rarely win without them, and the executive has enjoyed success with the ones he's found. The Rockets won 45 games and snapped a three-year playoff drought in 2012-13, Harden's first in Houston. With Howard added to the fold, they rattled off 54 wins and secured the No. 4 seed in a fully loaded Western Conference.

Sep 27, 2013; Houston, TX, USA;  Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) and center Dwight Howard (12) pose for a picture during media day at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Berman of the New York Post had reported in March that the Rockets would "make a bid for Anthony" over the offseason. Wojnarowski has had Chicago and Houston atop Anthony's non-New York big board for months.

Just because this is predictable, though, doesn't make it sensible.

Houston ranked 15th in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break this season, via NBA.com. The 111.8 points per 100 possessions the Rockets allowed in the postseason were the most of all 16 playoff teams.

Like Love, Anthony would help solve none of those problems. Melo has the physical tools for the trade, but as one NBA scout told ESPN New York's Ian Begley last summer, "at times, he just gives up on plays a little bit."

Maybe a strong, veteran locker room could get the best out of the 30-year-old for every second that he's on the floor. The Rockets were the youngest of all the playoff teams. And their two biggest stars, Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explained, never seemed to see eye-to-eye:

Harden, 24, and Howard, 28, clearly have their own priorities. Those include Howard getting his touches in the post—and Harden getting Howard out of the lane for room to drive. So the Rockets look like great players but don't even look like a good team.

They have a theory on how to play basketball, focusing on scoring via threes, free throws and in the paint, but they don't have a system that mandates Harden and Howard really being all-in as far as working together. Their style is basically alternating attack modes, which is the sort of simplistic approach that always gets mucked up come playoff time.

The Rockets are already running short on offensive chances. Just imagine adding another isolation scorer like Anthony to the mix.

Anthony had a 32.4 usage percentage this season, via Basketball-Reference.com. Howard and Harden combined to use 51.8 percent of the Rockets' offensive plays during their floor time. Put the three together and either none of their teammates would ever touch the ball again, or each member of Houston's potential Big Three would be looking at a major reduction in opportunities.

It's tough to see the fit on paper, outside of their individual gaudy statistics. If the Rockets had their pick of this free-agent class' litter, Love would seem to be the preferred target.

However, Houston doesn't need either one.

As young as this core is, there will be some organic improvements just in terms of talent development. Having a full offseason for Howard and Harden could also help the Rockets better balance their two-man attack.

Roster tweaks need to be made but nothing really major. Power swings are no longer needed. Solid contact should do the trick.

"I think we can get a lot better with a minor move," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "I think a lot of our players will absolutely improve...I think we've got to improve from within."

Apr 2, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale talks to his players during a timeout against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Rockets 107-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

As for that external assistance, this dream-big franchise could stand to gain a lot by thinking on a much smaller scale. The unrestricted free-agent market offers some intriguing perimeter stoppers such as P.J. Tucker (Phoenix Suns) and Al-Farouq Aminu (New Orleans Pelicans).

The Rockets might even consider a Trevor Ariza reunion. The 28-year-old had an impressive year for the Washington Wizards, averaging 14.4 points on 45.6 percent shooting from the field and 40.7 percent from distance. Houston bought high on Ariza before, but perhaps the strides he made this season will be sustainable.

Houston shouldn't completely keep its focus off the offensive end, though. The Rockets, as potent as they were this season, could use more hands in the offensive pot. However, it just does not need to be the ones who would eat up as many touches as Love or Anthony.

The Rockets' reserves scored 27.1 points a night, via HoopsStats.com, fifth-fewest in the NBA. Omri Casspi was an average perimeter shooter (34.7 three-point percentage) and not much else. Jordan Hamilton, acquired in a trade-deadline deal, didn't see a single minute of playoff action.

Bringing rookies Isaiah Canaan and Troy Daniels along could help but so too could some under-the-radar free agents. Sharpshooters Anthony Morrow (Pelicans) and Mike Miller (Memphis Grizzlies) and scoring guard Jodie Meeks (Los Angeles Lakers) could all help upgrade Houston's second team.

They are not really splashy names, but they are potentially impactful ones for a team that looks to be at the doorstep of championship contention.

"A couple of smaller moves would be good for us. I don’t know if necessarily the big move would help us out a lot," Harden said, via Feigen. "...Maybe a couple small moves and we're right where we want to be."

The Rockets have their heavy hitters already. They just needs a piece or two to help keep the line moving and help them keep climbing the NBA ladder.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.