It feels very Houston sports to have the Rockets season end in the kind of collapse it did last week at the hand of the injury-plagued Spurs. Instead of rising to the occasion when Kawhi Leonard crumpled to the floor with a sprained ankle as the Warriors did on Sunday night (erasing a 20-point deficit in the second half), the Rockets folded. Leonard missed much of the second half in game five when the Rockets squandered a lead and lost in overtime. With Leonard out for game six in Houston, the Rockets looked uninspired and wilted to a 39-point loss.
These are the season enders that leave a mark. Teams struggle to recover from losses like that and Houston sports is replete with examples of such brutality.
For the team inside the Toyota Center, there has to be at least some hope given that they had the third best record in the NBA and dispatched the Thunder in five games. They broke all kinds of records and exceeded the expectations of virtually everyone, us included.
But, when you go down the way they did even if few believed they could get past the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals (no one has in two seasons), everyone has to evaluate what went wrong and find answers. Former Rockets coach and excellent NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy wisely said you should not ignore in victory what you would in defeat. The Rockets had a little of both this season and it's time to figure out how to fix what broke in the Western Conference semis.
Learn how to win without three pointers.
Live by the three and die by the three is a popular axiom in the NBA, but it was unfortunately more of a truism for the Rockets this year. While they were outstanding in the regular season, they struggled when they didn't make threes both statistically and mentally. Missing shots not only is demoralizing, but the long rebounds that come from missed shots from distance lead to easy baskets for the other team. And despite being an incredibly tough team to defend most nights, with the grind of a playoff series, teams found ways to shut them down beyond the arc. When that happened, the Rockets too often looked lost.
And this is not to say they should abandon the three. The best teams in the league shoot loads of threes (see: Warriors, Cavs). But, they must find ways to be successful even on nights when long shots aren't falling. For much of the season they could simply wear down opponents. In the playoffs, the Rockets wore down instead.
Acquire some toughness.
If there were a place to start in terms of talent, it should be more in attitude that skill. The Rockets, as much as we hate to say it, need their Draymond Green. They must find some toughness to balance out the deft scoring touch. Patrick Beverely is the closest thing they have to an enforcer, but they need guys who can command the attention of everyone on the team, perhaps a veteran with a pedigree or someone who can combine real talent with sheer determination. No doubt, this will not be easy to find, but it should be on the team's get list this offseason.
Improve the front court depth.
And if they are going to add toughness, why not do it in the front court where they were woefully outmatched too often this season? Beyond Clint Capela and Nene, the team had no legitimate bigs to hold down the paint and protect the rim. Montrezl Harrell is a nice young player, but he's six-foot-seven in shoes with not a ton of size. Capela should improve on what was a fine season for him, but they need greater depth and attitude from that position.
Most importantly, they need interchangeable parts to help them weather the long haul of the season. If there has been one nagging complaint about the offensive scheme of Coach Mike D'Antoni, it's that guys tend to wear down with all the running up and down the court they do. The pounding tends to show up in the postseason, especially when the rotations go from 11 to eight. The minutes tend to pile up and the more help they have, the better.
Focus on defense.
If they needed last offseason to install D'Antoni's offense, they should spend most of this summer working on assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik's defense. Granted, this isn't exactly a roster that reeks of defensive ability, but if they cannot stop other teams, they are going to be right back in this position next year. No matter how much firepower you have on offense, you can't shoot your way to a title.
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This, first and foremost, means getting James Harden to commit to playing at both ends of the floor consistently. He talked about it this year and his defense did improve incrementally, but if he wants to be thought of as more than just a great offensive talent of fades in the playoffs, he will need to add dimension to his game. Of course, he is going to need help...
Get James Harden some help.
We can all be as hard on Harden as we want. With that last performance, he deserves plenty of criticism. But, the simple fact is that he is a superstar on a team full of average to slightly above average players. Being surrounded by shooters certainly helped the Rockets achieve some feats many thought they couldn't, but it will take more than that. It is difficult to compare a team like Houston to the Warriors or Cavaliers or Spurs or even the Clippers or Jazz when you look at the talent comparison. The Rockets are short top end talent.
The name likely at the top of most wish lists for the Rockets will be Gordon Hayward, the talented Utah small forward. But, landing him won't be easy. Other names like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be tossed around too. And then there are trades to be made. GM Daryl Morey will certainly be busy, but it is imperative his signature star get a running mate because they just don't have enough horses in the stable at this point no matter how well they did in the regular season.