After a lengthy and historic first round, the Houston Rockets were eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard knocked down a poorly defended last-second 3-point attempt that propelled Portland into the second round, ironically in the same flamboyant fashion that energized Houston after signing their most-prized off-season acquisition Dwight Howard. They’ll search for renewed optimism starting this summer.
The Rockets are now faced with another hungry and unsatisfied offseason; surprisingly they’ll enter it once again with head coach Kevin McHale, as he’s been retained by the Rockets for another year. Being handed their second first-round exit in just two seasons is the opposite of what general manager Daryl Morey and owner Leslie Alexander had in mind. With less cap room, sub-par draft picks and a bit of wiggle room in the trade market, the Rockets brass will have to be creative to improve this summer. Some things they’ll need to change, and others to be either fine tune or left unmolested.
Certain teams reach a point where they start to teeter off that contention edge, ready to fall in and become a serious contender; the Rockets are one of those teams. They’re continuing to build, and although Morey’s flair for front office dramatics may get the best of him after such a devastating loss, the Rockets best bet is to remain calm. At first glimpse into a long summer for Houston, here are a few factors to consider for overall improvement:
Keep Dwight Howard playing at an optimum
Pretty obvious you’d think. Dwight Howard played some of the best basketball we’ve seen from him in the last three seasons. Granted, back surgery slowed him down a bit in his unfavorable stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was a reliable force down low for the Rockets all year. Howard averaged 18.2 points and 12 rebounds on the season and in 39 minutes of first-round action beefed up his numbers to 26 (points) and 14 (rebounds). McHale received the most productivity out of Howard since his 2010-11 season in Orlando. He saved McHale from intense coaching criticism in the playoffs as the Rockets game plan was dump the ball into Howard every possession, although he’s not the most effective back-to-the-basket player. Fortunately for most of the series versus the Blazers, that strategy worked. The Rockets need to turn Howard’s playoffs stats into his regular season averages next season. He’s possibly the league’s biggest underachiever, and next year Howard must settle in to his role as the dominant big man on this squad, playing like he’s fixated on Larry O’Brien Trophy hoisting and nothing else.
Jeremy Lin is a good player – in the second unit.
Jeremy Lin is an expendable player with a big name in this league, but average skill. The upside for Houston is he’s good trade bait. There’s nothing Jeremy Lin does great, and he’s made a name for himself by doing most things well; however, nothing short of exceptional talent and effort wins championships. Lin gives great effort while on the floor for the Rockets, but he’s not the championship caliber point guard they’re looking for, nor the defender they need. On a team where there’s no clear floor general, the Rockets need a point guard who will step in and lead this team. “Serviceable” is a great word to use for Lin, who averaged 12 points and four assists in round one, but has never shot better than 22 percent from deep in his postseason career. The Rockets need to surround James Harden and Dwight Howard with players capable of hitting the open shot consistently. If he’s not traded in the offseason, Lin should be downgraded to a reserve role, becoming the leader of a great second unit.
Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard must set a tone for this team defensively.
Two players that committed to the defensive end this year for the Rockets were Patrick Beverley and Howard. Their first-round loss was the result of lacking a team identity, therefore having no integrity to protect. Beverley and Howard must take ownership of the defensive end of the floor. With Beverley at the helm as a starter in place of Lin, the Rockets forced two more turnovers per game and held opponents to a lower shooting percentage in increased minutes. Beverley is a thorn in the sides of other point guards in the league (like Russell Westbrook). It’s time for that rose to bloom.
More Love and Less Melo
Daryl Morey has pulled off a blockbuster acquisition once in each of the last two seasons. Undoubtedly he’s searching for his next big move, and at the moment he’s looking in the wrong direction. There have been whispers of the intention to go after a third superstar such as Rajon Rondo; however, with Harden on the floor, adding a ball-dominant point guard would diminish his effectiveness. They’ll pick up some better defensive tendencies, but the dip in scoring production will make them less effective in the long-run.
Another player mentioned frequently in the quest to add a third superstar to the fold is Carmelo Anthony. The Rockets need to steer clear of Melo. They’re already dealing with one star player who flat-out refuses to play defense. Adding Carmelo would surely sink their 23rd defensive efficiency rating from this past season deeper into the toilet next year.
Instead the Rockets should seek a stretch-4 that can put up great shots, perform in a pick and roll situation with Harden, while being paired down low with a center that’s capable of producing double figures in boards every night. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is the answer. A straight swap of Omer Asik and Lin would satisfy CBA provisions and could provide a huge lift for Houston. Adding Love would stretch the floor for the Rockets in a way that none of their current players can, and in a way they need horribly. Against the Trail Blazers their floor spacing was extremely poor due to defenders being able to give Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin extra room. Love will keep the defense honest, and would add to a young nucleus capable of winning it all.
Finding players to compliment Harden and Howard is a moot effort if neither player crowns himself as “the man” unquestionably. Houston’s primary problem is they haven’t fully committed to either Harden or Howard on the floor. It has to be someone’s team, and if neither want to take full accountability, in the interim the Rockets will have to make a few moves to bring in someone who will. Here’s to hoping a third addition in Houston will bring the type of success that the organization and its fans want.