As has been the case for just about every season since it was sadly determined that Yao Ming couldn’t trust his feet any more, the Rockets have been rolling over assets and wondering if each successive season is The One That Counts. The 2014-15 campaign seemed like the big winner, and with the West as stout as ever been it’s fair to wonder if the team has truly peaked.
That’s just fine, though. Peaking as a third-rounder in this era of Western Conference basketball should be considered an accomplishment. Rockets fans, two decades removed from back to back champions, won’t want to hear this – but too much can happen in a Conference that meets a San Antonio first round ouster with a muffled yawn.
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Houston whipped up the pace and busted out on the defensive end last season, overcoming a series of injuries that would have wrecked the chances of most championship contenders with the play of MVP candidate James Harden. Harden turned in a killer year. He still bored people to bits with his methodical play, which is probably why he lost the MVP award to Stephen Curry in what was otherwise a coin flip contest, but the hybrid guard still contributed 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and seven assists. His four turnovers a game might seem like a lot, but when accounting for the team’s pace, his minutes (nearly 37 a contest) and high usage, they hardly mattered.
Harden had to carry this team over the course of his 81 games. The Rockets were and are a deep outfit, thanks to general manager Daryl Morey’s work, but scads of important teammates lost time to injury: Dwight Howard missed exactly half the season and played the Conference finals with two significant knee injuries, Terrence Jones missed even more time, while Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley both suffered season-ending injuries either late in the regular season, or in the playoffs.
Harden just kept churning, and his commitment to defense helped turn around the Rockets’ fortunes on that end. Howard played the capable role of second star. He’ll never get back to the sort of production we saw from him in 2010-11, but just two or three centers per decade ever do. Hampered by knee and back injuries in 2014-15, Howard still managed to offer 16 and 10 in just 30 minutes a game, and given full health he should eclipse those numbers this season in spite of turning 30 in December. The team has been working slowly with Howard in the exhibition season, allowing him to skip games as he readies for his 12th season.
The two stars managed to pounce on a distracted Los Angeles Clippers club in the second round, on their way back to the Conference finals for the first time since 1997. Falling to the eventual champs from Golden State was far from shameful, and the team couldn’t help but wonder how things would have turned out had they showed up to work with the full complement of healthy players. Still, these things take time even with Howard’s ticking clock, and there’s no reason why Harden can’t sustain this sort of production in 2015-16 at age 26.
He shouldn’t want to, as the team added depth and hopefully a healthier bit of luck in the offseason, but it wouldn’t be the biggest stretch to anticipate an MVP-styled return and, possibly, yet another championship in Clutch City.
2014-15 in 140 characters or less:
OK, four to six weeks means he’d be back on March 12th at best. That’s not all that bad.
Did the summer help at all?
In myriad ways.
With the exception of Cleveland’s infamous MASH unit, no playoff team entered the offseason with more cuts and scrapes than these Rockets. The team was without two starters by the time things wrapped up, alongside a pained Howard and the seemingly indefatigable Harden, and a few months away from the court should help everything out as the team prepares for what they hope is an eight-month grind.
Houston also secured its enviable depth by re-signing Beverely, swingman Corey Brewer and intriguing shot blocker K.J. McDaniels to three very reasonable free agent contracts. Rookie Sam Dekker struggled early in the exhibition season, but the forward has improved as October has rolled along.
On top of that, Daryl Morey’s Merry Band of Revolving Assets struck at the absolute best time yet again in the trade market.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Ty Lawson’s last season in Denver could, genuinely, have gone worse. He’s very lucky that he didn’t injure himself or anyone else while allegedly driving under the influence. We wish him the best as he attempts to get healthy, and he should feel encouraged by the fact that his bottoming out only resulted in the clash with a coach, those two DUI arrests, and a lost 2014-15.
He’s also rather lucky that Daryl Morey was able to pounce and bring him to a championship contender, as the Rox’ GM dealt cash, four end of the bench guys and what will likely only be a second round pick to Denver for Lawson’s services. Ty was clearly happy to do whatever it took to get to Texas, and he’ll be counted on as perhaps the final piece in Morey’s potential championship creation.
Lawson has started each of the team’s exhibition games, and while he seems better suited for running the show off the bench (with Patrick Beverley playing off of James Harden per usual) the Rockets appear to be diving ahead with a backcourt that could really change things. Lawson’s three-point shooting dipped in 2014-15 and he doesn’t figure to age well, but just about every part of his game suffered last season and at age 28 (in November) he’s got enough in there to be a difference maker.
Potential breakout stud:
Terrence Jones never got his game together in 2014-15, with a nagging nerve injury costing him 26 games during the regular season. Rockets coach Kevin McHale, in a desperate bid to shake up his team, replaced Jones in the starting lineup prior to Game 5 of the Clipper series in favor of Josh Smith, and the Rockets famously peeled off three wins to take the Conference semis.
Smith is gone now, to those same Clippers as a free agent, and Jones will return as a starter in 2015-16. His borderline beguiling mix of talents at the big forward position would appear to be a perfect match alongside a speedster like Lawson, and as Howard shifts away from heavy offensive duty it would seem that Jones could be around to pick up the slack.
For all their gifts, and wins, the Rockets were still a mediocre offensive outfit last season. An efficient and versatile season from Jones (not to mention the work that Lawson will do on that end) could bump this team up a few ranks.
Of course, a jaw injury and possible concussion had to knock Jones out of his last exhibition game, and he’ll be monitored closely as we move toward opening night.
The Rockets obsess over the three-pointer, but they don’t shoot it awfully well. At least not as well as they’d prefer to, at this point.
The Rockets ranked second-to last in two-pointers taken in 2014-15, and even that number was propped up by the team’s hefty pace. The team was first in three-point attempts but only 14th in percentage, hitting for just under 35 percent last season (the league average, in what was a down year for three-point marksmanship; if not aggressiveness).
Adding Sam Dekker will help, but as a rookie it’s unclear as to how much minutes he’ll take in, or if his three-point shootin in the NCAA tourney was a fluke.
Beyond that, because of the presence of Howard the team will always struggle to maintain a good free throw percentage, and the Rockets cannot rank 28th in turnover percentage if they want to move closer toward 60 wins.
Contributor with something to prove:
The Houston Rockets didn’t need Ty Lawson to make them into championship contenders, they were there already prior to the acquisition of the guard. With a healthy Beverley making life hell for Stephen Curry, and a healthy Donatas Motiejunas spinning his way toward low post gold off of the bench in the second quarter, these Rockets really could have given the champs a run in the Conference finals.
Alas, they fell short. And now Lawson is being asked to fit inside a Harden-centric offense that seemingly would have no use for a diminutive ball-dominator that wasn’t exactly lights out while spotting up from long range last year.
Without even getting into the off-court issues, Lawson will have to know when to step up, and determine when to back off. He can’t completely seal away the pell-mell game that makes him so dangerous, but he’s also going to have to figure out how to pick his spots on a Rockets team that was doing just fine, thank you very much, without him.
(Yes, I saw Pablo Prigioni play last year.)
That depth – that fabulous depth – turns into a feature, rather than a desperate necessity, for a team that plays until June. Howard fits into his elder-Superman role, Harden continues to dominate, and the helpers play free and easy, while Lawson provides the spark that turns the team into a champion.
If everything falls apart:
Coach Kevin McHale turns into a scapegoat as things go awry early, and no amount of lineup changes or 40-point games from Harden seem to help. Lawson turns out to be a poor fit alongside both Harden and Howard, and nobody stays healthy. In the West, that could even mean a drop out of the playoff bracket.
Kelly Dwyer’s notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
58-24, third in the West.
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