NBA AM: Rockets Plan To Use Summer For Growth

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How close are the Houston Rockets to title contention?

Prior to the beginning of the 2014 campaign the Houston Rockets were forcefully thrust into the topic of title contention largely in part due to the offseason signing of All-Star center Dwight Howard. On paper, pairing Howard with fellow All-Star guard James Harden put the league on notice the franchise was ready to etch its name among the league’s elite. In reality, NBA history is littered with talented duos who need time together in order to mesh before dominating the league at large.

The Rockets raced to 54 regular season wins this season but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in six games.

Although the club failed to live up to many expectations and their playoff elimination sparked plenty of what ifs, Howard believes there’s no reason for his teammates to hold their heads down in disappointment and says the team’s championship mentality must be born from within.

“I’m disappointed we lost but at the same time there’s no need for me or anybody else to hold our heads down,” Howard recently said during his exit interviews. “Because even when you lose we’re all still blessed. You can’t measure your success by [championship] rings. As bad as I want a ring it doesn’t define who I am as person or a player. So I’m not going to hold my head down about it. Was I very upset? Of course. Was I hurt? Yeah. But I just have to get ready for next season.

“It starts on the inside. Guys having the right mentality no matter how many parts you put on the team. So everybody has to be on the same page. A lot of these young guys, they see that you have to be on the same page on and off the court. We all have to play for one goal and it has to be about a championship.”

Harden firmly believes the franchise has the right chips in place to contend for a title in short order, but states improving team chemistry and gaining the necessary cohesion will be important for his teammates this summer.

“I think we have more than enough to compete at a high level,” Harden said. “We got everything. It’s just a matter of us locking in making sure we’re all on the same page.

“Even though we lost in the first round we still had some great moments. We saw a lot out of the guys we needed to see. So we can just take the positives out of that and go into the summer time. We know each others’ personalities and what we can do on the court. It’s just a matter of us spending [more] time together.”

There were questions on whether head coach Kevin McHale would be back as head coach of the team next season however the Rockets’ front office quickly put any of those rumors to bed.

Harden says McHale is the right man for the job and is happy the league veteran received another chance to lead the club into battle.

“It fits for us,” Harden said of McHale and the current roster. “He’s won championships so he knows what it takes so if guys are listening to him … we know he’s been there before. But we got to come back with the mindset of wanting to win a championship next year, consistently.”

The Rockets own the No. 25 and No. 42 overall picks in this year’s draft, but title contenders rarely rely on incoming rookies to play pivotal roles in the rotation.

In order for Houston to take the next step Harden feels he must emerge as a leaders on both ends of the floor next season.

“I have to emerge,” Harden said. “I have to take another step and just be locked in. It’s a matter of will and focusing on [the defensive] end as well. Focus is a major part of the game. Talent wise, I’m there, but just focusing on the majority of the game.”

Hawks GM promises aggressive but calculated offseason in Atlanta

The Atlanta Hawks have reached the playoffs for the past seven season which ranks as one of the best active streaks in the league. However, the team hasn’t been able to round the success into an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Hawks have been able to maintain their success over the years despite an annual rotating cast of reserves, changes in franchise players going from Joe Johnson to Al Horford and three different head coaches.

Atlanta lost in the opening round of the playoffs this season versus the Indiana Pacers in seven highly contested games. But the Hawks entered the postseason as a sub .500 eighth seed and were up against the top seed in the conference.

Although the Hawks were eliminated quickly, headed into the summer the team is strongly positioned to make strides up the standings. The Hawks have cap room, draft assets and favorable contracts to deal this offseason as they make their play.

Hawks general manager Danny Ferry says this summer will be a key crossroads for the organization while trying to get over the proverbial hump and he plans to be very aggressive.

“We look forward to the summer with the draft and free agency,” Ferry said in his season ending recap interview. “This is an important summer. They’re all important summers. Hopefully we can make good decisions, take appropriate risks and continue to build on what was a good year for us.”

The Hawks managed to overcome the early season loss of Horford, while also introducing Mike Budenholzer into the fold in his first NBA head coaching assignment. Point guard Jeff Teague continues to make huge strides and the team’s marquee signing last summer, Paul Millsap, became a first time All-Star.

However, Ferry believes there’s plenty of work left to be done and feels the club is just scratching the surface.

“Obviously there’s more work to be done,” Ferry said. “But the foundation that was laid this year I think will help us going forward. We played a different way this year. We asked our guys to go out their comfort zone. Our first year coach (Budenholzer) got incredible experience this year and I think really established himself with our group and gained a good deal of trust with our group.”

The Hawks own the No. 15 and No. 43 overall picks of this year’s draft. The team is projected to have over $10 million in salary cap room this summer.