The Houston Rockets have dramatically risen from mediocrity to title contenders, but fell well short of expectations during the postseason. On the look out for another superstar to complete their roster, and with one of the league’s savviest general managers at the helm, Houston could again be a big mover in the offseason.
During the offseason, the Houston Rockets emerged as potential title contenders after another summer as one of the league’s prime movers.
In the past two seasons, Houston has turned a stockpile of draft picks and cap space into a win-now playoff team.
In 2012, they made a triumphant return to the postseason after a three-year absence, following the additions of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
However, after being bundled out of the playoffs in the first round, it was clear that the rebuilding process was not complete.
Last summer, the Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, securing the signature of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year and instantly making them a threat in the super-competitive Western Conference in many pundits’ eyes.
Since acquiring Harden, the team has steadily climbed the ranks out West, rising from ninth in the West (34-32) before Harden’s arrival to eighth (45-37) in his first year with the team and then finishing fourth (54-28 – fifth-best in franchise history) following Howard’s move from the Los Angeles Lakers.
However, securing home court advantage in the postseason meant little in Houston as the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated the Rockets 4-2 in the first round, thanks to two monster games from LaMarcus Aldridge and a series clinching three-pointer from Damian Lillard.
The Rockets success during the regular season was powered by their elite offence.
This season, Houston was second in the league for points per game (107.7, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers) and fourth in offensive rating (111.0), thanks in large part to playing the fifth-fastest pace (96.3) in the league.
Houston’s elite offence was powered by three major factors: three-point shooting, free throws and efficient interior scoring.
The Rockets led the league in three-point makes and attempts, was first in free throw makes and attempts and made the most of their inside shots, connecting on the second-best percentage within the arc.
The addition of Howard was a big catalyst for the Rockets’ high-powered offence.
The former Orlando Magic big man had an impressive individual season, earning his eighth-straight All-Star selection and being voted to the All-NBA Second Team.
In his first season with the Rockets, Howard averaged 18.3 points at 59.1% from the floor (third in the association), 12.2 rebounds (fourth) and 1.8 blocks (seventh) per game, while also recording a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.3 (18th), but he also helped facilitate the Rockets three-point-orientated scoring approach.
With Howard commanding defender’s respect around the rim, the floor opened up for the Rockets shooters to light it up from downtown.
Chandler Parsons (16.6 points, 37.0% 3FG), Francisco Garcia (35.8%) and the rest of Houston’s slew of long-range marksmen all benefited from Howard’s presence down low.
Alongside Howard, the Rockets impressive interior play was exacerbated thanks to having a starting five-calibre centre on their bench in Asik (5.8 points and 7.9 rebounds) and the emergence of Terrence Jones (12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds).
Houston was also another team that experimented with dual point guard play at times. Jeremy Lin (12.5 points and 4.1 assists) providing the offensive Ying to Patrick Beverly’s (10.2 points and 1.4 steals) defensive Yang – Beverly was voted to the All-Defensive Second Team.
Defence was Houston’s downfall throughout the season, finishing the year ranked 23rd in points allowed per game (103.1 – the worst mark of any playoff team) and 13th in defensive rating (106.3).
Even the addition of Howard, the interior presence of Asik and the development of defensive pest Beverly wasn’t enough to save Houston from the inadequacies of Harden, Lin and Parsons.
And it was their defence that eventually cost Houston the series against Portland, as the Trail Blazers simply beat the Rockets at their own game.
Most Valuable Player
For all the improvement Howard brought to the Houston’s squad, the key to their success was still the play of Harden.
The one-time Sixth Man of the Year has blossomed into a genuine superstar in Houston and he was once again the biggest gun in their offensive arsenal, averaging 25.4 points (fifth in the L), 6.1 assists (15th), 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals (17th) per game, while recording a PER of 23.5 (11th in the league and a career-high) for good measure.
The former Oklahoma City Thunder star also finished 15th for threes made, second in free throws made and 10th for free throw percentage (86.6%).
Throw in the second-most double-doubles for a shooting guard, a triple-double, a second All-Star nomination and an All-NBA First Team selection and it is fair to say that Harden had a pretty successful season.
He did struggle somewhat during the playoffs, taking several games to get himself going and shooting just 37.6% from the floor and 29.6% from deep against the Blazers.
However, it would be unjust to heap all of Houston’s shortcomings on his shoulders.
Although, criticism of his defensive efforts throughout the season are definitely fair.
Anytime a player has multiple mixtapes during the one season of their opponent blowing past them like they’re wearing concrete boots is a worrying sign.
Whether or not it is a lack of effort, lack of skill or if Harden is simply conserving energy thanks to the enormous offensive burden he shoulders each game remains to be seen.
Regardless, Houston’s defence was their undoing and Harden is one of the main culprits on the team.
As a leader for the franchise, his effort on the defensive end needs to improve.
Harden’s defensive failings aside, he is still one of the league’s stars and he put in a brilliant offensive display during the regular season.
An easy choice for Houston’s MVP.
It would not surprise if Daryl Morey turned out to be a gypsy, used car salesman or con artist in a past life.
Over the last two offseasons, the Rockets GM turned Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, two first-rounders and a second-round pick into a perennial All-Star in Harden and wooed Howard away from the lights of Los Angeles (as well as the advances of the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks).
Not to mention the savvy additions of Lin, Asik, Beverly, Parsons and Jones.
All in all, Morey turned a middle-of-the-road team, still suffering from the premature retirement of Yao Ming and the decline of Tracy McGrady, into a potential Western Conference force.
More importantly, Morey achieved all of this without the need for bottoming out and enduring several seasons at the foot of the standings.
Morey singlehandedly brought in vogue the current trend of accumulating draft assets in order to make a run at an established star.
Without the savvy mind of Morey, Harden might still be a member of the Thunder, Howard might have returned to the Lakers and the Rockets might be preparing a run at Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker this offseason.
Singlehandedly building a championship contender? There aren’t many bigger x-factors than that!
Despite parting ways with so many picks in order to land Harden, the Rockets still had two selections (25th and 42nd) in the upcoming NBA draft.
Those picks couldn’t come at a better time and were invaluable to a team that is already approaching the luxury tax for next season despite having only eight players under contract.
With their first pick, Houston opted for Swiss centre, Clint Capela. Standing just under seven-feet, and with elite athleticism, Capela has all the tools to be an effective rim protector and finisher around the rack. He won’t play in the NBA for another few seasons, but that is perfect for the Rockets, who are hoarding cap space in order to make a run at a third superstar.
Meanwhile, the Rockets nabbed Arizona junior, Nick Johnson, with their second selection. Johnson, who averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 36.7% from deep in his final season with the Wildcats, is a NBA-ready athlete who projects to be an excellent “three and D’ guy in the league.
The Rockets have already declined Parsons super-cheap player option for next season, meaning he will be a significant pay rise.
However, the Parsons decision also ensures the young forward will become a restricted free agent, thus making it easier to use him as a trade chip in another Morey move.
With two superstar’s signatures already secured, Morey is on the look out to bring the final piece to complete Houston’s very own big three.
With Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love potentially available, Morey will be crunching the numbers and drumming up several packages that could entice their respective teams to pull the trigger.
Houston has improved dramatically over the past two seasons, but after a disappointing first-round flame out against the Blazers, don’t expect them to rest on their laurels for long.
The Rockets are definitely a team to watch this summer.
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