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Houston Rockets 2015-16 Preview

With Ty Lawson in the fold, can the Rockets take the next step into elite territory and earn their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 IN REVIEW
1st in Southwest Division
2nd in Western Conference

It's pretty amazing how strong of a season last year's Houston Rockets were able to put together. They certainly had a terrific group of guys, but it's very rare for a team to persevere at an elite level when they are as plagued by injuries as they were, especially considering how many key players went down for extended periods of time.

The biggest hit the injury bug put out on Houston was directed at defensive anchor Dwight Howard, who missed 41 games with continuous right knee troubles that kept him sidelined through multiple different stretches throughout the season. Any time you are missing a piece of Howard's caliber for half of the season, you are faced with a serious problem, and the Rockets weren't very deep at the center position as it is.

It also didn't help that Terrence Jones missed 41 consecutive games due to nerve inflammation in his left leg. Later in the year, he missed even more time with a collapsed lung and was only able to suit up for 33 games throughout the entire the regular season.

To make matters worse, Patrick Beverley appeared in only 56 games all year and in late March, a bum left wrist ruled him out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs, paving the way for the 37-year-old Jason Terry to act as the interim starting point guard.

Of course, it helps you get through tough times when you have a superstar like James Harden to lean on. Harden not only played some of the best basketball of his career, he finished second in MVP voting and absolutely dominated fantasy leagues with averages of 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. The leader of the team rose to the challenge and put the entire team on his back through important stretches, having as good of a year as anyone in the NBA.

Donatas Motiejunas stepped up and made a big leap in his third year, as well, averaging 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in his first full season playing a major role. Especially due to the injury woes of Howard and Jones, head coach Kevin McHale even started him in 62 games. Motiejunas proved his worth as a versatile seven-footer who produces at an efficient level (50% FG), spaces the floor (36.8% 3FG), mixes it up a little in the paint and plays the game with intelligence.

Trevor Ariza returned for his second stint in Houston, as he appeared in 72 games with the Rockets in 2009-10, and he fit in beautifully as the replacement for Chandler Parsons. Ariza may not have the same kind of offensive game, but he came at half the price and was one of the biggest difference makers for them all year on the defensive end of the floor while he both made and attempted more threes than he ever has in his career.

In late December, Josh Smith and the Pistons decided to part ways, putting him on the free agent market mid-season. Right after Christmas, the Rockets rolled the dice on the enigmatic talent and even though he didn't quite work out in Detroit, he was out to prove that he could make a difference in Houston. Josh Smith was terrific for Houston in the second half of last season, putting together a productive postseason campaign and proving to the doubters that he can still perform as a high impact player.

The bottom line is that Smith simply fit better in Houston than he did in Detroit playing out of position alongside the likes of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe on the front line, and it was clear that a change of scenery was necessary. Smith played even better as the season progressed, putting up over 13 points and just under six rebounds per game while shooting 38% from three-point territory in the playoffs.

Despite all of their health issues, Houston tallied 56 wins and locked up the second seed in the Western Conference as they exceeded everybody's expectations. Dallas was put away convincingly in the first round, as Houston took them out in five games and won three of them by double-digits.

In the Western Conference Semifinals, the improbable happened. Houston got smacked around to begin the series, losing two of the first four games by over 20 points as they found themselves down 3-1 heading back home for Game 5. Almost every time in that situation, the team down 3-1 is toast, but the resilience of last year's Rockets squad surprised everybody watching.

James Harden lead by example, as usual, in Game 5 with a triple-double effort that helped the Rockets punch the bully back with a 124-103 victory to keep their season alive. On the road out in Los Angeles in Game 6, they caught a scare but once that fourth quarter rolled around, you saw just how badly they wanted it. You also saw the Clippers completely coast and collapse, but no matter how you look at it, that fourth quarter was completely one-sided as Houston held a 40-15 scoring advantage in the frame and fought back to force a Game 7 with a 12-point win.

Game 7 was a bit of a back-and-forth battle, but Houston got off to a strong start to get things rolling and then came out of the locker room with a bang to open up the second half, ultimately earning them the advantage they needed. Harden came through with a big time 31-point performance while Dwight Howard pulled down 15 boards to complement six triples from Trevor Ariza. Chris Paul did everything he could to try to carry the Clippers home, but Houston prevailed and earned their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 1997.

Unfortunately for Houston, they had to deal with the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. Much like the Rockets did to Dallas in the first round, this one was over quickly as the Warriors took care of business 4-1. The beginning of the series was tight, as Game 1 was decided by four points while Golden State barely squeaked by with a 99-98 W in Game 2, but once they were figured out, things changed dramatically. Houston earned a 13-point win in Game 4, but suffered double-digit losses in games three and five, ending their outstanding run on a low note.

After being hit so hard with injuries, nobody expected Houston to win 56 games, let alone make a run to the Western Conference Finals. James Harden played at an absolutely jaw-dropping level and the cohesiveness in which the team operated was beautiful to watch. You didn't expect the Rockets to make that kind of run, but you certainly enjoyed watching it unfold.


Key Additions - Ty Lawson, Marcus Thornton
Key Losses - Josh Smith, Jeremy Lin, Pablo Prigioni

One thing the Rockets have needed to upgrade over the last couple of years is their point guard position. Patrick Beverley is a difference maker, especially on the defensive end of the floor, but they needed another playmaker that can break the defense down and run the show at a high level. Just before the draft, Houston pulled the trigger on a five-player deal that sent Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni and a 2016 first round pick to Denver in exchange for Ty Lawson and a 2017 second round pick.

Lawson has made headlines for the wrong reasons recently as he battles a bit of an alleged drinking problem that has multiple DUI's on record, but if he's right, there's no question this was a no-brainer move for Houston to make. Over the last four years, Lawson has accumulated averages of 16.4 points and 8.0 assists per game as he has become perhaps one of the most under-appreciated point guards in the NBA. The addition of Lawson in the backcourt alongside Harden, Beverley, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry has a great chance of becoming one of the best backcourts the league has to offer.

Patrick Beverley will no longer serve as the team's starting point guard now that Lawson is in town, but he isn't going anywhere and will be a big time weapon off the bench. Beverly re-signed with Houston on four-year, $23 million deal this summer and will provide coach McHale with a game changer in his second unit next season.

The Rockets also retained two-way swingman Corey Brewer on a three-year, $24 million deal to stick around and play a big role off the bench. Brewer has really found his niche in the NBA as a long-armed, scrappy defensive-minded wing that brings constant tenacity and can do some damage on the attack as a slasher and out in transition.

Old friend Marcus Thornton (not Boston's 2015 second round pick, the other one) found a new home in Houston, as well, agreeing to a one-year veteran's minimum deal for a chance at cracking the rotation on a winning team. He'll certainly have his work cut out for him to move up on the depth chart, but you never know who will get hurt and if there's one thing we've learned about Thornton over the years, he can really shoot the rock and he is not afraid to let it fly.

- Dwight Howard / Donatas Motiejunas
PF - Terrence Jones / Clint Capela / Montrezl Harrell
SF - Trevor Ariza / Corey Brewer / Sam Dekker / K.J. McDaniels
SG - James Harden / Jason Terry / Marcus Thornton
PG - Ty Lawson / Patrick Beverley

X-FACTOR - Ty Lawson
Patrick Beverley is one of the most tenacious perimeter defensive players in the NBA, but Lawson is on a completely different level as a creator with the ball. With a speed demon and playmaker like Lawson in the fold, the Rockets should have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league has to offer, and it will also strengthen their second unit with Beverley coming in as an energy spark and ballhawk.

If Lawson fits in well and elevates Houston's offense to another level, they could be more dangerous than they were last year and will certainly have a chance to make another deep postseason run.

As long as the core of the team is healthy, there is no reason to believe the Rockets won't have a chance to contend out west in 2016. They are coming off of an outstanding Western Conference Finals run and with their upgrade at the point guard position, there is no question that they'll have a chance to get better.

Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers will be right there with them, and Memphis isn't going anywhere either, but Houston is positioned to make a lot of noise this season.

2nd in Southwest Division
3rd in Western Conference

Additional Rockets Previews:

Answering big questions: the 2015-2016 Houston Rockets season preview - The Dream Shake

On paper, this Rockets team is as good as anyone else. They were bitten by the injury bug last year. It's not the Houston way for luck to turn around like that (our sports teams have historically stayed on one side of the luck spectrum, it seems), but it's a possibility. Who knows? Stephen Curry used to have glass ankles. Tim Duncan's cyborg motor might be approaching obsolescence and the Clippers might be too emotionally shellshocked to recover and beat the Rockets in a seven-game series. In a race this crazy, anything can happen, and the Rockets are better equipped than just about anyone to come out on top when the dust settles.

The Rockets can win the NBA title. Seriously -

I think the Rockets are being overlooked (again) and should be included in the cream of the Western Conference along with Golden State, L.A. and San Antonio. Given the nature of luck and the brutal competition, this team can win a title this year, no?

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