It's difficult to believe anyone outside of the most hardcore fans truly believed the Rockets would be a playoff team this year. Most, including myself, assumed they would finish under .500 and back in the lottery. Even with James Harden, an unproven starter, added before the season, it was tough to add it all up. But, then again, it was also tough to imagine a stacked Los Angeles Lakers team barely making the postseason and flaming out in four games or the red hot Denver Nuggets being knocked off by the Golden State Warriors. As the saying goes, that's why they play the games.
And despite the success for this inexperienced team, the Rockets have some big questions to answer this offseason. If last offseason was about reshaping the direction of the franchise, this one is likely about solidifying its future.
But, before that, a brief epilogue on the season that was. Who could have predicted that Harden would explode as he did and become a legitimate elite player? He was always good as the sixth man for OKC, but to bloom this quickly and this exponentially was impressive. He still has a long way to go, particularly on the defensive end, but it's a start.
Also, kudos to Chandler Parsons, who is making a case as one of the best small forwards in the Western Conference. Ditto Omer Asik, who went from a role player to one of the best at his position in one season. GM Daryl Morey rightfully got an extension in no small part because of the success of these two.
Now, as the offseason looms, it is clear the Rockets are set at small forward and shooting guard. It could be argued that center is fine as is. But, it is obvious they need another big time player to play with Harden and Parsons. They also need someone who can help them defensively and give them some size in the front court.
Then there's Jeremy Lin. While Lin didn't have a bad season, he did not distinguish himself as more than an average point guard. In a league loaded with great floor generals, the Rockets find themselves wanting. The surprise of Patrick Beverley notwithstanding, point guard is not a set position for the Rockets.
Now, onto the questions.
Of the big name free agents, who is their dream choice?
Dwight Howard, it has long been assumed, will be the first name on the Rockets' wish list this offseason, but the encouraging play of Asik and the shaky season for Howard -- and notable injury concerns -- cloud that picture. Making it even murkier is the potential addition of star point guard Chris Paul to the free agent mix. He was expected to re-sign with the Clippers, but sources have suggested he may leave LA after a disappointing end to the season.
Beyond that, there is Josh Smith, the high flying but sometimes frustrating power forward in Atlanta, as well as Utah' Paul Milsap, who is serviceable, but not a max dollar player.
Probably the ideal, Kevin Love, was out all year with injury and still has two remaining seasons on his contract.
I'm not sold on Howard. Bringing him in would no doubt change the entire style of play to favor a guy who may not be able to lead a team. My preference would be to stick with the young players and try to bring in some help at other spots.
How will the Rockets handle the point guard position?
For now, they'll say the right things and allow Lin and Beverley to grow. But, if Chris Paul is a legitimate option, they must explore that route immediately. Lin's struggles shooting the ball and on defense make him an occasional liability. He will need to improve big time if he wants to continue to be a starter in the NBA.
What is the biggest area of improvement needed?
Defense, without question, was the biggest liability for this young team. They have the talent and the basketball IQ to transform themselves on the defensive end of the floor, but they must commit to it. Defense is not nearly as interesting and young players tend to drift on that end of the court. They also must improve their defensive rotations which were, at times, really awful.
It is no secret that they had a very difficult time protecting the paint. Rebounding wasn't an issue, but letting guards penetrate and big men overpower them most certainly was. This will probably be addressed as much with additions of players as with teaching, but it is key to getting better, especially against teams with big front lines.
They can be as good as they want on offense -- and likely will be -- but if their defense does not improve to at least make them an average team on the defensive side, they will struggle against the good teams and in the postseason.
What should they do with the glut at power forward?
After the trades of Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, Kevin McHale tried experiments with Dontas Montejunas, Thomas Robinson, Greg Smith and Terrence Jones. Smith was perhaps the most productive, but isn't a long term solutions. At least one of these guys is likely going to be moved, especially if they bring in a big man. Jones showed promise down the stretch and he and Smith were the only members of this foursome to see time in the playoffs. Robinson may have the most upside and Montejunas showed flashes, particularly as a shooter, which is key for them at that position.
The answer to this questions will be answered with their moves in free agency. Will they stand pat and let the young guys grow or will they go after a four? At this point, it is hard to know which is the right answer.
Is the Royce White experiment over?
Let's hope so. White has all kinds of talent, but is all kinds of trouble. While his Anxiety Warrior Twitter feed and TV appearances may have made him somewhat sympathetic, the fact is he is a young guy with all sorts of problems starting with placing himself above the team. While I think we all understand the need to protect your health, if you cannot do that AND be a contributing member of a team, you need to move on and choose another career.
The Rockets are in a tough spot. They can't simply cut him. Not only would they be on the hook for his salary, but they would also have to deal with the fallout of dumping someone with mental health issues. I would like to believe they can cut ties with White if for no other reason than the distraction he creates -- he even managed to insert himself into the OKC playoff series from his sofa -- but I'm not sure that will be feasible.
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