The Rockets won 54 games with one of the better young cores in the league last season, and came into the summer of 2014 chasing a third star to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard. Things didn't exactly go according to plan after that. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony rebuffed their advances, and after a close call with Chris Bosh, Daryl Morey is looking at a roster that is vastly different from last year's as he sets up the team for 2014-15. In SB Nation NBA's latest theme day, amidst all this chaos surrounding the team, we will look at where this team will likely stand 12 months.
When you look at a Daryl Morey team, there really are few "sure things" to stick around. However, the two exceptions to that rule are likely James Harden and Dwight Howard. James Harden will still be just 25 in 12 months, and Dwight Howard will be 29. Both are under contract past next season, and will still make up the core of the team.
After coming under fire all season and into the playoffs for his lackluster defense, it will be interesting to see if Harden will improve defensively in a very important season for the Rockets. With Harden and Parsons on the wings, the Rockets allowed far too many open shots and easy walks into the lane, and the Rockets have to hope that he can turn that around.
Howard is likely to be similar to the player we saw this season; still a step down from his Orlando days, but a massive upgrade from the Dwight Howard of Los Angeles. He came on very strong in the playoffs, and he will likely continue to assert himself as he grows more comfortable as a Rocket.
Other than those two, the team is full of question marks. Let's look at a few of them.
What is going to happen with Patrick Beverley?
Since coming over from Russia in the 2012-13 season, Patrick Beverley has been a revelation. He's terrorized other point guards with his tenacious defense, settled into the Rockets' offense effectively, and been the two-way guard the Rockets desperately needed next to James Harden.
Much like Chandler Parsons, Beverley has been seriously underpaid these last two years, and his contract is up after next season. If the Rockets don't progress past the first or second round of the playoffs, they might be inclined to take their chances with Sergio Llull or a draftee rather than match a large contract offer Beverley is likely to get. However, Beverley does seem to be the kind of player that can slip under the radar in terms of salary negotiations, and the Rockets may be able to keep him at a relatively affordable rate.
Regardless, the Rockets will be facing another big contract decision next summer. Let's hope they handle it a bit better than they did with Chandler Parsons.
Can the Rockets land their third star?
Daryl Morey is always on the hunt to upgrade his team. The Rockets have maintained as much flexibility as possible to acquire a star player by allowing Parsons to go in free agency, but who is that star going to be? LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are off the market after signing in free agency, and Kevin Love seems to be headed to Cleveland.
Who is going to be Morey's next target? LaMarcus Aldridge has always had an eye for Houston and the Rockets have thought highly of him, but Portland is not going to let him go, especially not to a conference rival, so they may be forced to turn their attention to a player like Rajon Rondo or Greg Monroe. Rondo seems to be the one most connected to the Rockets, and the team has the salary to match and the assets to give, but is Morey ready to commit to Rondo? He's coming off a serious knee injury, and the team would have to give him a new contract as his deal expires after this season.
If Morey does not acquire a third star, they will head into free agency with around $10 million in cap space and the ability to clear out near max space again with a few trades. They'll likely do this same free agency chase we saw this year, only with Aldridge and Rondo instead of Bosh and Anthony, and they will hope not to strike out again.
The Big Wild Card
The "Big Wild Card" is something I will expand on in another article, but it has to be Daryl Morey's biggest fear right now. With razor thin margins for error because of a lack of team depth (a serious injury to Beverley, Harden, or Howard would be near-catastrophic), there is a not insignificant chance that next season does not go according to plan.
If things blow up and the Rockets either miss the playoffs or flame out as the 8th seed, Dwight Howard could see his clock ticking to win a title and push for a trade out of Houston. Unlike Harden, who is under contract for another three seasons after this one, Howard has an early termination option after 2015-16 that he could use to leverage a trade out of Houston if things are going well.
Obviously, Howard would be hesitant to make a play like that after all the negative publicity he received in his two years before landing in Houston, but if things are really bad, the Rockets might feel the pressure to trade him instead of losing him for nothing in the next summer. If that is the case, an all-out blowup would be in order.
Now, this is just a fun exercise to wonder about where the team will be in 12 months so there's no reason to get carried away, but one thing is for sure: This next year could define Daryl Morey's tenure as a GM. If all goes according to plan, the Rockets will swing a big trade in January or make a big signing in July, and make the preparations for a big time title run in 2015-16. At the same time, things could go very, very wrong.