Houston Rockets: 5-Step Process to Regaining NBA Playoff Contender Status
The Houston Rockets are in a state of flux after failing to reach the postseason for a second consecutive year.
The early demise of the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming era has left the organization in an awkward position. The team is great on some nights, over-matched on others, but always competitive. They're a nice group and a good story of perseverance, but at the end of the day, the Rockets are good enough to just miss the playoffs, but not bad enough to have a realistic shot at a high draft choice.
Owner Les Alexander is frustrated. He came on board in the mid-90s and immediately won two championships. Since then his team has won four playoff series. He and general manager Daryl Morey are looking for another head coach after parting ways with Rick Adelman last week.
Just how far away is Houston from becoming a yearly contender again? Hiring the right coach will go a long way in providing a clearer answer, but the work doesn't stop there.
The Rockets are closer than most give them credit for, and if they follow this five-step process, they'll have themselves right back in the mix.
5. 2011 NBA Draft Swap
Rockets trade Patrick Patterson and two first-round picks (14th and 23rd) to Sacramento for the fifth-overall selection. Rockets use pick to select Jan Vesely (SF, Czech Republic).
I would hate to see Houston lose Patterson, who showed so much promise in his rookie season, but to move into the upper half of the draft, Morey and Co. will have to sacrifice something.
This deal makes sense on so many levels. The Rockets and Kings have worked together before, most recently in February 2010 when they swapped Kevin Martin and Carl Landry. This draft pool has few clear-cut top prospects, and the Kings need a lot of help.
In the deal, the Kings would get Patterson, whose size and skill set has him geared to be a starting power forward for years to come. It's possible Sacramento will lose center Samuel Dalembert in free agency, which would force it to move promising rookie DeMarcus Cousins to center, opening up the 4 spot for Patterson.
The Kings would also pick up an extra first-round pick to help them address their multiple needs. NBAdraft.net's latest mock had Kemba Walker and Shelvin Mack being selected at No. 14 and No. 23. Not bad. Other college stars such as Texas' Jordan Hamilton, San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard and Duke's Nolan Smith are likely to be available at those spots as well.
The Rockets get the small forward they desperately need. Vesely is a 6'11" freak of an athlete and his game has drawn comparisons to Blake Griffin, Tom Chambers and Andrei Kirilenko.
Rockets fans may not like that final comparison, but Kirilenko is a former All-Star and has always been one of the league's top defenders. Vesely is said to be a very capable defender at multiple positions, which will keep him serviceable while his offensive repertoire continues to develop.
This move would make the Rockets better today and, especially, in the future.
4. Re-Sign Chuck Hayes
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Following the trade deadline exodus of Shane Battier, Hayes became the unquestioned leader of the Houston locker room.
Not coincidentally, the team's chemistry and level of play was much improved in the final six weeks of the season, evidenced by a 17-8 sprint to the finish.
Hayes is much like Battier in that neither will ever overwhelm you with numbers, but each is a player that every serious contender needs in its rotation. Hayes is one of the NBA's top defenders and his efforts are finally starting to receive recognition, as he earned two first-place votes for Defensive Player of the Year last week.
Offensively, the Chuck Wagon continues to improve. He finished the season with a career-high average in points and assists and he was the Rockets' best passer out of the high post. Hayes even recorded a triple-double on March 23 against the Golden State Warriors.
If Houston is going to become a contender in the Western Conference, it is going to have to deal with the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint. Hayes drew the assignment on each and had great success bottling them up throughout the year.
The soon-to-be free agent has made it clear that Houston is the only place he wants to play. The Rockets should make sure he doesn't leave town.
3. Upgrade Small Forward Position
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There are options aplenty here and it helps that Houston will have a lot of money to throw at free agents once the collective bargaining agreement is settled.
I love Chase Budinger so much that I would trade Courtney Lee to keep him, but neither is the Rockets' answer at starting small forward. There are four potential upgrades on the market this summer, but three of them are restricted, so the Rockets won't control negotiations unless they choose to offer an obscene amount initially, which none of the three are worth.
Jeff Green, Thaddeus Young and Wilson Chandler are all restricted, meaning Boston, Philadelphia and Denver can match any offer for a respective player to retain his rights. Chandler's shooting and defensive abilities on the perimeter make him the best fit, but he was the prize acquisition for Denver in the Carmelo Anthony deal, so the Nuggets will probably do what it takes to keep him around.
The final and most obstacle-free option is Detroit's Tayshaun Prince. Prince is an unrestricted free agent, and while injuries have slowed the 31-year-old, he still averaged 14 points on 47-percent shooting in 78 games this year.
Prince is a lockdown defender and a better scoring option than Budinger or Lee.
Most importantly, he has championship pedigree. Prince played a huge role in the Pistons' 2004 championship run—something no current Rocket has experienced.
2. Find a Starting Center (Preferably Tyson Chandler)
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Yao Ming's feeble left foot created a serious void in the middle for Houston, one that Morey has been unable to fill. I'm all for re-signing Yao to a reasonable deal this offseason, but the days of depending on him to play heavy minutes are long gone.
Last summer, the Rockets had a deal on the table to sign Tyson Chandler, one that eventually fell through. Chandler signed with Dallas and will be the most sought-after unrestricted free agent after averaging 10 points, nine rebounds and shooting 65 percent this season.
It's hard to imagine Mark Cuban letting Chandler get away, but if possible, Morey would be wise to close the deal this time around.
Chandler had 14 points and 20 rebounds in Dallas' Game 5 victory over Portland on Monday night and he has size and the ability to alter shots—something the Rockets have lacked since Yao first went down in May 2009.
Houston ranked third in scoring this season, so they have enough of that. A legit shot-blocking presence like Chandler would do wonders for weak interior defense.
Kendrick Perkins and Sam Dalembert are unrestricted free agents and may find the Rockets attractive. Perkins is a Houston native and Dalembert figures to be ready to play for a playoff contender after spending the last few years in Sacramento.
Any of these five options work. If the organization strikes out again at finding a skilled seven-footer, it can kiss the chance of reaching contender status goodbye.
1. Hire Larry Brown To Be Next Head Coach
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The last time Larry Brown was on the market was summer 2003. He interviewed and was a finalist for the opening in Houston.
Van Gundy did well during his tenure, taking the team to the playoffs three times in four seasons, so it's not like that was a bad hire, but my advice would be to not make the same mistake twice.
Brown is a proven winner and a Hall of Famer. Yes, his star has dimmed a bit recently after a tough final act in Charlotte that saw him step down midway through this past season, but that organization is a mess from top to bottom.
He took the Pistons to the 2004 and 2005 NBA Finals, winning in '04. Brown also led the Philadelphia 76ers to the Finals in 2001, a team that had Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutumbo and no one else of note. The Rockets team he would inherit has far more talent then the '01 Sixers and any team he coached in Charlotte.
The best argument for Brown may be that the '04 Pistons were a talented but "starless" group, yet they were a Kobe Bryant miracle shot away from sweeping the Lakers, which had four future Hall of Famers.
The point is he knows how to fit the pieces to create a winner. The Rockets need to be re-taught how to play defense and who better to teach it than Brown?
Mike Brown is a nice coach and there are a few assistants who deserve a look, but if I'm Morey and Alexander, I replace a future Hall of Famer (Adelman) with someone who has already reached basketball immortality.