In the first two installments of this series of posts looking at the Southwest division from a Spurs-centric perspective, I first focused on the Pelicans and then looked at the Mavericks. Now it's time to try to figure out just how good the Rockets can be next season after winning free agency.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey had amassed a significant amount of good will among the basketball blogging and reporting community for his openness and his analytical background, but that feeling was starting to dissipate as the Rockets' asset stockpiling and careful cap management didn't result in a contender. However, the arrival of James Harden via trade vindicated Morey's approach, while immediately turning the Rockets from also-rans into up-and-comers, despite their record not changing too dramatically.
Harden lived up to his max contract right away, and while there were some struggles early on, Jeremy Lin successfully settled in to a smaller role as the the season progressed. The other member of the Rockets' core, Omer Asik, continued to be one of the best defensive centers in basketball and along with the longest tenured Rocket, Chandler Parsons, led Houston to a 45-37 record and a playoff appearance for the first time in the post-Yao era.
The Thunder eliminated the Rockets without much fanfare, with the injury to Russell Westbrook being the biggest story of the series. But the Rockets were looking long term and getting to the post-season was just step one. Step two involved adding another star in the off-season, taking advantage of their payroll flexibility and their status as one of the NBA's most entertaining young teams.
The biggest moment of the off-season came when Dwight Howard decided to leave Los Angeles for Houston. Howard struggled all year in the mess that was the 2012/13 Lakers and saw his public image take a well deserved hit. However, he is one of the league's few elite big men, and as soon as the Rockets signed him, their ceiling went from playoff team to serious contender. The move resulted in Omer Asik asking for a trade, but the front office didn't oblige and will try to make things work with the two on the court at the same time.
To round out the roster, Morey needed shooters, so he re-signed Francisco Garcia and nabbed Reggie Williams and Omri Caspi, a couple of small forwards who were cheap after coming off of bad seasons. The Rockets also signed their second round pick, point guard Isaiah Canaan, to a partially guaranteed contract; Marcus Camby signed for the minimum after he reached a buyout with the Raptors; and Ronnie Brewer was signed to provide some defense off the bench.
This is their depth chart
PG: Lin - Beverly - Canaan
SG: Harden - Garcia - Brewer
SF: Parsons - Caspi - Williams
PF: Motiejunas - Smith - Jones
C: Howard - Asik - Camby
The Rockets will enter next season with a lot of uncertainty. It's really hard seeing the Asik-Howard front court experiment working out, which means the Turkish center will probably be traded during the season. Can the Rockets get the veteran power forward they desperately need or an upgrade at point guard for him? There will always be a market for centers who can anchor a defense, and Asik is among the best out there, but teams will know the Rockets have no leverage.
Another potentially difficult situation will be finding a role for Jeremy Lin. With Harden and Howard likely requiring most of the team's possessions, Lin could be relegated to a spot up shooter role, which doesn't play to his strengths at all. He could be really dangerous in the pick-and-roll with Howard, but Dwight has made it clear he wants post touches, and Lin will have to compete with Harden, an even better P&R ball handler, for those opportunities.
Finally, there's the question of whether or not their role players are good enough. With two mediocre defenders in Harden and Lin comprising the starting backcourt, the Rockets desperately need a versatile perimeter stopper, a true 3-and-D guy, to complement Howard's back line defense. Is Chandler Parsons the man for the job? It's unlikely. Parsons is a good defender but probably not quick enough to slide to the two and not the type of player that can lock down his man on his own. Similarly, can the aging and injury-prone Camby really give the Rockets ten good minutes every night if Asik is traded?
Beyond those two, Houston's talent is either inconsistent or unproven. Reggie Williams and Caspi have been good in the past, but their production has steadily declined. Garcia is not elite at any one thing and has been known to disappear. Jones and Donatas Motiejunas could take longer to develop. The two sure things seem to be Greg Smith and Patrick Beverly, though they are limited players with very specific skill sets.
So the Rockets' fate will be determined by how many of the above questions find satisfactory answers. If everything works out and they figure out what to do with Lin and Asik, they could be a strong contender; there's just too much talent there. But I can just as easily see them struggling to find an identity and going through a lot of roster churn on the way to a possible coaching change somewhere down the line. We'll just have to wait and see.
How do they match up with the Spurs?
Like everything Rockets related, it depends. If they become a half court team that tries to use the post as one of its main weapons, the Spurs will eat them alive. Splitter and Duncan are elite post defenders and it's not hard to see San Antonio helping off of Lin when Howard gets the ball. Right now the Rockets don't have a "stretch-4" consistent enough to create space for Dwight, unless Parsons slides up to the four, which probably hurts them on defense just as much as it helps on offense.
If, on the other hand, the Rockets stay with the fast-paced, perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll heavy offense they had last season, but with the huge upgrade of Howard in the mix, then they'll be dangerous. Houston's offense was fine last season, ranking first in points per possession scored by the P&R ball handler and sixth on spot ups according to MySynergySports. Defense was their problem and if Howard simply focuses on that end of the floor and on finishing near the rim on pick-and-rolls, the Rockets could definitely be a challenge to the Spurs and the league in general.
The Spurs will face the Rockets on three FIGABABAs and their last meeting will be on the second to last game of the season. So I'll opt for caution and predict a 2-2 split.
For more on the Rockets, visit The Dream Shake.
Next time, we'll wrap up the Southwest Division review by taking a look at the Memphis Grizzlies; the team I consider second only to the Spurs.