The Houston Rockets season ended last night at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets lost on their home court in a Toyota Center that had emptied as if to let the team know that not even their Cinderella run was good enough to keep the fans around long enough to show they care. Sadly the aftermath of the Rockets 103-94 loss to the best team in the Western Conference has prompted some talk about trading out parts of the roster and finding ways to acquire both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. It's important at times like these to step back and look at what the Houston Rockets have actually achieved and what's actually plausible before we indulge in this sort of speculation. Primarily Rockets fans should show their appreciation for what has happened right before their very eyes before wishing to make major alterations to a roster that outperformed most people's expectations.
First let's look at game six itself. I, for one, called the Thunder to take this series in five games. That was before the injury to Russell Westbrook. Houston looked like a team that could legitimately upset the Thunder after strong showings in game four and five. Throughout the early going of game six the Rockets were dominant through ball movement and execution. The Thunder charged back off Kevin Martin breaking a cold streak and having three years of cohesion ahead of the Rockets. Houston went down by fifteen before I had trouble watching in the fourth quarter and they had enough self-respect to avoid the blowout by bringing the game within nine. That, ladies and gentlemen, is heart. Houston showed an abundance of it this series. They opened it with a 29 point blow out, brought it within three twice, then turned around and gave the Thunder two games worth of attack before succumbing. Much maligned Carlos Delfino was sorely missed as Francisco Garcia fell to some awkward foul calls and had to rely on Chandler Parsons on Durant (Which is usually a good thing but Kevin Martin demanded a man guard him in game six). Sadly the bench production was downright atrocious and harmed the Rockets prospects throughout the game. The nail in the coffin for the Rockets was ultimately that the law of averages is a thing and Houston's bench showed to be average when Kevin Martin settled back into the player he was throughout the season. Any post-mortem on this team has to acknowledge that this is a squad that Kevin McHale has stewarded and made you believe in them throughout this series. They could have laid down after game one but they fought back and pushed the Thunder to six. I, for one, was proud to call myself a Rockets fan this season for the first time in three years because we are going the right way, we're playing with pride, and we're playing with tenacity.
Houston entered the 2012-2013 season fresh off a trade for James Harden, two new starters signed off the restricted free agent market, and only four Rockets from the previous season on their roster (Morris, Patterson, Parsons, and Smith). More intriguing yet, they exported their former "marquee" player for a legitimate superstar and foundation the day before the season started. This team thundered out of the gate and produced some fantastic and exciting games and some gut-wrenching losses. The highs and lows of a young team were met with some winging and some zealous enthusiasm from fans and, honestly, it's to be expected. Growing pains will happen and people will get caught up in it. Fans clamored for changes and when changes came they were fantastic for the short term. The longevity of most of these changes ultimately resulted in lackluster results requiring further changes (Motiejunas's first few games then his subsequent falling into obscurity). Speaking of changes, the Rockets shipped out two of their more tenured Rockets (And some spare parts) for Francisco Garcia and Thomas Robinson at the trade deadline. Jeremy Lin played a full 82 games, Omer Asik produced more than anyone expected, and James Harden produced exactly what this writer expected (Yes, I'm bragging on nailing my 26/6/5 prediction). What was the result of all of these changes? In the span of one summer the roster was shredded apart, re-assembled, and dropped on Kevin McHale at the last second. Once he had a rotation sorted out and a team he was comfortable with it was taken away from him with an eye towards the long term and told to make it work. Well, the result of all of that was a 45-37 record and the 8th seed in the NBA Playoffs.
Let that sink in for a moment. A team that was completely altered, given no time to prepare, finally settled in and then uprooted again, made the playoffs.
Kevin McHale made his first appearance in the NBA playoffs. The only Rockets who entered the post-season with any (meaningful) experience at all in the post-season were James Harden, Omer Asik, and Aaron Brooks. Only one of those players was a starter when they were in the playoffs. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, no? Well, after game one you could certainly say it was on the horizon. The roster came together after that to lose a pair of heart breakers by three. Down 3-0 in the series they could have packed it in. Jeremy Lin was hurt, Harden was getting sick, Delfino's foot finally quit on him after an AMAZING posterization of Kevin Durant, and even without Russell Westbrook the Thunder was still perceived as the better team. Instead the Rockets rallied behind resident beautiful man Chandler Parsons and churned out a game four win. That game four win was followed by game five brilliance. The fan base became energized and Red Nation was rising. Ultimately in their first significant exposure Kevin McHale rallied this team to produce some great work after some major adjustments needed to be made. Somehow this team took about the least amount of playoff experience you could fathom outside of Charlotte and produced a highly entertaining six game series against the best team in the West. That's saying a lot.
Kevin McHale has been much criticized over the course of the season for adjustments, lack thereof, spite towards a favorite player, minutes on his starters, and the color of his ties (Or any other de minimis critique you can conjure). What must be said is that given the adversity Kevin faced on the season there aren't many who could have pulled off what he did. Only Rick Adelman's personal life could rival Kevin McHale's in terms of adversity. No other team in the NBA saw roster upheaval similar to what Kevin had to adjust with. As much critique as Kevin received when he experimented with players the fans clamored for they produced well for short periods but then were solved and sank into obscurity. Further, the rotations he had to work with tended to be unproductive until finally a streak came in that saw it work. Something that hadn't been much mentioned is the value of starters playing through adversity. Before the Rockets began to rebuild the concept of trial by fire was tossed around for any rookies added to the team. What was saw this season was the rebuilt free agent form of that theory. By logging the starters longer minutes together that chemistry that we all know and love was able to come together quicker than usual. The team didn't have an offseason to train and develop. Legitimately only through Kevin's copious minutes heaped on certain players did this come together so quickly. Was Kevin perfect? Not at all. Did he take what was available to him and make it work? Very much yes. If the Rockets could produce so much so quickly this year, imagine what they could do with a roster that more closely resembles Daryl Morey's end game.
James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, and Chandler Parsons. These four men are the heart of the Rockets. Thankfully the heart of the Rockets is pumping in great shape and each ventricle is performing at or above expected efficiency (You're welcome, AK). James Harden is very clearly a franchise player in this league and he plays Morey's preferred style of basketball. All he needs to do is learn to cut down on turnovers and get some offensive help to encourage more energy on defense and he'll be in great shape. Jeremy produced the most "mediocre" of the group but in his first season as a full time starter he produced great numbers for your starting point guard. Jeremy has to keep an eye on his decision making in the lane and once that is tamed, he'll take that next step from quality to special in my opinion. Chandler Parsons. Nothing more needs to be said. He was a revelation. Omer Asik surprised us all with some great offensive production to couple with something Houston has missed for quite some time, interior defense and rebounding. Houston has a gem here and a man who you can legitimately interject into the conversation of "best center in the NBA."
Houston has a healthy heart but that bench needs to be its soul. The bench needs to be that passion and that shot of adrenaline when the heart is laboring. Unfortunately this team lacks too much of a spark. Patrick Beverley is spark and passion defined. Beyond him there are question marks. Aaron Brooks was Patrick Beverley before it was cool and with time to get integrated in the lineup that could easily become a fiery backcourt. Unfortunately the frontcourt needs answers. Terrence Jones has an NBA body but he has to find some more consistency on the court. Motiejunas has some strides to make. Thomas Robinson was a long term signing with an eye towards being the starter in a few years but he needs to realize potential first. Greg Smith is best served as a back up to Omer Asik and still then anyone who declares that he does it well has to watch some more tape. Delfino and Garcia are the most experienced members of the team and hold down the back up three spot better than to be expected and, in Delfino's case, better than given credit for.
Houston needs to solidify a bench rotation and find a quality power forward to start at the position. Thomas Robinson may very well be that player of the future but he's not that player of the now. Houston desperately needs a back up center and could certainly use a back up small forward on the cheap to avoid having to pay Francisco Garcia's salary (In excess of 6 million).
The Offseason Situation
The Houston Rockets are entering the off-season with a salary cap of about 44 million out of 58 million dollars (Give or take a couple million) on payroll. If Houston picks up Francisco Garcia's team option that number shrinks to about 50 million out of 58 million. If Houston opts to let Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino walk they're looking at 39 million dollars in committed salary and 19 million to spend.
Houston has the 34th pick in the NBA Draft if I'm to believe nbadraft.net and Clutch Fans. If this turns out to be errant I can correct it later. If Houston doesn't have this pick then they have no selections in the 2013 NBA Draft.
The free agent market is relatively thin this offseason if you're looking for star power. We have two tiers we're looking at for free agents AS THEY RELATE TO THE ROCKETS, impact and depth.
Special note: These players are not listed with respect to whether or not they would come or the wisdom of such a signing but whether or not the player would benefit the Rockets with their play.
Impact: Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala (ETO), Al Jefferson, David West, Paul Milsap, Tiago Splitter (Debateable, 5 mil qualifying offer to become RFA).
Depth: Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Andray Blatche, Marco Bellinelli, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Richard Jefferson (Player Option), Matt Barnes, Tony Allen, Samuel Dalembert, Joel Pryzbilla, Al-Farouq Aminu, Kevin Martin, J.J. Hickson, Emeka Okafor.
A quick look at the depth market compared to the impact market we see that most of the impact players, given their skill set, would warrant spending close to the 15 million maximum the Rockets may offer per year (Depending on tenure in the league). Big men come at a premium price and the Rockets could benefit from them so it's a necessary concession you must make that an impact player at the four will not come cheap. The majority of impact players available are not young, meaning they shouldn't expect a deal longer than three years but the hope would be that Thomas Robinson would be ready for that starting spot towards the end of that deal. Ideally the Rockets could make many depth signings to complete the bench with some quality players and maximize their options.
The most intriguing signing would be if the Rockets could get their hands on Tiago Splitter and then make some depth signings to shore up the back up 5 (Which many are available) and bolster small forward depth. All eyes are focused on Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, rightfully so, they're big name players. The Rockets likely enter the offseason with 14-15 million dollars and need to spend the money judiciously to get the most bang for their buck and I don't think anyone would doubt Morey pulls that off.
Houston is eligible to receive a player via sign-and-trade. Teams over the "apron" (4 million dollars over the tax line, 53.51% of basketball related income to be figured after the season concludes) may not acquire a player via sign and trade. Teams over any cap or tax line may offload a player via sign-and-trade. Houston is free to pursue trade targets but remember the acquiring team must be within 150% of the salary they're acquiring with the contracts they send out. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik's contract counts as 8.3 million per year on the salary cap and I have yet to find any confirmation as to what their deals are worth in a trade so I leave you with two options (They're both on 5-5-15 contracts and their hits are distributed at 8.3/year).
So there you have it, folks. A quick look at the season, a fast recap of game six, a snapshot of the personnel, and a quick look at where we're headed. Enjoy, comment, criticize, insult me, just have fun and remember, RedNation did a lot this year and deserves a lot of respect. If you want to be meaner than TDS will allow you, my twitter handle is @QuestionablyBD and my email is accessible on the masthead/by clicking on my name.