The 2014-15 campaign might not have ended in a championship for the Houston Rockets, but it would be hard to describe it as disappointing. Not tagged as a contender coming in, Clutch City lived up to its billing and pulled off a No. 2 seed and a Western Conference Finals appearance.
They did so while overcoming a litany of injuries, and that didn’t end just because the playoffs started. Sans starting point guard Patrick Beverley and sometimes-starting power forward Donatas Motiejunas, the Rockets rallied for one of the most epic comebacks in NBA history.
Down 3-1 in their second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers they took Game 5. Then, trailing by 19 Houston battled back to win Game 6. They then dominated Game 7, eliminating L.A. in the process. While Houston lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, Rockets fans will nostalgically remember the second-round series forever.
Posterity wants to record it as a Clippers collapse; the Rockets are setting out to prove that narrative is false—that the comeback was a statement of things to come.
- Additions: Ty Lawson (trade), Sam Dekker (draft), Marcus Thornton (free agency), Montrezl Harrell (draft)
- Subtractions: Josh Smith (free agency), Pablo Prigioni (trade), Nick Johnson (trade), Joey Dorsey (trade), Kostas Papanikolaou (trade)
The Rockets did far more during the offseason than they’re getting credit for, landing Ty Lawson for what is tantamount to little more than table scraps.
For Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni and a protected 2016 first-round draft pick, they filled up what was by far their biggest weakness, turning it into a nearly peerless strength in the process.
Last season, no team was more reliant on their star to create points than the Rockets were with James Harden. The addition of Lawson gives them a pair of shot-creators that only Oklahoma City (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (Kyrie Irving and LeBron James) can match.
In fact, based on stats from NBA.com, there were only six players last season who averaged five dribbles and five seconds with the ball per touch and created 35 or more points per game, either through passing or shooting: Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Harden and Lawson.
The Rockets now have arguably two of the 10 best shot-creators in the game. That’s got to help.
And the only meaningful loss is Josh Smith, but the Rockets have K.J. McDaniels and perhaps rookies Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell who can step in and take his place. The Rockets were a contender that got better. Don't sleep on them.
Storylines to Watch
Health was a huge issue for the Rockets last season. In fact, according to ManGamesLost.com, the Rockets missed more games due to injury (399) than any other postseason team, (and the Minnesota Timberwolves (438) were the only squad that was more beaten up overall).
The Rockets have been pretty conservative during the exhibition frame, sitting anyone who has even a potential hangnail, so don’t let the preseason injury report fool you. There are only two players of note who may miss the start of the season.
Donatas Motiejunas is “unlikely,” per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas has not been cleared to begin practicing, but it is not from a lack of effort to come back from last season’s back surgery.
There is no timetable on Motiejunas’ return, making it unlikely he would be ready for the Oct. 28 opener, but Motiejunas has been able to string together consecutive days of workouts without complications.
I’m feeling pretty good. Today I did a lot of stuff on the court, a lot of conditioning, a lot of stuff with a little contact.
The main thing is making sure I’m in great shape, good enough shape to where I can come back and play as many minutes as I can.
And let's not diminish the impact a healthy Howard can have on the Rockets. The team's net rating last season was plus-8.2 when he was on the court and plus-1.8 when he wasn't. Just because he smiles a lot doesn't mean he's ineffective.
For the most part, Houston will be starting the season healthy, but it could be fragile. If the Rockets can stay fit, though, they could make a run at the NBA’s best record. Look at what they did without Lawson and when they weren't healthy.
And that brings up the second key storyline, because getting Lawson is only half the battle. Part of the reason Houston got Lawson on the cheap was his second DUI arrest. He's since received treatment for alcohol abuse and will need to maintain his sobriety, not just for his career and the Rockets’ success, but for his own quality of life.
Fitting him in is the other half, and how the chemistry between him and Harden develops will make a huge difference. The key will be seeing if they can play off each other and complement one another, or if they’ll just take turns driving the ball.
The Rockets let Josh Smith go to the Clippers in free agency despite his postseason heroics. Instead, they kept K.J. McDaniels and Corey Brewer, a pair of wings who will come off the backcourt and do all kinds of amazing, wonderful and ascetically beautiful things, whether it’s swatting balls away or running the fast break.
In many ways, the Rockets have one of the largest margins for error of any team in the NBA this season. Every spot—except for Harden's—has multiple options. Howard goes down? The agile, freakishly bouncy Clint Capela is waiting in the wings to feast on lobs and opponents’ layup attempts with equal frequency.
Jones or Motiejunas not getting it done at the four? Maybe a look at either one of two rookies — stretch-four candidate Sam Dekker or Energizer Bunny-style worker Montrezl Harrell — could fill the void. Need a dose of athleticism and defense in the backcourt? There’s K.J. McDaniels. Not all of these players will develop into championship-level rotation players, but a few likely will.
That makes the Rockets a tremendously versatile team that can match up with virtually any kind of lineup. But their athletic, jack-of-all-trades wings are the keys to making the versatility work, even if they are masters of none.
Plug them in with Marcus Thornton, and you don’t have to be worried about his defensive liabilities. Play them off Motiejunas for passes out of the post or have them run the pick-and-roll with Terrence Jones. Slap any three players from the 1, 4 and 5 together, and you have a unit that can find and exploit the weakness of the opposition.
Their freakishly athletic wings are the key to the second unit, and they are going to make for some tweetable moments and SportsCenter highlights.
Making the Leap
Last year’s prize pick could be this year’s breakout player. And by “could be”, I mean “emphatically will be, beyond any shadow of a doubt.” Clint Capela will leave you in awe, which is why you should just refer to him as Awe Capela.
Taken with the Rockets’ No. 25 pick in 2104, Capela spent the first part of the season with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. But he eventually played his way up to the mothership and proved himself during the playoffs, averaging 16.2 points and 11.9 boards per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
He hasn’t slowed down the optimism this preseason, averaging 12.6 points and 14.0 boards over the same time span. And the Rockets are 51 points better than their opponents with him on the court.
Also bear in mind that he’s played just one season in America at any level. There’s a lot more room for this kid to grow, and he has one of the greatest post scorers ever to show him the ropes in head coach Kevin McHale.
The Rockets' best-case scenario is winning the title. That's basically the only goal that will satiate the franchise, and it is one that is entirely achievable. The team established that by how far they advanced in last year's postseason when they were riddled with injuries and only had one shot-creator.
They have all the parts they need. It’s just a matter of whether they’ll get the health and the breaks.
There are two ways that things could go badly for the Rockets. First, they could suffer through another series of injuries and maladies for a second straight season.
Second, the Lawson-Harden experiment could be a dud, and rather than playing off one another, Harden simply commands the ball and reduces Lawson to being a shooter.
If that happens, Houston is back to where it was last season, winning in the mid-50s and contending for the Western Conference Finals.
But there were quirks involved in acquiring that No. 2 seed, and if a few things had broken differently, they would've been the No. 6 slot and facing someone like the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Such is the plight of the Western Conference.
While there’s little chance that they miss the postseason entirely, it’s not implausible to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Houston's record is going to suffer because they play in the disgustingly competitive Southwest Division. Three teams—the Rockets, Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies—have 60-win potential. Another, the New Orleans Pelicans, may have the NBA’s best player in Anthony Davis.
So winning 60 wins gets that much harder because the giants have to keep throwing haymakers at each other. Ergo, the Rockets end up with 57 wins, one shy of the Spurs. They’ll advance to the second round of the playoffs, but both the Golden State Warriors and the Spurs will probably be too much for them.
The most likely scenario is a hard-fought second-round exit that has people acknowledging (again) how much it sucks that all the great teams are in the West.
Final Record: 57-25
- Division Standing: 2nd
- Playoff Berth: Yes
- Playoff Finish: Western Conference Semifinals