Since 1997 when the Rockets took a dagger to the heart in the form of a John Stockton three pointer in the Western Conference Finals, the team has toiled in mediocrity. Sure, they've made the playoffs on several occasions, but they have made it past the first round exactly once in 16 seasons, including last season. Since then, the Rockets have been through multiple iterations of star player lineups including Steve Francis, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. They've moved from the Summit to the Toyota Center and been on two different sports networks -- soon to be three, but more on that in a moment -- with similar results.
Last season ended with a fresh new stake to the heart when Damian Lillard hit a three pointer (from roughly the same spot as Stockton in 1997, just on the road instead of inside the Summit) and sent the Rockets home with yet another first round exit to put on a resume that for the last decade and a half looks like something from a middle manager who took a few too many three-martini lunches in his last few jobs.
The good news is it's a brand new season. The bad news is the Rockets appear to be, at least for now, talent poor compared to last year's season of promise. The big names are back, but the role players have changed as GM Darryl Morey continues playing Whack-a-Mole with the roster trying everything possible to make a roster that can finally get back to the promised land.
The question is whether or not the Rockets have the horses to make that run this year or if they will remain mired in NBA purgatory.
Key Losses: Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin Key Acquisitions: Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Kostas Papanikolaou
Make no mistake, the offseason for the Rockets was an unmitigated disaster. At one point in early July, it appeared possible the Rockets were poised to bring back Parsons, while potentially signing both Chris Bosh AND Ariza, their only losses being Lin and Asik. Instead, they lost all three and Bosh remained in Miami. To make matters worse, Parsons went to rival Dallas and rubbed Houston fans' noses in it. The Rockets did manage to get Ariza, a former Rocket who had a career year in Washington in 2013-14. They also added veteran Terry who the Rockets desperately hope will return to his previous three-point shooting form -- something he hasn't had in a few seasons -- and Euro small forward Papanikolaou (pronounced PAPPA-nika-lahu), who appears ready to make the leap to the NBA. It's hard to imagine a worse scenario for the team over the summer and their roster has clearly taken a hit from last season.
The best case scenario for the Rockets would appear to be a return to the playoffs with young players finally blossoming into stars and veterans maintaining their form. This would require a big leap from forward Terrence Jones and the emergence of young, slick scoring back up point guard Isaiah Canaan as well as a return to form for Terry, never mind injuries.
The low end of the spectrum could be the lottery. This is a team that is one key injury away from all-out disaster. There is no Asik to back up at center if Dwight Howard goes down and no significant talent behind James Harden. All teams face the same challenge of keeping their stars healthy, but the Rockets will be more reliant on their starting five than perhaps any other team in the NBA this year.
That's assuming they don't make a trade...
Darryl Morey is nothing if not persistent. He has parlayed a bunch of young, questionable talent into a pair of superstars. But this year might be his biggest test yet with what has to be one of the most disappointing offseasons of his career. The Rockets possess a draft pick from New Orleans and a trade exception from Los Angeles, the result of the trades of Asik and Lin respectively. Though they don't have as many young, talented pieces as they did a year ago -- or valuable expiring contracts -- there is speculation they will be busy come the trade deadline or before to help shore up a very shaky bench. Beyond the top four...
Arguably, the Rockets best four players -- Harden, Howard, Ariza and Patrick Beverley -- should be able to match up with any team in the league. It's the roster beyond that point where it gets questionable. In addition to the four players, there are four burning questions that the Rockets must answer.
Will Terrence Jones become a big time power forward?
This might be the most important question to be answered this season. Jones seemed to mature in his second NBA season solidifying the four spot and correcting some of the mental lapses that slowed him his rookie year. For the Rockets to truly be a contender, Jones must improve his defense and become a more reliable rebounder. He loves to score, but his scoring needs to come off his teammates and through hustle rather than plays run for him.
Can the Rockets trust Isaiah Canaan at backup point guard?
It appeared that the preseason would belong to Canaan, who spent most of his rookie season in the D-League with the Rockets affiliate the Vipers. But, it took some time for the sharp-shooting guard to take the reins as Ish Smith, who was just cut by the team, had the inside track. Canaan, who looks a little like former Rocket Kyle Lowry but is more a scoring guard than a defender, had an impressive run to end the preseason and that was that. But will he be enough? He is undersized and his offense, like most young players, is inconsistent. Jeremy Lin had his issues, but he did make a reliable backup behind Beverley at a position loaded with stars in the West.
Where will they get scoring after Harden and Howard?
The Rockets should still be able to score with the best of them thanks to the talents of their top two, but where will the points come after that. Despite desperately needing three point shooting in their system that lives off of points in the paint and outside the arc, they were an average team from distance last year. They brought in Terry to help with that and Ariza was fantastic from downtown last year. Beverley must improve and they need to get something from their forwards, but it will be a stretch for them to survive when the stars take a breather.
Can they truly be better defensively?
The emphasis under Coach Kevin McHale the past two seasons has been defense and rebounding. Yet, they have been woefully inadequate in both categories. Harden took a pretty good beating for his defense last season, something Morey pointed out as being rather unfair. In truth, Harden contributes so much on offense, that his defense, particularly his focus on that end of the floor, often suffers. He appears recommitted to that end of the floor and Ariza represents a fairly significant defensive upgrade. But, they still lack size and with newcomer Tarik Black as the back up center now that Asik is gone, it might not just be offensive struggles that plague them when the bench takes over.
Rockets and CSN Houston
For those who don't have Comcast, last season was a wash when it came to watching the team on TV. With CSN Houston nearing the end of its life -- and nearly 100 employees set to lose their jobs -- thanks to a new venture between the Rockets, Astros and ATT/DirecTV, it appears games will become available to everyone except Dish Network and Suddenlink subscribers, two companies that remain steadfast in their lack of interest in any new sports network. But, the new Root Sports channel will have to wait at least a few more days as the parties fighting over how to divvy up what remains of CSN Houston squabble a little more in court and pay their attorneys more cash. It looks like the Rockets (and Astros) could be back on most TVs in Houston by the second week of the NBA season. Unfortunately, in addition to the employees of CSN Houston hitting the unemployment line, the terrific programming from CSN that includes Dynamo games will disappear.
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Most interesting number of the preseason: 7/4
These are the odds Kevin McHale will be the first coach to be fired this season, which is somewhat surprising, but considering the talent he's had, maybe not so much. It would be a shock to see McHale let go during the season. The Rockets would have to fall to one of the worst in the NBA for that to happen. But if they fail to get past the first round of the playoffs again, it might be time for McHale to go.
Over/Under Rockets Win Totals: 49.5
After 54 wins a year ago, this number seems about right. The losses of key players and a bench that leaves a lot to be desired could move the Rockets to the middle of the pack in the West. Landing home court advantage in the playoffs would be a stretch and they are one injury away from being back in the lottery. They have some touch stretches in the schedule and play in a merciless conference. It would seem 50 wins is optimistic. I'll take the under though I do think the Rockets will make the playoffs again this year. Barring a trade (for the better) or an injury (for the worse), my bet is they experience yet another first round exit, but at least fans will get to see it this time.