After being dismantled by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals 4 games to 1, the Houston Rockets enter the off-season with the aim to return next season a stronger team and a contender once again for the Western Conference crown.
The Rockets return their two stars in MVP-candidate James Harden and Dwight Howard. Howard struggled with injury all last season but remains a very good, not great, center.
The Rockets have five free agents this off-season they must address: Patrick Beverly, K.J. McDaniels, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, and Jason Terry. The Rockets would probably like to return all five players but that's predicated on how they can squeeze the salary cap. The Rockets also hold two picks, the 18th and 32nd overall, in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Outlined below are three steps for the Rockets to put themselves in position to have a better chance at claiming the Western Conference championship.
Re-sign Josh Smith: Forward Josh Smith is a free agent and is almost a "must-sign" for the Rockets. Smith signed with the Rockets during the season after being exiled from the Detroit Pistons with two years and $26 million left on his contract. Smith was woeful with the Pistons after he signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the team in 2013.
Smith played exceptionally well for the Rockets in the playoffs; averaging 13.5 points per game, good for third best on the team despite only averaging 23 minutes per game. Smith, not Trevor Ariza, is the third piece the Rockets need. Smith is a 6'9 combo forward with immense versatility and talent, and not yet 30 years old. Detroit gave Smith franchise player money but he's not that, and with the Rockets he doesn't have the pressure to be. A contract similar to the four-year, $32 million deal the Rockets signed Ariza to seems logical.
Build the Bench thru Free Agency: Besides Josh Smith, the Rockets got little production from their bench in the postseason. While injuries beset many of the Rockets’ role players, they must model themselves after the 10-man rotations of the Warriors, Hawks and Cavaliers to get over the proverbial “hump”.
Dwight Howard battled injuries all season long and finding a suitable backup center should be a priority. Backup center Joey Dorsey, who eerily resembles Howard, is 31 years old and Clint Capela doesn’t seem to be an effective backup. Free agent centers Kosta Koufos, Jason Smith and Cole Aldrich are all options.
Assuming Josh Smith becomes a starter, the Rockets need to find some offense from their reserves. There are a number of free agents available this off-season that would bolster the Rockets' bench including Gary Neal, Marcus Thornton and Marco Belinelli.
Draft a Point Guard: The Rockets hold the 18th overall pick and the 32nd overall pick (2nd pick of the 2nd round) in the upcoming draft. Their priority should be to draft a point guard. Harden is an exceptional offensive player, one of the league's best. But he handles the ball too much. He's a natural shooting guard but lack of quality play at the point has forced him to become the primary ball handler.
Patrick Beverley, Pablo Prigioni and Jason Terry are all free agents. Injuries continue to plague Beverley whom has yet to play a full 82 game season. However, Beverly is a good defender and only turns 27 this summer. He's worth the Rockets re-signing on a short term deal. Terry will be 38 at the start of next season so if he returns it's likely on a year deal. Prigioni recently turned 38 and his lack of output in the postseason probably marks his end with the Rockets. The Rockets need to find their point guard of the future.
The 2015 NBA Draft will present the Rockets with options at the point guard position. Point guard options at the 18th pick are Duke’s Tyus Jones, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, Utah’s Delon Wright and Murray State’s Cameron Payne.
All four options could be groomed for the starting role but Delon Wright is possibly the best fit for the Rockets. The 6’5 point guard averaged 14.5 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.9 rpg and 2.1 spg last season and won the 2015 Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the top men's collegiate point guard. Wright is polished, having played two years of junior college basketball before two years at Utah. His exceptional defense would be a lift for a Rockets team that was mediocre on defense during the regular season. With Wright, the Rockets would be getting a player ready to contribute immediately.
Photos courtesy of chron.com, ibtimes.com, and examiner.com.