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Fixing the Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets had more marquee talent, but still lost in the first round of the playoffs this season. Where do they go from here?

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The 2013-14 NBA season was supposed to herald in a new era of contention for the Houston Rockets. After all, they landed the biggest free agent on the market in Dwight Howard, they boasted one of the best shooting guards in the league in James Harden and they have one of the best young wings in the league in Chandler Parsons. That trio was expected to get Houston significantly closer to a return to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately, despite a radically improved roster, the Rockets still found themselves watching from the sidelines when the second round of the playoffs started.

Postseason disappointment aside, the Rockets did win nine more games this season and they did it on the strength of their offense. They scored 107.7 points per game, second only to the Los Angeles Clippers’ 107.9, and had a league-leading True Shooting Percentage of 57.1. Where they struggled was on the defensive end, where they ranked 12th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 103.1 points per 100 possessions.

Where do the Rockets go from here? Let’s take a look:

Can Kevin McHale Grow and Improve as a Coach?

Normally, when a team falls as short of expectations as Houston did this season, you see a coaching change on the horizon. It appears that won’t be the case in Houston, where Kevin McHale’s tie to the same Boston Celtics organization that spawned team general manager Daryl Morey to hire him in the first place appears to be enough to keep him on the payroll. The team will reportedly exercise their option on the final year of McHale’s contract and give him one more run.

To be fair, the Rockets have improved in each of McHale’s three seasons, though much of that improvement has to be credited to roster changes. Rockets fans have seen McHale get outcoached time and time again, most recently by Terry Stotts as the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated Houston from the playoffs. McHale is not one to make many adjustments, so it will be interesting to see if he can find a way to start seeing what his opposition is doing and reacting in time to salvage games.

If he can’t, the definition of insanity comes to mind. To keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is, well, crazy.

It’s mind-numbing to think about a team with Robin Lopez starting at center beating a team with Dwight Howard in the middle.

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Bring Back Chandler Parsons

The biggest no-brainer of the summer for Houston will be bringing Parsons back. As much as Rockets fans would like to see the team make a run at Carmelo Anthony, they are much better off with Parsons starting at small forward. Not only did he improve his stats across the board while playing as a third option to two superstars, he was also one of the better defenders at his position in 2013-14. Deadly from three, a terrific finisher at the rim, and a threat in the passing lanes and on the glass, Parsons is the complete package. He seems like a better fit for Houston and, at 25 years old, he should continue to improve as well.

What Houston has to be concerned about as they approach their summer roster plans is their ability to re-sign Parsons in the summer of 2015. If they exercise their option on the final year of Parsons’ contract, he can become an unrestricted free agent after next season. He won’t be a marquee player in a class that will likely include LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Kevin Love, to name a few, but he will definitely get a big payday from someone. The Rockets can’t afford to let that contract come from another team. The best option for Houston may be declining the option and letting Parsons become a restricted free agent this summer so that they can match any offer he receives. Morey has said that the front office has yet to make a decision about Parsons’ team option.

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The Free Agency Issue

If the Rockets do, indeed, give McHale another season then they are going to have to address all of their improvement needs in free agency. They need more scoring from their second unit, but more than anything they really need an injection of defensive-minded players.

Team owner Les Alexander has been quoted as saying he plans to make a “big splash” in free agency. That sounds good, but it’s not easy to see how that’s going to happen.  The 2014-15 salary cap is expected to be around $63.2 million, and as things stand today the Rockets have just over $64 million in salary commitments for next season. They are likely to free up some space by opting not to bring back Omri Casspi and Josh Powell, but they represent just a little over $2 million combined.

For the Rockets to have enough cap space to make a “big splash” without going over the luxury tax threshold, they almost have to move Jeremy Lin, and to move Lin they will almost certainly have to package him with Omer Asik. Whether offered as a package or individually, few teams have been even remotely interested in the balloon payments owed to both Lin and Asik next season.

For a moment, let’s assume the Rockets can unload Lin and/or Asik to clear up some cap space. The big name in this summer’s free agency class is Anthony, a player who doesn’t seem likely to leave New York, even less likely to choose Houston if he does, and not as good for the Rockets as the aforementioned Parsons, whom he would be replacing. Again, that’s assuming the Rockets could clear enough cap space to offer Anthony a max contract, which is a huge stretch.

Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan are all able to become free agents this summer and all would help Houston, but the likelihood of any of them leaving their current teams is remote, so strike them off the list.

Pau Gasol is an interesting option, and he would cost Houston considerably less than the $19.2 million he made this season. The question, of course, is whether or not he has enough left in the tank to help a team make a championship run. He and Howard do complement each other well, though Mike D’Antoni never could figure that out when they were together with the Lakers last season.

There are a number of tweak moves that could be made to shore up the defense. Shawn Marion is still a capable defender, as are Trevor Ariza and Thabo Sefolosha, but do any of these names constitute a “big splash?”

Hardly.

The Western Conference gets tougher every year, and while the Rockets have moved up in the standings they are no closer to contending than they were a year ago. A coaching change would seem to solve many of their issues, but failing that they have their work cut out for them in the quest to compete for a championship.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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