It’s hard to be disappointed in the Houston Rockets’ 2014-15 run. It’s true that the team was allowed the luxury of piggybacking an MVP candidate for 81 of its 82 games this season, but this was a campaign that was also fraught with injury and goofball, sometimes polarizing additions that threatened to throw the team off the rails. No amount of 32-7-7 nights from James Harden would matter if the helpers aren’t helping and the second-in-command star is in street clothes.
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Instead, this weird little team thrived. Dwight Howard missed 41 contests, exactly half the season, but Houston still eked out the second seed in the Western Conference by virtue of a division win and tiebreaking record. It shocked the NBA by coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Los Angeles Clippers team that seemed poised to make a breakthrough before finally petering out in a Western Conference finals setting that few outside of Houston ever thought it’d reach.
Along the way, despite a disappointing and borderline shocking ending to his season, James Harden turned in a killer performance as Houston’s alpha dog. Working amongst an ever-changing array of teammates, Harden made the Rockets potent almost by his lonesome offensively, while working up a complete 180 degree turn defensively. It was a striking turnaround on that side of the ball, but by the end of the season most observers had just about taken for granted the idea of James Harden, the Two-Way Player.
For that, Harden came in second in MVP voting, with many considering the race between him and winner Stephen Curry to be a coin flip scenario at best. He pushed the Rockets to the second quickest pace in the NBA, slowed the game down with his repeated trips to the free throw line, all while working alongside 12 different regular-season starters.
This is partly by design. Rocket general manager Daryl Morey understandably obsesses over flexibility, and we’ve seen his influence in that realm play a major part as teams look to find obscure bargains or keep heightened players around with shorter contracts prior to turnover after turnover. The biggest reason for the massive roster this season, however, was the injury bug. Not only was Howard off the court for half the season, but expected starters Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas both suffered season-ending injuries just before spring hit.
Morey’s team weathered the storm because of his work on the fringes. He picked up Corey Brewer in a three-team deal with Minnesota, Jason Terry for the cost of two (heavily protected) second-round picks, and Pablo Prigioni for second-rounders as well. Terry ended up starting in the postseason, with Brewer and Prigioni playing major minutes off the bench. It wasn’t an ideal setup, but to pick up replacement-level value for mere second-rounders was huge for this franchise.
Morey also ended up rolling the dice, somewhat, on what seemed at the time a very un-Daryl Morey-like player.
Josh Smith, King of the Inefficients, was paid millions to go away by the Detroit Pistons just two months into his first season with new coach Stan Van Gundy. Morey landed Howard’s good friend and former AAU teammate for a pro-rated contract worth just under $1 million. If it didn’t work out? Then you sit Smith on the bench and eat a million. What’s the risk?
Smith, predictably, was up and down with the Rockets, but he won them far more games than he cost them quarters. This came on the heels of Morey rebounding nicely from what appeared like the offseason from hell, missing out on Chris Bosh in free agency (when Bosh seemed straight out of central casting) and losing Chandler Parsons to Dallas in what was painted as an embarrassing turn of events at the time.
Sadly, Parsons not only struggled somewhat in his first season with Dallas, but a nagging knee injury turned into what might be a microfracture surgery and he ended up missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, Parsons’ replacement Trevor Ariza played in all 82 games in the regular season (at about half of Parsons’ contract rate) and was a killer force on both sides of the ball in the postseason. He’ll turn 30 in June, but his declining yearly contract price and final two years (at $7.8 and $7.4 million) will still be bargains in 2016-17 and 2017-18 once the NBA’s new TV money rolls in.
As a condition to save himself from another losing season in Minnesota, Brewer agreed to waive his player option for this summer in the trade to Houston, and he’ll join Smith and Terry, as the three most notable unrestricted free agents. Patrick Beverley will become a restricted free agent, and he’s already professed loyalty to the first team to make him a starter, but the Rockets need to proceed with caution with their starting point man. The team did not exactly play exceedingly well with him on the court this season, and another desperate team could make an outsized bid that Morey could have to think twice about matching.
Brewer has already professed a desire to return, and the team will likely decline the hefty $4.6 million team option on Kostas Papanikolaou, who struggled during his rookie season. Because of Terry, Brewer and Beverley’s rather miniscule cap holds, the relatively tiny rookie contracts of Terrence Jones, Prigioni, Motiejunas and Clint Capella, and Ariza’s declining payment, the Rockets will have some room to get creative this summer. Not necessarily with cap space, but once again with a litany of players that outperform their contracts.
That’s what Morey always covets, but to what end? Despite the team’s final four showing, this squad was 14 minutes away from being knocked out of the second round of the playoffs in six games. Howard is slowly creeping back to contributing an approximation of the sort of play we saw from him five years ago, but only when healthy (or eligible for active duty). The team badly needs another playmaker and scorer to take the heat off offensively, because Josh Smith’s pick-and-roll game just ain’t enough (and that’s presuming Smith stays).
Morey could go scorched-earth with all of his team options and free agents, but it wouldn’t be enough to clear max space for a star. He may have to hope a star free agent wants to play in Houston desperately enough to either agree to a sign-and-trade, or less money, or both. Failing that, Morey can just round up another bunch of flexible helpers, pray for health, and join the unending series of teams that are looking forward to major cap space and a stout free-agent market in 2016.
It’ll be fascinating as always to either watch the attempts, or the execution unfold.
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