The Houston Rockets (38-41) are not mathematically eliminated from playoff competition at this time, but even if the team does reach the postseason, the 2015-16 campaign should still be classified as a huge disappointment.
Heading down the stretch, when winning matters most, the Rockets have lost seven out of their last 10 contests and now faced a realistic possibility of watching the playoffs at home just a year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance. With three games remaining, Houston is one and a half games behind the upstart Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West.
As surprising as the Rockets’ free-fall down the stretch has been, the struggles shouldn’t come as much of a shock since it mirrors their tumultuous season. There were plenty of warning signs hovering over the team – early and often.
From the start, this season has never been smooth sailing for the ailing Rockets. All-Star guard James Harden started the campaign mired in a horrendous shooting slump. The team fired head coach Kevin McHale within its first 15 games. The squad also spent the majority of the campaign attempting to integrate point guard Ty Lawson into their rotation in a disastrous failed experiment (that led to an eventual buyout). This doesn’t include the inconsistencies experienced by forwards Terrence Jones and Josh Smith, nor does it factor in the fact that interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff failed to rectify the damaged aircraft after taking control from the departed McHale.
Heading into the summer, Houston faces the realistic possibility of an unplanned rebuilding project.
Now, this will not be the same type of rebuilding project that a team like the Philadelphia 76ers are currently going through because the Rockets have Harden already in the fold. But there are numerous issues for general manager Daryl Morey to address this summer.
First things first, the Rockets have to address whether Bickerstaff is truly the man for the job. Bickerstaff is a guy who has put in the energy, time, effort and work needed to ultimately land a full-time head coaching job in this league. But the jury is still out on whether Houston is the true fit for his talent.
Next, the team has to address the elephant in the room regarding the Dwight Howard saga and his future with the franchise. Howard could become an unrestricted free agent this summer and it’s no secret the former All-Star is seeking a max deal as he heads into the second half of his career. While it is taboo in NBA circles to let strong talent walk out of the door for nothing in return, the Rockets have a real dilemma on their hands when it comes to potentially opening up the wallet for a significantly declining Howard.
Howard is no longer a dominant force in today’s league, but the veteran center is still a productive player in the pivot who averages a double-double. On the flip side, Howard will be coming off a campaign where he averaged the second fewest shot attempts of his career (8.4). In fact, you have to go back to Howard’s rookie campaign in 2005 to find a year when he averaged fewer field goal attempts. The signs of notable decline are clear in Howard’s case but without him, the already defensively challenged Rockets would have a huge hole in the middle.
While emerging big man Clint Capela looks promising, he also appears to be far from ready to assume a 35 minute per night workload next season.
From a positive standpoint, Harden is entering his prime and barring injury will be in the MVP race for the next few years. The team also seems to have struck gold in signing a resurgent Michael Beasley midway through the season after a MVP campaign in China. For all of his unexpected production, Beasley is under contract next season with a $1.4 million non-guaranteed bargain deal.
The team also has just $45 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for next season, assuming Howard opts out of his deal, giving the franchise plenty of flexibility to become a player in the free agency and trade markets. The Rockets also aren’t being handcuffed by any bad contracts, with no eight-figure deals on the payroll for non-producing assets.
Ultimately, the Rockets may have needed to come crashing back to earth in order to experience this hard reality. The team reached the Conference Finals last season, but the roster was never comparable to Golden State, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or San Antonio when viewed realistically.
If the team does miss the playoffs this season, with the right moves over the next few months they could be back in prime position to get back to the realm of relevancy. But Howard’s future, addressing the head coach situation and acquiring more consistent role players will be occupying Morey’s time in the near future.
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