They’ll have to do that without a first-round pick, though. They lost that when they won the chance to get their teeth kicked in by the Golden State Warriors.
General manager Daryl Morey is one of the shrewdest in the business, and he has plenty of work to do this offseason, inlcuding a coaching vacancy and potentially tons of cap money to spend.
But there is a path back to contender status if he makes the right moves.
Call Frank Vogel…Now
If Morey hasn’t already called Frank Vogel, he’s not doing his job right. The Indiana Pacers decided not to re-sign Vogel, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com, immediately making him the best coach on the market.
It wouldn't be his first Rockets interview, either, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Morey has thought highly of Vogel since they were with the Celtics together more than 10 years ago.
Vogel went through the Rockets interview process when he was the Pacers interim coach. He had no assurances that he would keep the job in Indianapolis, but there was an expectation was that he would eventually get the offer to remain with the Pacers. He had been the Pacers interim coach after replacing Jim O'Brien, going 20-18 that season.
While in limbo, Vogel had dinner with Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and met with Rockets general manager for seven hours the next day. Vogel officially became the Pacers coach about a month after the Rockets chose Kevin McHale.
The Rockets need help on defense, and Vogel is a defensive guru.
Over the five full years he was the coach of the Pacers, they tied the San Antonio Spurs for the best defensive rating in the NBA at 101.6, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And he’s maintained that consistency in spite of the fact that the only player with him the whole time, Paul George, missed virtually an entire season with a broken leg.
Vogel is a top-10—maybe even top-five—coach. Plus, he can spin a basketball on the end of a toothbrush while brushing his teeth. Talent like that is hard to find.
If that doesn’t pan out, then Jeff Van Gundy is a decent signing, but the game has changed a lot since he last coached. Assistant coach Sam Cassell is also in the running, according to Feigen.
Let Dwight Howard Go
Whether Dwight Howard wants to stay in Houston or not (it doesn’t look like he does), Morey needs to let this one go.
Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com described the situation:
It's no big surprise since this has often been a season of dysfunction. It starts with Harden and Howard, the team's two stars. They have tried to be friends -- Harden picked up Howard's tab for dinner in New York on his birthday. During dinner in Phoenix at the All-Star break, the two discussed their on-court issues.
But ultimately, the chemistry between the two hasn't been there. One team source said: "It's cordially bad."
Frankly, so are the numbers. Here's Mika Honkasalo of Hoops Hype:
In his best seasons in Orlando, you’d see Howard blow up a pick-and-roll at the three-point line and recover to the rim to block the ball on plays where you’d say to yourself “How can anyone score with that guy on the court?”
This year, Howard ranked 96th among 125 players with over 200 plays defended at the rim, allowing opponents to shoot 49.7 percent at the basket. At the very least, Howard could always make the defense respectable. And while he isn’t bad, Howard certainly isn’t the singular answer to a team’s defensive woes.
Last year, the Rockets were plus-0.2 with Howard on the court and minus-0.6 without him. That’s not worth over $20 million when there are so many better ways to spend it.
Create More Cap Room
The good news for the Rockets is that they have some money to spend if and when Howard leaves. And it’s not just his contract they can shed this year, either.
This is what their contract situation looks like sans Howard, according to Spotrac:
|Houston Rockets Salary Cap Picture 2016-17|
Two of those contracts, Andrew Goudelock’s and Michael Beasley’s, are under the Rockets’ control. They will likely drop the former and keep the latter. That would nudge them down to almost exactly $47 million, putting their cap room at about $45 million.
There might be temptation to bring back Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas, but they shouldn't do it. Motiejunas had a PER of 11.3 last year, and Jones' was just 13.5. Between the two of them, they missed 87 games.
The Rockets could create more room by selling K.J. McDaniels or Trevor Ariza for draft picks—or even nothing if they had to. Creating enough space for two max contracts would be worth it, particularly if Kevin Durant was one of those contracts.
The Rockets are in a somewhat rare situation. They have one superstar, some role players like Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley, who have good contracts, and a bunch of money to spend on a new coach. So they can rebuild on the fly by choosing people who fit together.
The Rockets might be inclined to go after that second superstar—it's been Morey’s modus operandi so far. But Kevin Durant isn't likely coming to Houston, so adding two or three next-tier players who can start might be better than failing on a big name.
There are two things the team could use: defense and shooting.
The Rockets attempted more threes than anyone except the Warriors last year, but they were only 19th in three-point percentage at 34.7. As a result, they missed 108 more three-point attempts than any team in the league.
See how they compare to the other top three-point shooting teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State. The Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves missed the fewest. The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the average.
If you’re going to relentlessly fire off threes, be like Golden State and make them. Adding two-way players who can make threes is more important than name recognition.
Al Horford is the top not-Kevin Durant player on the list. He isn't a star, but he is one of the more underrated players in the league. And at 29, the Rockets would still be getting him for the tail end of his career peak.
Every year, he produces but doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Since he came into the NBA, only 19 players have accumulated more win shares than his 52.6, yet he only has one third-team All-NBA award to his credit. Horford averaged 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks this year and knocked down 88 threes at a 34.4 percent clip.
Luol Deng is 31, but he has been an absolute revelation as a stretch 4. According to Nylon Calculus, which tracks player production by position, Deng had a 62.7 true shooting percentage while playing power forward. Age and injury history might be more of a concern if he were playing the 3, but being a small-ball power forward extends his career.
He made his reputation as a glue guy and defender, and with him anchoring a Vogel defense, the Rockets’ improvement on the unsexy end of the court would be dramatic. Both Erik Spoelstra, his current coach with the Miami Heat, and Tom Thibodeau, his coach in Chicago, positively gushed over his leadership and character.
Ryan Anderson would add to the shooting. He is arguably the second-best sniping power forward in the game right now. With just 20 more made threes, he’ll be the sixth player 6'10" or taller to hit 1,000 in his career. (Dirk Nowitzki is the only other one who is still active.)
Anderson would fit well with the Rockets’ three-point-oriented offense, but his defense would be another liability, something that they can’t afford.
Nicolas Batum would be interesting as a three-and-D wing, but it’s hard to figure out where he would fit in the starting lineup unless the Rockets pushed Ariza to the 4, where he had some success this year. And Batum might be on a lot of teams' short lists, which would drive his price up.
Morey should avoid the Warriors' Harrison Barnes, who will end up getting a contract he can’t live up to. The Rockets would be better off letting someone else pay it. I'm just mentioning that lest anyone think I "forgot" him.
Ideally, a lineup of Patrick Beverley, Harden, Deng, Ariza and Horford would be tough to beat. It would be more efficient offensively than what the Rockets had last year, and it would be night and day defensively.
The exact specifics could change, depending on who the coach is. But the Rockets need to think along the lines of buying an entire package, not just star power. Any combination of Horford and one of the forwards would make the offseason a win for the Rockets and could put them back into contender status.