5 Things Houston Rockets Must Figure Out Before Start of 2014-15 Season
The Houston Rockets have made a lot of moves this summer and still have more to make. There are still things they need to figure out before the season tips off.
They haven’t had the offseason they wanted, but it’s not as bad as some have reported, either. Plan A doesn’t always pan out, what with the bothersome issue of free agents exercising free will and all, so Plan B becomes necessary.
They don’t have the great starting five they would have had with Chris Bosh and Chandler Parsons in the fold, but it’s solid and set with Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard.
There are still things that need to be worked out with the bench before the season starts, though.
They are listed here in a logical sequence, not in order of priority.
Can Anyone Get James Harden to Play Defense?
James Harden is a historically brilliant scorer, and that’s not hyperbole. Per Basketball-Reference, only two players have ever notched 5,000 points with a higher true shooting percentage before age 25: Charles Barkley and Adrian Dantley. That’s pretty good company.
Defensively, though, he is becoming an absolute disaster. He is arguably the most lopsided player (brilliant on one end of the court and incompetent on the other) since Ben Wallace, whose disparity was inverted to Harden's.
There were hopes that playing with Team USA under the tutelage of defensive guru Tom Thibodeau would help. And the initial reports were encouraging. Bobby Gonzalez of Sheridan Hoops reported:
I spoke to several members of the USAB staff, and behind the scenes they were amazed at how good James Harden has become as an overall player since his last tour with Team USA two years ago. The fact that he came in and was focused on being a lockdown defender blew them away.
But, as evidenced by the footage above, his play in games has been different from whatever he showed in practice. And, if you can’t defend against Turkey, can you defend in the NBA?
Harden is once again just losing all interest and/or awareness off the ball. The only reason his help defense isn’t atrocious is because it doesn’t exist.
There are two ways to take this. One is to be frustrated and give up on the idea of Harden ever putting forth a consistent defensive effort. The other is that he has the ability to do well, but needs someone to inspire him to put forth the effort.
The Rockets fired Dean Cooper, their previous defensive coach, but haven’t replaced him yet. Landing an assistant who can push Harden on the less-glamorous end is essential. Mark Jackson comes to mind, but per Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group, Brian Scalabrine believes Jackson did not push his players hard enough.
Whoever it is, they need to land someone soon, and it needs to be someone who Harden listens to.
Who Besides Harden Can Create Offense?
James Harden’s flaws on defense are exacerbated by the Rockets’ weakness on offense. Apart from the Beard, they have no truly adept shot-creator. So if they want to put in a lineup without a defensive liability, they lose their offense.
They have great shooters. Troy Daniels’ range is “yes.” Trevor Ariza has been working on his three-point shooting, making a career-high 40.7 percent last year.
They have excellent low-post scorers in Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones.
But shooters and low-post scorers need someone to get them the ball.
In their efforts to land Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, the Rockets dumped the salary of Jeremy Lin. They also declined to match the contract of Chandler Parsons. Those were the only two perimeter players other than Harden who notched more than 100 unassisted field goals last season, per Basketball-Reference.
The best creator they have now is Trevor Ariza, who generated 96 of his own buckets last year. That’s problematic.
Jason Terry (more on him next slide) was once a solid creator, but not the last two years. As he’s aged, he’s become more of a spot-up shooter. He hasn’t produced 100 of his own field goals since 2011-12.
Furthering the problem is that Houston, besides Harden, doesn't have any adept passers. Parsons (298) and Lin (294) were also second and third in assists for the Rockets. Ariza had only 191, but that’s still enough to make him second on the current roster.
A critical question the Rockets must answer, and answer now, is: Who can take the pressure off Harden, and who can run the team when he’s on the bench?
Who Will Be Traded for Jason Terry?
Jason Terry at least has a history of being able to create for himself and others, so his addition would be welcome.
Oh wait! You thought that was a done deal? In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle tweeted on Aug. 31, "Rockets deal for Terry won't be complete for several weeks until can aggregate contracts in trade. Besides Gee, unguaranteeds in deal TBD."
Part of the delay might be figuring out how a Jet can be a Rocket (you may commence booing now). That’s probably not it, though.
Per ShamSports.com, the Rockets’ other non-guaranteed contracts belong to Scotty Hopson ($1.45 million), Josh Powell ($1.31 million), and Rob Covington (816,000). Adding either Hopson or Powell to Alonzo Gee’s deal ($3.0 million) would be enough money to make the deal go through, but Covington’s salary is $25,590 short.
A pretty big factor in preparing for the season is knowing who is actually on the roster. So getting the details of this worked out is important.
What Will the Preliminary Bench Rotation Look Like?
When and whether Jason Terry arrives raises another set of issues. Primarily, what will the bench rotation look like?
Where does he fit? The best perimeter player on the Rockets’ bench right now is Troy Daniels, who is a pure shooter but also an undersized 2 with limited ball-handling skills.
So does Terry displace Daniels as the sixth man, or does he knock out Isaiah Canaan as the backup point guard? Canaan is a Beverley duplicate, a solid defender with little ability to create for himself or others.
If Terry takes over the primary backup point guard duties, the Rockets wouldn’t have much of a defensive presence in either backcourt player.
There are also questions at small forward. Will the newly acquired Kostas Papanikolaou or the re-signed Francisco Garcia be coming off the bench first? The former has a higher ceiling, but the latter brings NBA experience to an extremely young and inexperienced second unit.
The Rockets’ starters are set, but they’ll need to focus on the bench rotation during the preseason and at least get a semblance of a depth chart.
Will They Use Their Trade Exception?
Finally, the Rockets are still sitting on the chubby $8.4 million trade exception they gained by sending Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Will they use it? And can they? There aren’t too many teams willing to give away $8 million players right now.
Probably their best chance is not one that will have Rockets fans running to buy new jerseys, but it’s a viable option. The Minnesota Timberwolves would likely be willing to give away J.J. Barrea ($4.5 million) for free. He would make a serviceable backup point guard, but it would complicate the Terry/Daniels glut.
One thing is certain. General manager Daryl Morey has always been aggressive, so you know he’ll be pursuing something he can do with the exception. It just remains to be seen whether he’ll find a deal worth taking.
The most important bench piece may not be acquired yet, and it’s better to get that done sooner rather than later.