By the end of the season, it will have been 20 years since the Rockets last hoisted a championship trophy, and the goal is for that to change. It's not likely, but the team has enough star-power and high upside young players that they could pull it off if things break their way.
It may be a lofty goal, but there is little doubt that the pressure is starting to mount for the Rockets to get to the Finals. Anything short of a deep playoff run would not be good for Kevin McHale's job prospects, as his contract is up after this season.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
2nd in Southwest Division - 4th in Western Conference
Lost to POR (4-2) - Western Conference Quarterfinals
After making a franchise-altering move to bring in James Harden the year before, the Rockets entered the summer of 2013 ready to make a big splash and acquire a complementary star. They did just that, landing the best center in the game as Dwight Howard signed to a four-year, $87.6 million contract with the Rockets to put them in the mix out west.
Howard overcame back and shoulder injuries and returned to full strength in his first year with the Rockets. The 10-year vet looked much better from an athletic standpoint and regained his elite mobility and spring. Howard's presence was felt from the jump and behind production of 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, he earned his eighth consecutive All-Star selection and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team.
Dwight's new right hand man James Harden continued to thrive in the role of the team's number one option, as the bearded offensive weapon put up 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and a career high 6.1 assist on his way to back-to-back Western Conference All-Star appearances and, for the first time in his career, an All-NBA First Team selection.
In a contract year, Chandler Parsons had himself an outstanding season as well. The versatile third-year combo forward put up career highs in virtually every category with 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists per game. Parsons has quickly developed into a big time third offensive option as he can play off of ball-dominant superstars as a respected floor spacer and he can also create plays for himself and teammates when the ball is in his hands. You're not going to find many 6'9" guys that skilled with a fluid feel for the game, and he's only 25 years old.
In his second year in the NBA, Patrick Beverly won the starting point guard position and esablished himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. His on-ball pressure is a headache for all opposing guards, and he's not half bad on the other end of the floor, either. Beverly does a good job of playing off of Harden as the team's primary ball handler, and spaces the floor as he shoots above 36% from beyond the arc. The ball hawk battled knee troubles on and off, but scored over 10 points per game and made the All-Defense Second Team.
With Beverly in the starting lineup, Jeremy Lin acted as Houston's sixth man and played heavy minutes at both guard spots. Lin put up 12.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game in the most efficient season of his career.
Another big part of Houston's squad last season was Terrence Jones, who stepped up to earn the starting power forward role and made the most of his opportunity. In his sophomore season, Jones was one of the most improved players in the NBA and consistently made an impact all season long. The versatile stretch-four averaged 12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while finishing 10th in the league in field goal percentage at 54.2%. Not only is Jones an agile four-man that can space the floor to complement Howard inside, he is an aggressive long-armed rebounder that can put the ball on the floor and make a play facing up, making him a matchup problem for opposing bigs.
Once the new year came around, Houston was one of the top teams in the NBA. From January through March, the Rockets went 28-11 and put together big wins against San Antonio, Miami, Portland, Indiana, Dallas and Phoenix. On the strength of that terrific stretch, Houston finished 54-28 and earned the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, where they faced off with the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
After LaMarcus Aldridge got the series started with back-to-back 40+ point performances on the road, the Rockets dug themselves into a hole by dropping both games at home, destroying their home court advantage. Dwight Howard was an animal all series long, putting up 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game and James Harden had big moments as well, highlighted by a 37-point performance in Game 3, but he shot just 38% for the series. However, the Rockets couldn't execute consistently and had a lot of breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor.
Damian Lillard's miraculous buzzer beating game winner sunk them in Game 6 and for the second straight season, the Rockets were sent home in the first round. An excellent season turned sour after a disappointing early exit, and Houston had even more to worry about looking ahead to the offseason, where they were faced with a lot of decisions to make.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Clint Capela, Nick Johnson
Key Losses - Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Omri Casspi
This was a tough offseason for Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets.
Word had it that Chris Bosh was prepared to accept Houston's max contract offer to form a new "big three" with Dwight Howard and James Harden, a move that would certainly propel the Rockets into contention, but their hearts were broken. Shortly after LeBron James decided to bolt back to Cleveland, Pat Riley swooped in at the 11th hour with a full maximum five-year, $118 million deal to keep Bosh with the Heat.
While all of that was going on, Chandler Parsons was exercising restricted free agency and ended up landing a max three-year, $46 million offer sheet with the Mavericks. Houston, skeptical of that kind of financial commitment, declined to match the offer and let him walk to join Dallas.
Morey did, however, replace Parsons with a quality veteran in Trevor Ariza for about half the annual price. Ariza, a former Rocket from the 2009-10 season, signed a four-year, $32 million deal to leave Washington and take on the starting small forward role in Houston. The 29-year-old has played for six teams in 10 years, but is coming off of his best season in the NBA. Ariza put up 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in one of his most efficient seasons of his career, where he shot the three-ball better than ever. He was a big part of Washington's run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2013-14, and played even better in the playoffs by flirting with a double-double average and performing at an increasingly consistent level.
The Rockets will miss Parsons' impact even though they filled the role with a good player, but their second unit also took an enourmous hit this summer. After failing to complete a trade to send Omer Asik out of Houston by last season's trading deadline, the seven-foot center entered unrestricted free agency this summer and was ready to move on. Houston signed and traded him and Omri Casspi to the Pelicans in the same three-team deal that included the sign-and-trade that brought Ariza to the Rockets.
Not only did the Rockets lose their backup center, who is one of the best defensive five-men in the NBA, they also parted ways with Jeremy Lin in mid-July. In a move that got the Rockets out of the final year of Lin's contract, worth $14.9 million, Houston sent Lin to the Lakers along with a first and second round pick in 2015 in exchange for the rights to Sergei Lishchuk.
To replace Lin in the rotation at guard, Houston welcomed Jason Terry back to the state of Texas in a trade that also got them a pair of future second round draft picks, in return for Alonzo Gee. At age 37, Terry's best basketball is certainly behind him and JET will have to prove that he can still play at a high level as a complementary player. His transition to Boston didn't go quite as smoothly as expected in 2012-13 and he could hardly get off the bench for the Nets at all last season, appearing in just 35 games all year.
It will be interesting to see if JET can resurrect his career and end it on a high note as a contributor to a playoff team in a state full of fans that love him unconditionally.
Needless to say, this is not how the Rockets had hoped their offseason would go. They lost three key contributors in Parsons, Lin and Asik while failing to replace them with players of equal caliber. They've got some nice young talent coming up, but they lost a lot this summer.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Dwight Howard / Donatas Motiejunas / Joey Dorsey
PF - Terrence Jones / Clint Capela / Jeff Adrien
SF - Trevor Ariza / Francisco Garcia
SG - James Harden / Jason Terry / Troy Daniels / Nick Johnson
PG - Patrick Beverly / Ishmael Smith / Isiah Canaan
X-FACTOR - Bench Play
Let's face it, the Rockets lost a lot of depth this summer and their replacements were solid, but still downgrades. For the Rockets to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, their bench play is going to have to be stellar.
Can Jason Terry resurrect himself from the dead and finish his career strong as a quality rotation guard? Will Donatas Motiejunas step up to produce consistently in an increased role? Can Francisco Garcia stay healthy and provide a reliable offensive spark? Will Kevin McHale get anything out of either of his rookies, Nick Johnson or Clint Capela? Do the Rockets have enough depth to make a deep run?
Houston is going to rely on a lot of different guys to step up this season. I would expect the Rockets to be active on the phones around the trade deadline in hopes to strengthen their supporting cast before the playoffs.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
Even though the Rockets have taken a bit of a step back this summer, at least on paper, they should still be a competitive 50-win threat in the Western Conference in 2014-15. In order for them to make a deeper run, they'll need to get a lot of production from the supporting cast and steer clear of any major injuries, but they won't go out quietly. Expect Houston to finish second or third in the Southwest Division with a middle playoff seed, similar to last season. They'll have more competition within the division with the improvements of Dallas and New Orleans, but they still have a chance to make something happen in the postseason.
2nd - Southwest Division
6th - Western Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Miami Heat preview, coming tomorrow morning.