Predicting Houston Rockets' Biggest Surprises and Breakout Players in 2014-15

Jake Lapin@lapin_62094Correspondent ISeptember 4, 2014

Predicting Houston Rockets' Biggest Surprises and Breakout Players in 2014-15

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    The Houston Rockets are looking to turn it around in 2014-15. After a disappointing end to last year followed by an even more disappointing outlook for this year, the Rockets could surprise some people this season.

    It's true—Houston's roster has downgraded quite a bit since Damian Lillard sent the team packing. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were traded away, and Chandler Parsons signed an unmatchable contract with the rival Dallas Mavericks in free agency.

    But it's not all bad news for the Rockets.

    General manager Daryl Morey pieced together an intriguing roster of young yet unproven talent. He also brought in veteran Trevor Ariza to take the place of Parsons in the starting lineup. With the duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard handling the reins, this squad still has plenty of upside for the upcoming season.

    From young guns to seasoned vets, quite a few surprises are waiting for Rockets fans this year. Here are five predictions of surprises and breakout players for the Houston Rockets.

Donatas Motiejunas Will Shine

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    Since acquiring Donatas Motiejunas on draft night back in 2011, the Rockets have had high hopes for the Lithuanian product. Once a dominant force in Europe, D-Mo has had some growing pains the last couple of seasons during his transition to the NBA.

    Last season, he played a career-high 62 games for the Rockets. He was sent to the D-League for a short stint after complaining about his playing time, but shortly thereafter he got his opportunity. After averaging less than 10 minutes per game the first two months of the season, he saw the floor for more than 17 minutes per night after the All-Star break.

    D-Mo became a consistent cog in the rotation by the end of the regular season. His post game down low is a big asset, and he has improved his defense and rebounding a lot since first joining the league.

    However, once the playoffs rolled around, D-Mo was removed from the rotation. Coach Kevin McHale didn't play him a single second in the first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers.

    That could change this time around. Motiejunas had a phenomenal Las Vegas Summer League performance. He made the All-NBA Summer League first team, averaging 16.8 points and 8.1 boards per game while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor. He also shot 40 percent from three-point range.

    It may just be a small sample size and against weaker talent, but D-Mo's red-hot summer is a positive sign for the Rockets. Especially with the departure of Asik, he will be an important piece in the rotation all season long. As a result, he could put up some big numbers for Houston.

The Snipers from the Vipers Will Fit Right in

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    Houston's D-League affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers have a strong developmental system in place. The Big Three from last year's Vipers will play in the big leagues this season with the Rockets, and they will be key contributors.

    Isaiah Canaan will step into the backup point guard role with the departure of Lin. Lin was a good playmaker and facilitator, but he was wildly inconsistent and had too many turnovers. Canaan is a much better shooter from outside and can attack the basket, and if he keeps his turnovers to a minimum, he will be a quality backup behind Patrick Beverley.

    Troy Daniels solidified his role with the team after a gutsy playoff performance in his rookie season. He shot more than 53 percent from deep against the Blazers after only playing in seven regular-season games. His postseason heroics and pure shooting stroke earned him a new two-year deal. Expect to see him on the floor often for the Rockets.

    Lastly, Robert Covington rounds out the Big Three. He won the NBA D-League Rookie of the Year award by averaging 23.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. He was among the best in the league in many categories, especially points and steals, and he reached the 40-point plateau twice. He's a big forward who can stretch the floor with good range from deep, and he will fit nicely in the Rockets system.

    Houston will be utilizing a much different bench from last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean the team won't be as good. The Rockets have young guys, particularly these three, who are ready to step in and have an immediate impact.

Overseas Additions Will Contribute

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    When forced to put together a respectable roster after striking out in free agency, Morey looked over to Europe for a little help. What he got was a familiar face and a rising star.

    Joey Dorsey returns to the NBA and to his original team after spending a few seasons in Europe. He bounced around the league and hardly played during his first stint in the NBA, but after developing his game overseas, Dorsey is poised to make a big comeback.

    Dorsey spent his time in Spain, Greece and Turkey, honing his game to become a defense and rebounding machine. According to My Fox Houston, rumor has it that he was called the Dwight Howard of Europe. He even shattered a backboard on a dunk in a preseason game.

    It'll be interesting to see how Dorsey's game has evolved and if he can readjust to the NBA. With Asik gone, he and Motiejunas will split time as Howard's backup.

    The other newest player from the EuroLeague is Kostas Papanikolaou. The 6'9'' Greek forward started out in Greece before winning the championship last season in Spain with FC Barcelona. Dorsey was on that team as well.

    Papanikolaou is a lengthy athlete with great hops and a good jump shot. He can even hit the three-ball, and his defense is one of his better qualities. Like Dorsey, it is uncertain whether he will be able to transition to the NBA style of play, but what we do know is that he was productive in Europe.

    There's no guarantee these guys will step in and contribute right away, but Morey could be on to something here.

James Harden's Defense Will Be Much Better

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    It's tough to be a breakout player after making All-NBA first team the previous season. Yet in Harden's case, he has a great opportunity to prove doubters wrong.

    Known for his offensive prowess, Harden is also notorious for his lazy defense. When you have an 11-minute video showing your breakdowns defensively, you know it's time to change. And that's what Harden has vowed to do, as reported by the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen.

    The Beard came to USA Basketball minicamp with the goal of becoming a better defender. The coaching staff has been impressed with his desire and his improvement along the way according to Sheridan Hoops' Bobby Gonzalez. The problem obviously wasn't fixed overnight, but at least we know something: This isn't as much of a talent issue as it is an effort issue.

    Harden is capable of being a solid defender. Throughout the FIBA World Cup thus far, he has made a lot of good defensive plays, including several steals that have led to fast breaks. However, as we all already know, Harden takes plays off. Like in the video above, Harden can get lazy and let his man get past him from time to time.

    Is it a good thing that Harden is lazy on defense? No. But is it fatal to the Rockets that he takes off a few plays per game? No. The good news is that this can be fixed. Come playoff time, Harden won't be letting laziness get in the way of winning. 

    Harden says he is determined to defend better, and fans should give him the benefit of the doubt. Those 11 minutes of his defensive mishaps would be vastly outnumbered by a video of all of his highlights on both ends of the floor.

    The talent is there. Harden just has to stop using defensive possessions to take a breather. He can do it.

Surprise Second-Round Showing

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    I don't need to tell you what happens in that picture. As painful as it was to post it and relive those memories, that moment was important for the franchise.

    In Harden and Howard's first season together, the team failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. Even with home-court advantage, the Rockets could not overcome the pesky Blazers. Now, teams throughout the West are steadily improving, while the Rockets have perhaps taken a step backward.

    They lost three of their top guys, including a crucial starter and several role players. The replacements, though young and full of potential, are still unproven and a cause for concern. However, with Harden, Howard and McHale together with a full season already under their belt, the bench issues are trivial.

    Many experts see the Rockets falling down the ladder this season out West. They still aren't as good as the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers, and other teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers are all getting better.

    There are no free passes in the Western Conference. The Spurs' only seven-game series last season was in the first round against the Mavs. Anybody can beat anybody with a conference this deep. That's why the Rockets have a chance.

    3.8 seconds.

    The Rockets were 3.8 seconds away from winning that Portland series and just 0.9 seconds away from forcing a Game 7. Yet two buzzer-beaters for the Blazers (one to force overtime in Game 1 and the other in Game 6) turned the tables, and Rip City moved on to the next round.

    A lot of things didn't go the Rockets' way that series. The NBA admitted a missed call that cost the Rockets the opening game and home-court advantage. James Harden chose a bad time to go cold, while LaMarcus Aldridge had the two best games of his career back-to-back on the road. Jeremy Lin couldn't hold onto the ball or make a layup in closing time. McHale got schooled in the chess match by opposing coach Terry Stotts. And somehow, above all else, Damian Lillard found himself wide open.

    Now that the most painfully hyperlinked paragraph is over, here's my point: All of that went wrong for the Rockets, and yet they still almost escaped the hectic first round and gained entry into the Western Conference semifinals.

    We all wanted to see the Rockets face the Spurs in the playoffs after the series sweep in the regular season. Who knows what would have happened? We never got to find out.

    This time around, the Rockets have another chance to make a deep playoff run. Their starting five is as good as any in the West, and the bench is loaded with potential. The Rockets have enough fuel to go deep into the postseason; it's just a matter of scheming and execution. I predict the Rockets will win at least one playoff series this upcoming year.