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2014-15 Houston Rockets Season Preview

After a disappointing offseason, there may be a problem in Houston.

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They call it dare to be great, because in order to do so, you take the greater chance of being worse off than you originally were. The Houston Rockets learned that the hard way this offseason, going from potentially one of the winners of the offseason, to one of the losers with Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh’s decisions to stay with their respective teams.

With the West just as tough as it was a year ago, the Rockets enter the season with a thinner bench and no upgrade at the power forward position, which was a major part of their undoing against the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs. It would be a mistake to count out a team with Dwight Howard and James Harden on it, though.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Houston Rockets.

Five Guys Think

It wasn’t the greatest summer for the Houston Rockets, as they lost Chandler Parsons, their starting small forward, in restricted free agency and then traded away two solid rotation guys in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to create cap space for an elite player (Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh?) that ultimately never came. Still, bringing back Trevor Ariza was a solid move, and James Harden and Dwight Howard are both still there and plenty motivated to make progress on their first year together in Houston. Some would say they’ve still got some growing up to do, but the Rockets should be one of the most exciting, high-scoring teams in the league again this year, whether Howard and Harden mature or not.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Houston Rockets had a rough offseason. The team struck out on top tier free agents Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh while also losing forward Chandler Parsons to the Dallas Mavericks. The team also won’t feature two significant role players in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. However, the great equalizer is the fact All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden are locked in long term at the top of the rotation. This gives the team some wiggle room other franchises don’t have the luxury of affording. Houston was bounced in the first round of the playoffs last season which undoubtedly left a sour taste in their mouths. The Rockets are talking title, but they have get out of the first round to begin that quest.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

The Houston Rockets probably had the worst offseason of any team in the entire league if you consider how closely they came to signing Chris Bosh away from the Miami HEAT. In assembling his current roster, Daryl Morey took some major risks, which includes amnestying Luis Scola and opting to allow Goran Dragic to walk away. Those gambles ultimately paid off. This past summer, Morey agreed to trade Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik away for a mere opportunity to sign Chris Bosh, and that obviously did not work out. To add insult to injury, Chandler Parsons became a Dallas Maverick after the Rockets opted to not match the three-year maximum offer sheet extended to him by Mark Cuban’s team. The Rockets did manage to secure the services of Trevor Ariza, but at this point, anything short of finding a way to acquire Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics will clearly result in the Rockets fielding an inferior team to the one that took the floor for them in 2013-14. Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas will each have an opportunity to take on increased responsibility in Houston, and if they are to come close to the 54 wins that they managed last season, they will need it. Unfortunately for them, with the improvements the Dallas Mavericks made and the upstart New Orleans Pelicans looking to soar, things are not looking too good for the Rockets at the moment.

4th place – Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

This was a rough offseason for Houston. At one point, it looked like they were going to be one of the big winners of the summer, when it seemed like Chris Bosh was joining the team and Chandler Parsons would be brought back. However, Bosh decided to stay in Miami and it didn’t make much sense for Houston to spend all of their money matching Parsons’ offer sheet from the Dallas Mavericks, so now the Rockets enter the 2014-15 season without Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik among others. Adding Trevor Ariza helps, but it still seems like this team is less talented than last year’s team and lacks the depth that squad had. Houston will still win many games with Dwight Howard and James Harden leading them, but it’s hard to imagine them making a deep run in the West with so many other talented teams in the conference.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

At some point, Daryl Morey’s streak of incredible luck was bound to come to an end. Still, you can’t fault him for trying to hit a home run this offseason. The last two summers had to have him feeling like David Ortiz as he stepped up to the plate. As a result of swinging and missing, though, this team goes into the season with more holes than they appear to have the means to address. If he were to somehow find a way to go out and acquire Rajon Rondo, that would be so Morey – but I just don’t see that happening. Still, talent isn’t this team’s chief problem. They have plenty of it, even if it’s not as much as last year. They need to play better together, and that starts at the top with their two best players. If this team doesn’t adapt the all for one and one for all approach, they’re headed towards another disappointing early exit. There’s been a lot of changeover, on the bench in particular, so perhaps that will make a difference in that department. After all, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons were the ones feeling like they were underutilized last year.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Even with the addition of Dwight Howard last year, James Harden remained the Rockets’ top offensive option, averaging 25 points a game for the second straight season. He was slightly more efficient than he was in his first year with the Rockets, which could be attributed to some of the attention that Howard helped draw away from him. While this team seemed to deal with an identity crises in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers over who their go-to option was, Harden’s versatile scoring repertoire, willingness to find open teammates and ability to make over 85 percent of his free throws easily makes him the guy who should be at the top of the Rockets’ pecking order offensively regardless of the situation or match up.

Top Defensive Player: After a disappointing season in Los Angeles and an unceremonious exit from Orlando prior to that, Dwight Howard bounced back in his first year with the Houston Rockets. He may not have managed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but Howard looked much more like the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner that he truly is. He grabbed 12.2 rebounds, blocked 1.8 shots and tallied .85 steals a game while boasting a defensive rating of 101.3 and a 4.1 defensive win shares – both top 16 in the league. With Howard patrolling the paint the Rockets gave up just 103.1 points per 100 possessions. He may not have earned a spot on the All-Defensive team, but opposing offenses will vouch for the fact that he remains one of the league’s most influential defenders nonetheless.

Top Playmaker: With Jeremy Lin now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chandler Parsons a Dallas Maverick, James Harden is the Rockets best playmaker far and away. He averaged 6.1 last season, a team high ahead of Parsons and Lin’s four apiece. He should average even more next season as, on the outset, it looks like a little too much of the playmaking burden is going to fall on his shoulders considering how much they need his individual scoring as well. Harden is really going to have to find a balance this year between looking for his own shot, keeping his teammates involved and most importantly making the right decisions. Harden turned the ball over 3.6 times a game during the regular season last year, a number that has to come down as his playmaking responsibilities look poised to increase significantly.

Top Clutch Player: Hopefully the repetitiveness here doesn’t bother Dwight Howard too much, because once again, it’s James Harden. Per 48 minutes of clutch time, defined by the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime where neither team is ahead by more than five points, Harden led the league with 49.0 points. During that time, he shot 44 percent from the field, 45 percent from beyond the arc and 84 percent from the free throw line. On the same per 48 minute scale he averaged 9.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists. The same things that make him the Rockets’ top offensive option are what make him their best option to go to in clutch. He’s one of the toughest covers in the league offensively because you cannot take everything away from him. No matter what a defender does, he has an answer for it, which is not something you can say for the Rockets’ other options with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Not too long ago Patrick Beverley was playing overseas and on the verge of becoming an NBA afterthought after being a couple years removed from going in the second round. Yet, in another example of how fine of a scouting department the Rockets have, they gave him a chance midway through the season two years ago and all of a sudden Beverley became really difficult to take off of the court. He’s tenacious defensively at the league’s most talented position, which is really important when he’s sharing the backcourt with a notoriously lazy defender in James Harden. Beverley fights through pick-and-rolls, can put on full-court pressure and has a tendency to get in his opponents head, see Russell Westbrook for an example. Over the course of a season and a half, Beverley has become the unquestionable top point guard on this Rockets team, and one of the better values in the league overall.

Best New Addition: A big reason why the Rockets were willing to let Chandler Parsons go was because they felt like Trevor Ariza was a better, and more importantly cheaper, fit. Ariza rejoins the Rockets after a career-year with the Washington Wizards. He brings championship experience, defensive toughness and an adept understanding of how to play off of star players – something that was lacking during his original stint with the Rockets. At 29 years of age, Ariza should provide a calming, mature presence that their locker room sorely lacked last season. The only way he’d be a better addition is if he could guard power forwards like LaMarcus Aldridge, who had his way with the Rockets last postseason.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Who we Like

Daryl Morey: When you shoot for the stars, sometimes you’re going to come up short. The last two times that Morey made a gamble like he did this offseason for Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, it paid off in the form of Dwight Howard and James Harden. He may not have been able to execute his Plan A this summer, but it’s easy to forget how much better this Rockets team has gotten with him as the orchestrator behind all their personnel moves. Plus, Morey is one of those general managers who never rests on his laurels. He’s constantly on the aggressive, looking for ways to improve the team. He knows this team needs a little bit more to truly contend for a championship, and will leave no stone unturned to try and address that.

Patrick Beverley: This is often regarded as the golden age for point guards, with guys like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry lighting up the league on a nightly basis. Few of the elite point guards in the league are known for their defense, though. And, nobody keeps those top tier point guards up the night before a game like Patrick Beverley does when they know the Rockets are up next. Defense is the calling card that has turned him into a starting NBA point guard just five short years after he went in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft and was sent overseas to work on his game. A lot of players never make it back after being sent abroad, but Beverley has set the example that players who get sent down a similar path strive to duplicate.

Dwight Howard: Love him or hate him (we obviously like him), there’s not a center in this league who Dwight Howard can’t hold his own, or likely have an advantage, against. With the Rockets Howard looked happier than he’s been in years, and he looked just about as strong, quick and explosive as we have ever seen him. These are career-defining years coming up for Howard, and he knows it. Often mocked for his light-hearted approach, now’s the time for him to take the seriousness up a notch, because a fifth-consecutive year without making it out of the first round is something that will really tarnish his legacy and the way that he’s remembered. Set to turn 29 in December, Howard is running out of prime years, and has to make the most out of what’s left of them if he wants to go down in history as a winner, not an under-achiever.

James Harden: The Rockets had to be really pleased with the Harden that they saw playing for Team USA in the World Cup. He was unselfish, attentive on defense and really focused on leading by example for a younger, less-experienced Team USA. This is after an awful first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he was horrifically inefficient and sometimes just a flat out non-factor as the ball went through Dwight Howard late in games, seemingly to his disliking. Two years into his career as a Rocket, the team knows now what he is capable of, and will be leaning on him more heavily than ever. Like Howard, Harden has to answer the call and understand that while what he’s been doing in the past is more than most players in the NBA, he’s going to have to do even more in order to push this team seriously into the championship discussion.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Strengths

Last year the Rockets were one of the top teams in the league offensively, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions. Although they’re going to miss Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, more so the latter two, offensively, they should still have a top-ranked offense with the return of James Harden and Dwight Howard, who had the highest usage ratings on the team last year. Those two are among the best at their positions and often force defenses to double-team as they’re virtually unguardable one-on-one. They will create a lot of open opportunities for Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and the rest of their supporting cast to capitalize on. Defensively they were near middle-of-the-pack last year, ranked 12 in points allowed per 100 possessions, but it’s feasible that they could crack the top 10 next year with Beverley and Ariza, two defensive upgrades, taking most of Lin and Parsons’ minutes. Where Asik will be missed is on the boards, but between Howard, Terrence Jones and the Rockets’ back up bigs, they should remain one of the better rebounding teams in the league as well.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Weaknesses

As the Rockets’ season came to an end in devastating fashion against the Portland Trail Blazers, who earned a spot in the second round behind Damian Lillard’s last-second, series-clinching three point shot in Game 6, it wasn’t because a lack of talent. What stood out more about the Rockets was a lack of chemistry. Early on in the series Dwight Howard was complaining about the amount of touches that he was getting, while James Harden seemed to have serious issues with the offense running through someone else during the game’s most important moments. The two of them are going to have to realize that winning takes sacrificing, and sometimes allowing someone else to have the glory. The one common trend among the players who consistently won at a high level is an acceptance that they couldn’t do it by themselves, no matter how good they were. By coming to a similar realization, the Rockets stand to improve in their second-biggest weakness: taking care of the basketball. Howard and Harden turned it over a combined 6.8 times a game last season, which is too high for a one-two combo relied on as much as they are. They need to not force the issue as much, and look to make the right basketball play, not the right play for themselves. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin were basically given away this offseason, and while they were necessary cuts in order for the Rockets to go after a third star, they were not adequately replaced on the bench. The Rockets second unit has two notable names: Francisco Garcia and the recently-acquired Jason Terry, who is a year removed from his last productive season. Unless some combination of Terry, Josh Powell, Joey Dorsey, Clint Capela, Kostas Papanikolaou, Jeff Adrien, Donatas Motiejunas Isaiah Canaan, Nick Johnson and Ish Smith unpredictably form a solid second five, the Rockets are going to be in trouble when their starters are off the floor.

– Yannis Koutroupis

The Salary Cap

The Rockets chose to stay over the salary cap, engineering a sign-and-trade for Trevor Ariza that triggered the $80.8 million hard cap.  Houston isn’t close to that mark, let alone the $76.8 million luxury tax threshold.  The team has agreed to sign Kostas Papanikolaou with $4.8 million of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception – the remainder going to rookie Nick Johnson.  Francisco Garcia originally inked a one-year minimum contract to return to the Rockets, but the deal was voided out by the league (perhaps a physical couldn’t be taken in time), but the veteran is expected to sign a new deal before camp.  Houston recently traded for Jason Terry, sending out the non-guaranteed salaries of Alonzo Gee and Scotty Hopson. The team now has 15 players under fully guaranteed contracts, not including Patrick Beverley’s non-guaranteed deal.  Beverley is an important part of the team and will stick – which means someone else has to go via buyout or trade.  The roster crunch doesn’t bode well for Tarik Black, Josh Powell and Robert Covington, whose contracts aren’t fully guaranteed.  The Rockets also have an $8.4 million traded player exception for Jeremy Lin, and their $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception – but again, no room for new players unless they find their way out a few contracts.

– Eric Pincus

The Burning Question

Are Dwight Howard and James Harden capable leaders?

On paper, the Rockets are not as good this year as they were last because of the depth issues. Daryl Morey is in the position he’s in because he is looking to build the next Rockets championship team, and if he was able to land Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, who he just missed out on, everyone would be singing his praises for the third-straight year. Now, short on trade assets and the means to improve the team throughout the course of the season barring an unforeseen blockbuster trade opportunity that presents itself, the Rockets are really going to lean on their top two stars to make up for what they lost this offseason. Both of them talked the talk, brushing off the departure of Chandler Parsons and others this summer, and now it’s going to be time for them to walk the walk and prove that they have another level they can take their games to. There’s no denying the incredible talent of Harden and Howard, but there is reason to seriously question whether they can be the kind of leaders they need to in order to take this franchise to the heights they’re aspiring for. They need to play off of each other when it matters most, not bicker over who ends up with the ball in their hands. And, in the case of Harden, he can’t just be a factor on one end of the floor. He was exposed as a defender last year, and has to make it a point of emphasis to be leaps and bounds better this year. No one is going to listen to or feel comfortable going to battle in the postseason with someone who displayed the complete and total disinterest that Harden did in playing defense last year. Howard and Harden need to have the mindset of, no matter what they do statistically, if they don’t make their teammates better, this team is going to fail to even match last year’s achievements, which were widely regarded as a disappointment.

– Yannis Koutroupis

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