The Houston Rockets have a young and talented roster, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
By now, you might have heard that Houston's offseason didn't go quite as planned. The Rockets not only failed to add a third star to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden, but they lost some of last season's key role players as well.
Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik will all be playing elsewhere next season. Making matters worse, both Parsons and Asik will playing for division rivals in Dallas and New Orleans, respectively. Meanwhile, Lin hopes to help the Los Angeles Lakers bounce back from last year's disappointing season.
This summer wasn't a total bust for the Rockets.
They improved their biggest need by replacing Parsons with a solid perimeter defender in Trevor Ariza. Also, by refusing to match the Mavericks' $46 million offer for Parsons as well as getting Lin and Asik off the books, Houston will have some nice cap space going forward. It also owns a protected first-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans via the Asik trade.
Regardless, the roster still has a few flaws that could hinder the team from matching last season's 54-28 effort.
The Rockets bench wasn't perfect last season, but it was effective. When healthy, Asik gave the team a quality rebounder and rim protector. Lin had his moments as an offensive spark, playing both backup guard spots. Omri Casspi was a suitable stretch 4 who shot 34.7 percent from three.
Those guys are gone. In their place, there are a slew of young prospects with a ton of potential but not a lot of experience. Second-year man Isaiah Canaan will be replacing Lin as the backup point guard behind Patrick Beverley. Canaan showed off his knack for scoring the basketball in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 17 points in eight games.
At the other reserve guard spot, last year's playoff hero, Troy Daniels, will come in to give Harden a breather. In the little that Daniels has played, he's established himself as a dangerous shooter. He shot 48 percent from behind the arc during the regular season and stepped that up to 53.3 percent in the postseason.
Still, including playoffs, the Rockets' new reserve backcourt has played a total of 31 games (nine for Daniels, 22 for Canaan). While both men have the potential to break out, there are going to be some growing pains, and that might be tough for a team determined to win now.
After dominating the D-League last season, Robert Covington figures to be a part of the Rockets' bench equation as well. Covington averaged 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.4 steals for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He also won D-League Rookie of the Year honors.
At 6'9", the former Tennessee State star can play either forward position. He has the size and prowess on the glass to hold his own at the 4, while also possessing the shooting touch to play on the perimeter. However, like Canaan and Daniels, Covington hasn't spent much time in the pros, playing in just seven NBA games.
Up front, Houston will be relying on former Rocket Joey Dorsey to replace Asik as the backup center. Dorsey has spent the last three seasons in Europe, where he established himself as an elite post defender. Can he keep that momentum going in the NBA?
Dorsey played in just 61 games over three seasons before he embarked on his journey overseas. Now he returns to the United States and will have to adjust to the heightened level of competition. At 6'8" and 270 pounds, Dorsey has the strength to not get bullied inside, but he doesn't possess ideal height.
Even with his impressive resume in Europe, it's asking a lot to expect him to fill in for Asik and have the team not miss a beat.
There are few other new faces to keep an eye out for. Forward Jeff Adrien had a solid (albeit brief) stint with the Milwaukee Bucks last year. He contributed 10.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in 28 games (12 starts).
The Rockets also have a trio of rookies who could see some playing time. First-round pick Clint Capela is an intriguing big man but is still very raw and will need time to get acclimated to the NBA after playing in Switzerland. Second-round pick Nick Johnson is an explosive athlete who could see time at either guard spot.
Houston also brought over 24-year-old Greek forward Kostas Papanikolaou and gave him a two-year, $9.4 million contract. Like Capela, K-Pap has plenty of upside but zero experience. He'll have to be brought along slowly.
The bright side for Houston is that bench isn't completely green. Francisco Garcia was re-signed to give the team a veteran shooter on the second unit. Also, Lithuanian big man Donatas Motiejunas will see time at power forward and center.
D-Mo averaged 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds in eight games during the Vegas Summer League. With added confidence and a defined role, this could be the year he lives up to his potential.
"We obviously maybe have question marks at some of our bench positions, but I think last year we went into the season with question marks starting," Morey said. "I feel good about the guys we brought in and their ability to step in across Canaan, Nick Johnson and Ish Smith and Troy Daniels. We just have a really good set of young players."
The lack of a proven bench and overall inexperience could be troublesome for a team with championship aspirations. However, as Morey pointed out, there was uncertainty in the starting rotation last season, particularly at power forward and point guard.
Eventually, Terrence Jones beat out Asik to be the starter at the 4 and went on to have a breakout season (12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks). Likewise, Beverley beat out Lin to win the starting point guard gig and was later named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
If Morey hits on one or two of these prospects, be it Covington, Canaan, Daniels, Johnson or whoever, the Rockets will be set up nicely for this season and the future. However, it's still a huge gamble to hitch your playoff hopes to a second unit filled with unproven youngsters, especially given the pressure on Houston to win now.
In fairness, chemistry is going to be a problem for any team that spends the offseason trying to improve by shuffling the roster around. The Cleveland Cavaliers have chemistry issues with LeBron James and Kevin Love being added to the fold, and they are still the favorites to win the title this year, per Pro Basketball Talk's Brett Pollakoff.
Still, it's easier to build around the league's best player and chase championships in the East than it is to stay afloat in a deep Western Conference with a roster constantly in a state of flux. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was critical of Houston's (as well as other teams) approach on chemistry in a interview with KRLD 105.3 (h/t The Dallas Morning News for the quotes):
They just have a different understanding and approach to chemistry than we do. Some teams, and that’s not just the Rockets, just put together talent and the talent takes care of itself. We think chemistry matters." Cuban said, when asked about Morey trying to trade for Dirk Nowitzki.
In his offseason report on the Rockets, CBSSports.com's James Herbert echoed Cuban's sentiments: "The Rockets also might have to worry about developing a reputation as an organization that doesn't value chemistry or loyalty, always looking to acquire more talent."
Again, chemistry will always come at the expense of trying to make your team better. It's the price of doing business. However, guys like Morey (and, to a less successful extent, Pelicans GM Dell Demps) tend to go overboard with their incessant need to take a wrecking ball to everything they just spent the previous year building.
Two years ago, Morey signed Asik and Lin. Now, they're gone. Four of the team's starting five from last year will return this season. Beyond that, only two players who played meaningful minutes for the Rockets last season (Garcia and Motiejunas) will be back again this year.
As important as it is to put together the best talent, intangibles such as loyalty and chemistry are equally as crucial. It's why an aging team like the San Antonio Spurs can contend for championships every year. A lack of chemistry was a key reason for the Indiana Pacers' second-half implosion last year.
Yes, the Rockets will stay in the thick of things thanks to the presence of two of the league's best players in Harden and Howard. On the other hand, neither Harden or Howard has been able to prove he can be a leader of men and make those around him better.
It certainly doesn't help team chemistry when Harden says at a charity event in the Philippines, via The Philippine Star's Joaquin Henson, that he and Howard are the "cornerstones," and everyone else are "role players or pieces that complete the team."
You're not going to inspire teammates by making them feel like they are beneath you. Harden and Howard's talents will only get the team so far. For Houston to realize its potential, one of the two (or even both) will have to take a more serious approach to leadership and rally the troops around them.
For the two summers prior to this one, Morey has done an excellent job of making noise with headline-grabbing moves. It has yet to work out the way he's wanted though. A lack of roster continuity has to be a factor in that.
This year, the team will have to work Ariza into the fold, and the team's "cornerstones" will need to find a way to speed up a young bench's growth process. Chemistry can be built in months or in years. It depends on the team, its leaders and its coaches.
However, a lack of chemistry will continue to be an issue if those responsible for building it keep finding reasons to go back to the drawing board.
Barring injury, the Rockets should still find themselves in the playoff picture. They'll be hard-pressed to repeat as a top-four team in the West, but the trio of Harden, Howard and Ariza is good enough to keep Houston competitive. When you throw in Jones and Beverley, that's a pretty formidable starting rotation.
The offseason may have been a disappointment, but it wasn't a total failure. Defensively, they'll be much better with Ariza helping Beverley out on the perimeter and Howard patrolling the paint. Offensively, they'll continue to be one of the best offensive machines in the NBA.
Furthermore, Houston has the cap space, prospects and future draft picks to make another move if necessary. Naturally, that won't help the team's growing chemistry problem, but it's a nice feather to have in your cap.
Turnovers will continue to be an obstacle with this team, especially with Harden and a slew of inexperienced reserves. As depleted as the roster looks on paper, the only real flaws facing this Rockets team are the intangibles.
Harden and Howard must be more of a vocal presence in the locker room. The young players will have to master the learning curve quickly, and most importantly, they must become a cohesive unit. That might be a lot to ask for, but it's Houston's only hope of avoiding yet another disappointing end to its season.