As we pick up the pieces of a disheartening Game 5 loss and the end of the 2014-2015 season, it's time to look forward to what may be in store for the 2015-2016 Houston Rockets.
First and foremost, James Harden and Dwight Howard will be back, and they left the season fully healthy. They were both healthy at the end of last year, but Howard's health didn't last. This playoff run was a renaissance for him, leading the league with 13 double-doubles in 17 games. Despite the ignominious ending, Harden deserves to shed his reputation as a player who shrinks in the postseason, with huge, historic performances in Game 4 of the WCF and Game 7 against the Clippers.
As crazy as it sounds, 2016 might be Howard's last ride with the Rockets. He has an opt-out clause on his contract, and considering the NBA's salary cap will jump to crazy proportions next summer, he's a lock to exercise it. The Rockets will be able to sign him to more money than anyone else, but that hasn't stopped him from leaving a team before.
Outside of Howard and Harden, the core of this team is in flux. Daryl Morey could opt to try to re-sign Josh Smith, Patrick Beverley and Corey Brewer and largely bring back the same squad. Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Pablo Prigioni, Clint Capela and Nick Johnson are all under contract, but that doesn't mean they'll still be wearing red.
Here are the ways Morey might tweak the roster.
Upgrade at Point Guard
File this away in the "DUHHHHH" category. Jason Terry just played 39 minutes in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and he and Pablo are each 38 years old. Terry is likely gone unless he signs a vet minimum deal (and the Rockets may not have a spot for him anyway), and Prigioni's deal can be bought out for $290,000.
The Rockets have the No. 18 pick and are being pegged as taking one of Jerian Grant, Tyus Jones or any other point guard in the draft next month. While I love Grant and think he's NBA-ready, Morey may not be satisfied with Beverley, a rookie and Nick Johnson at the position.
Then the question becomes how does he upgrade? There's no easy answer. Goran Dragic, a likely target, is almost guaranteed to re-up with the Heat. Jeremy Lin might be the best free agent on the market. Ty Lawson seems the most gettable good point guard on the market, but the two things the Rockets need at point (defense and shooting) are the two things he's worst at.
Morey will try everything here, but of all the years to desperately need a point guard upgrade in the offseason, this is the worst one. The best option might be someone long familiar, yet mysterious, to Rockets fans: Sergio Llull.
Figuring out the Bigs
We know we'll have Dwight next year, but after that, everything becomes a lot more murky. Josh Smith is an unrestricted free agent, but was more good than bad in his time in Houston. He's still owed more than $20 million by Detroit over the next three years, and his free agency will be among the more fascinating to watch in the league. By all accounts, he loves Houston and playing for Kevin McHale, and could accept a pay cut to return.
Under contract still are Clint Capela, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones. The Rockets simply don't need five rotation-quality big men, considering their need for more talent and skill elsewhere on the floor. Most Rockets fans would gladly the front office rid themselves of Jones, who disappointed again in the postseason. But other teams' GMs also watch the playoffs, and Morey might not get a deal he likes.
The Rockets just made the Western Conference Finals with Jones, Smith and Capela and Donuts in a suit. Motiejunas is a true 7-footer who can score on the block on an affordable contract. He's Morey's juiciest asset, and if a deal is out there for a point guard, don't be surprised if D-Mo is elsewhere and the Rockets roll with the 2015 playoff frontcourt.
I love Capela's potential and want the Rockets to develop him as a Brandan Wright-style pick-and-roll destroyer, but he also has tons of value and is probably not an enormous piece of Morey's long-term vision.
Adding a Shooter
This was supposed to be Jason Terry's role this year: come off the bench, knock down some open shots, return to the bench. That did not go according to plan with Beverley's injury, and Terry wound up playing more than 39 minutes in the season's final game. He was okay at shooting in the playoffs, but the bench as a whole was not. Pablo Prigioni never found the stroke, and Brewer and Jones never developed one.
The Rockets traded away their ace-in-the-hole shooter, Troy Daniels, to get Brewer, which was a fantastic deal. But in the playoffs, when shots weren't falling, the Rockets had no recourse but to continue to feed incapable shooters and continue to watch the ball hit iron.
As much as everyone loves to talk about the Rockets and their three-pointers, not a single player on the team that shattered the all-time record for 3s shot 40 percent from deep on the season or in the playoffs. Josh Smith hit 38 percent of his shot from range in the playoffs, second on the team to Harden's 38.3 percent.
The beauty of Moreyball is it doesn't require dead-eye shooters to work. If the team can scrounge together 33 percent shooting from distance, over the long haul, the Rockets should reap dividends.
But the playoffs are not a long haul. There were stretches of time where the Rockets would have been far better served with a James Jones, Mike Miller type who can spot up and do little else than with Prigioni. They should be able to find one of those types for cheap in the offseason.