5 Reasons Why Houston Rockets Could Surpass Expectations Next Year
A painful first-round exit turned into an even worse offseason, but it's not time to panic just yet for the Houston Rockets. After striking out in free agency and losing Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons in the process, the experts don't have much faith in the Rockets. But I still do, and I am going to give you five reasons why you should too.
The Western Conference is never a walk in the park. The past few years, there have been at least nine or 10 legitimate playoff teams in the West. There is plenty of competition within the conference, which makes regaining home-court advantage a difficult task for Houston.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all finished ahead of Houston last season and are poised to do the same once again in 2015. Then you have other teams clawing at the Rockets for the final spot in the top four, such as the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, etc.
ESPN has the Rockets finishing eighth, behind all of those teams, albeit the fourth seed and eighth seed are separated by just two games. It's crowded out West, but Houston can hang with the best of them. Here are five reasons, ranked in order of significance, why the Rockets will be a top-4 team once again.
5. Top-Tier Management
The front office may do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but don't underestimate the importance of good management in the NBA.
It all starts with the owner. Les Alexander is not only a class act, but he is a smart owner who is willing to do what it takes to win. Les has put the team in good hands with his staff, and most importantly, he is willing to spend money in order to establish a winner. He has proven he can take the franchise to the top after back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
As for Dork Elvis, I'm sure most of y'all already know about him. Daryl Morey is consistently one of the top general managers in the league. He may not have won the jackpot this summer, but he certainly has struck gold in the past and is capable of doing it again soon.
He stole James Harden from OKC, then lured Dwight Howard in free agency, starting all of that with just a bunch of overlooked role players. He was remarkably close to having the best starting five in the league, and now he can use that near miss as motivation to bring in some other superstar.
Morey had to make the unpopular decision of letting Parsons walk to the rival Mavericks, but it was all in the effort of bringing in a third star to team up with Harden and Howard. Parsons' new salary would have eaten up the salary cap and was very inflexible for trades. It was a tough dilemma, but Morey chose to keep his flexibility and pursue a different max-level deal.
Parsons may have been a fan favorite, but the fact of the matter is the Rockets now can move on and go after someone better. There are no guarantees Houston can pull it off, but as they say, "in Morey we trust."
4. Undervalued Talent
The biggest reason analysts expect Houston to drop off is because of all the key departures. Some significant role players are gone and replacing them is a major concern.
The Rockets let Parsons sign on with the Mavs, and they brought in Trevor Ariza for nearly half the price. A lot of people would consider this a downgrade, but upon closer examination, it's not as worrisome as it seems. Although Parsons is a better playmaker, Ariza is an improvement in terms of defense and three-point shooting, which may be more advantageous for Houston down the road.
Lin and Asik will have new homes as well this season. These two guys were the first ones of the bench for the Rockets last year, but again, the losses aren't as concerning as you might think.
Lin is a talented guard, yet he was wildly inconsistent last year. Sure he had his shining moments, but he also had those times where he left us scratching our heads. I hope he succeeds in his future endeavors, but realistically, Lin is replaceable and for a much cheaper price.
Patrick Beverley will still be the starter and a leader for this team. Houston also brought in Ish Smith, and Isaiah Canaan just had a mesmerizing summer league in Las Vegas. Point guard, although not great, has not gotten any worse with Lin's departure. Plus, all three of those guys are making less than $1 million next season while Lin is making $15 million, so do the math.
Asik was a bigger loss in my opinion. He is an elite defensive center that doesn't come around too often. However, like Lin, the Rockets will be just fine without him. First of all, he only played in 48 games last season, and many of those were in garbage time because of his trade request. Secondly, the Rockets have some quality backup big men that may surprise you.
Just like Canaan, Donatas Motiejunas had a superb summer in Las Vegas. He made first-team All-NBA summer league averaging 16.8 points and 8.1 boards per game. The best part is he shot nearly 60 percent from the floor and over 40 percent from deep. D-Mo could step into a much bigger role this year, and even though he's not a great defender, he is light years ahead of Asik on the offensive end.
Houston also signed Joey Dorsey, who has spent the last few seasons dominating in Europe specializing in defense and rebounding, which the Rockets need.
Other guys on the bench like Troy Daniels, Robert Covington and Nick Johnson are not household names but that doesn't mean they can't play. Daniels proved he can contribute, even in the clutch, and the other two can also sneak up on you and become key contributors this season.
3. Smarter Schematics
If the 2014 NBA Finals showed us anything, it's that teamwork and scheming are superior to having the better players. The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the best teams for the past two decades, especially in the last few years or so. But if you gave that roster to the average Joe NBA coach, that team is a borderline playoff team. The reason they dominate: Coach Pop and schematics.
A good game plan followed by good execution can go a long way, or in the Spurs' case, an NBA championship. The Rockets need to take a page out of their rivals' playbook and start scheming smarter to have an advantage over their opponents.
Now, let's get one thing straight. Kevin McHale will never be half the coach Gregg Popovich is. McHale and his staff have done a decent job thus far, but another first-round exit could have them on the hot seat. In last year's playoff series vs. the Portland Trail Blazers, McHale was the obvious loser in a coaching chess match with Terry Stotts. This season, McHale must do a better job of coaching his players strategically.
Morey already has his system in place focusing on offensive efficiency. The Rockets have minimized the mid-range jumper and maximized the most efficient shots on the court, mainly layups and three-pointers, especially from the corner. This experiment could come to fruition this season and boost the Rockets' chances out West.
Houston's D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, have been implementing this system to the extreme. They focused purely on efficiency offensively and launched the most threes in the history of the league by a long shot. Morey's experiment has already shown flashes of brilliance in the NBA, but this season should be even better.
Last year, the Rockets shot the most threes in the NBA and the least mid-range twos. However, their three-point percentage was not even in the top half of the league. Their shooters underperformed last season, especially guys on the bench like Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Jordan Hamilton. Hopefully this season, that will all change and Houston can stop shooting itself in the foot.
With guys like Daniels and Covington joining Harden and Ariza from behind the arc, the Rockets can be much more dangerous this season with the three ball. The Rockets already scored the second most points per game last year, and the thought of them becoming even more efficient with smarter scheming and better-fitting role players is scary.
2. Defensive Potential
The Rockets were not a great defensive team last season. Even with All-NBA Defensive second-teamer Pat Beverley and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard in the lineup, the Rockets still relinquished the most points per game of any playoff team last season.
However, when it comes to defensive efficiency, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions, the Rockets were a top-10 team for much of the year. The Rockets give up a lot of points because they have a fast-paced style of play, but the potential is there.
Especially now that Ariza has replaced Parsons in the starting lineup, the Rockets can become more than respectable on the defensive end this season. The perimeter defense was abysmal last year with Harden and Parsons guarding talented wings all season long. Ariza is a game changer.
Parsons isn't a terrible defender, but Ariza is a top-tier, lockdown kind of guy who can man up on the Kevin Durants and Carmelo Anthonys of the world. He, Howard and Beverley, give the Rockets three guys in the starting lineup with All-NBA defense potential. That's a big deal.
Even James Harden is getting in on the new defensive trend, pledging to do better this time around. He has focused primarily on his defense with Team USA, and it is reportedly paying off. Terrence Jones also isn't much to brag about on defense, but he can hold his own thanks to his freak athleticism which results in plenty of blocked shots.
If the Rockets can become a top-10 defensive team with their new additions and a little extra effort and focus on that end of the court, they can surprise people and become a top seed in the West and even a top-5 team in the league. A newly improved defense matched with that already elite offense (which can also effectively improve like I explained in the previous slide) would be a true force to be reckoned with.
1. Star Power
This last one is simple. If all those previous slides all come together, the sheer star power of James Harden and Dwight Howard can carry the Rockets the rest of the way.
It's a star-studded league, but Harden and Howard are arguably the top players at each of their respective positions and are easily top-10 players in the NBA. With a full season of chemistry already under their belt, this dynamic duo is ready to take the league by storm.
Howard's elite defense and Harden's elite offense by themselves are enough to make a playoff push. Harden carried the Rockets to a playoff berth without much help just two seasons ago, and Howard took a decent Orlando Magic team and led them all the way to the NBA Finals back in 2009. These guys are capable of carrying a team deep into the playoffs, and although it didn't work out last year, that doesn't mean it won't this season.
Howard is entering his 11th season in the NBA, but since he came right out of high school, he is still only 28 years old. He is right in the heart of his prime years right now, and he showed during the Portland series he can lead this team on and off the court. Even though they lost the series, Dwight had an incredible run and played phenomenal defense down the stretch. His offensive game is also improving substantially thanks to workout sessions with the great Hakeem Olajuwon.
Harden's situation is different. The blossoming superstar turns 25 in August, with plenty of exciting years ahead of him. Unlike Howard, Harden's emergence into stardom is still relatively new after he was traded to the Rockets two summers ago and embraced the spotlight in Houston.
The Beard made his first All-NBA selection last year, and his dominance has only just begun. He is a top-3 pure scorer in the league, and his promise to improve defensively will only vault himself among the game's greats. Considering he has so much room for reasonable improvement, yet he still was voted as the best shooting guard in the NBA should tell you how good this guy really is. He may not be the best player alive, but clearly his confidence is through the roof and the path of stardom is only just beginning.
The Rockets had a tough offseason. They lost a lot of good players and even more faith from the experts. But if this team can play efficiently, put more effort and focus on defense, and get contributions from their emerging role players, Harden, Howard and Morey can lead this team to bigger and better things this season. Just wait.