Where Do The Rockets Go From Here?
At times, fans of the Houston Rockets may feel like they’re caught in an old episode of The Twilight Zone, with the same story lines repeating themselves over and over.
This season the Rockets looked very good at times, struggled at times, nearly made the playoffs, fell just short at the end of the season, had significant injuries, saw heroes rise to help the team overcome those injuries, and now they’re looking forward to drafting right in the middle of the first round.
The Rockets are one of a handful of NBA teams that are stuck in purgatory; not good enough to make the playoffs, but also not good enough to land a high enough draft pick to completely change the fortunes of the franchise. This is exactly where the Rockets have been for the last several seasons, and it’s where they are as we take an in-depth look at the summer ahead and the challenges Houston’s front office faces in trying to break this ongoing pattern.
Kevin McHale had a solid first season as the Rockets’ head coach, guiding the team to a 34-32 record and finishing with the ninth seed in the West. Considering it was his first full season as an NBA head coach, that’s not bad. He coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for 31 games in 2004-05, going 19-12 in that stretch, and then again in 2008-09 for 63 games, going 20-43. So this was McHale’s second-best season on the bench despite the plethora of injuries that presented him and his staff with the challenge of remaking lineups and rotations more often than not.
McHale struggled to adjust on the fly, at times, and while that can sometimes be attributed to injuries and a shortened bench, that’s something every head coach has to face on a nightly basis and it’s an area where McHale is going to have to improve going forward. On the flip side, McHale’s offense was an equal opportunity environment in which the players who performed best got minutes ahead of those who might have expected to get minutes. The team’s success can be directly attributed to that approach, which is not unlike the way Rick Adelman ran the team before McHale.
The Rockets are again expected to pick in the middle of the pack in this summer’s NBA draft, but this time around they have two picks. HOOPSWORLD’s Mock Draft team has Houston going for size at 14, choosing either Tyler Zeller or Meyers Leonard, while the consensus opinion is that they will look for a wing at 16 with either Austin Rivers or Quincy Miller.
Houston rarely does the conventional, as evidence by their selection of power forwards in each of the last two drafts despite that being their most log-jammed position. Still, center continues to be their most glaring need, so Leonard would make sense. Zeller would, too, but most mocks have him going top ten, so he may not be an option for Houston at 14.
Austin Rivers makes sense if the Rockets do as expected and move Kevin Martin over the summer. Rivers would come in as Courtney Lee’s replacement in the second unit, assuming Lee is still in town. This season Lee proved once again that he can start, and his ability to play both ends of the floor makes Martin very expendable. Rivers would have a chance to work his way into the rotation, which might serve him better than being thrown into the starting lineup on a lesser team. Houston has also been in the hunt for an elite small forward, working the phones to try and land Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala and Danny Granger over the last year or so, but they haven’t had any luck in that department. They don’t really need Quincy Miller as things stand today, but the roster is in a state of flux and they might wind up making a trade that opens up a spot for another small forward.
Ultimately, the Rockets would be much better off either packaging their two first round picks to land a top five or else trying to move down. As history has shown, the Rockets have much better luck drafting in the second round than they do in the first.
Free Agency and Trades
The Rockets will have some cap space this summer, but they also have some gaping holes to fill with that space. Courtney Lee is a restricted free agent, and you can bank on him being back in Houston next season. Chase Budinger has a team option on his contract, which the Rockets will absolutely exercise.
Goran Dragic is an unrestricted free agent, and while the Rockets are intensely interested in bringing him back, Dragic is likely to get significant offers from Toronto, Portland, and perhaps even Dallas. He showed he can be a very good starting point guard, and plenty of teams around the league need one and took note of his play. Marcus Camby is also an unrestricted free agent, and while he’s close to the end of his career, he was also Houston’s best starting center option over the second half of the season. It’s not out of the question that they could bring him back, but at a radically reduced price. It would also behoove Houston to plan of Camby being the back-up center, as starting him is just a prelude to injury.
Samuel Dalembert’s contract is not fully guaranteed for next season, so there’s a chance he’s not back with the Rockets. He looked good to a fan base that’s become all too accustomed to watching the likes of Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet, but the reality is that Dalembert is a good back-up center for a playoff team. The likelihood that Houston could make the playoffs with Dalembert starting at center is fairly slim.
The trade scenarios for Houston are not unlike those of years past. Anyone and everyone can be had for the right price, though the team has been reluctant to part with starting point guard Kyle Lowry. They’re looking for a superstar to be the face of the franchise, and they will part with whatever they have to part with to land that superstar. Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, section 102 of Toyota Center – the Rockets will give up whatever they have to give up, but so far they haven’t had any success in their ongoing superstar pursuit.
This summer’s free agency class doesn’t really offer up and homeruns for Houston, either. Deron Williams is the big name, but he is extremely unlikely to even look at Houston and the Rockets don’t need him all that much, either. Chris Kaman is an interesting name when it comes to centers, and he’s easily the best center available in free agency this summer. When he’s healthy he’s a top ten NBA center. The Rockets have also shown interest in Omer Asik, who can be an restricted free agent in Chicago, but wasn’t a first round pick, so may be unrestricted. Roy Hibbert would be a nice addition, but he’s restricted and the Indiana Pacers are extremely unlikely to let him walk. Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes is also unrestricted and wouldn’t be bad as a second or third option if some other things didn’t pan out and Philly didn’t get him taken care of quickly.
The International Factor
The Rockets have had a couple of players waiting in the wings in Europe, and one of them is expected to be with the team next season. Donatas Motiejūnas averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game in Euroleague play this season and even had a 21-rebound game in December, third-best all-time in Europe. The Rockets were hoping to see him improve in rebounding more than anything else, and he responded in a significant way. It’s still not clear that Motiejūnas will be an impact player, but he is an interesting prospect, to say the least. He’s added some much-needed upper body mass and is now a legit power forward. He’s more physical in the paint than fellow Europeans Dirk Nowitzki or Andrea Bargnani, but also lacks their touch from the outside. At the very least, he’s a Josh McRoberts type of player, so he can help Houston, provided they make a move or two that opens up a spot in the rotation for another power forward.
Houston is still very much keeping an eye on Spanish point guard Sergio Llull, as well, though there is no expectation that he will join the team next season. He’s proving to be a legit point guard who could absolutely play at the NBA level, but the timing is not yet right for him to make his way to Houston.
The Rockets are a feisty bunch, and that’s something that endears them to their ever-faithful fan base. They are a team of fighters, and if they lose it’s never for lack of effort. They believe they can beat any team on any given night, and that mentality has made them the best team not to make the playoffs over the last few seasons. The bottom line, however, is that they have to overachieve to win more nights than not, as they lack the star power to match up with the bulk of the league’s playoff teams. They have two tasks to accomplish this summer, two things that trump everything else on the to-do list. They must find a legit starting center and they must find a franchise player to help them win games in the clutch. If they fail to do either of those things, don’t be surprised if we’re right back here next season, talking about the 14th pick and another playoff berth just missed.