A nightmarish thirteen turnover performance for MVP runner-up James Harden in an elimination game should not cause fans to overlook a fantastic season for the Houston Rockets.
If I told you their two best defensive players (Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley) would miss a combined 67 games in the regular season and their starting power forward (Terrence Jones) would miss another 49, you probably would have predicted this team having to struggle for a playoff spot. Or even miss it altogether.
Instead, they won 56 games in a brutal western conference without arguably the two best defensive players at their position and were one of the final four teams left standing in the NBA this season.
With a 25-year old James Harden locked up for three more seasons at a discounted total of $50.1 million and a head coach in Kevin McHale who made the adjustments of the playoffs in their semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers, leading the way for presumably the next few years together, Rockets fans have every reason to be excited about the immediate future of the organization.
First let’s take a look at who Houston will have on their salary cap next season according to HoopsHype:
- Dwight Howard – $22.3 million
- James Harden – $15.7 million
- Trevor Ariza – $8.2 million
- Corey Brewer – $4.9 million (player option)
- Kostas Papanikolaou – $4.8 million (team option)
- Terrence Jones – $2.4 million
- Donatas Motiejunas – $2.2 million
- Pablo Prigioni – $1.7 million
- Clint Capela – $1.2 million
- Patrick Beverley – $1.1 million (qualifying offer)
- K.J. McDaniels – $1.04 million (qualifying offer)
- Joey Dorsey – $1.01 million
- Nick Johnson – $845 thousand
If Corey Brewer picks up his player option for next season Houston’s cap number will sit at $60.7 million and that doesn’t include the team option pending on Kostas Papanikolaou or the qualifying offers for both Beverley and K.J. McDaniels.
Clearly the biggest need for Houston is their lack of defense and not having Patrick Beverley in the playoffs was a huge blow for this team. In the regular season the Rockets allowed 100.5 points per game – good for 15th in the NBA – and with their ability to score that was more than enough to help win plenty of ballgames.
But in the playoffs without Beverley? A whopping 110.6 points allowed per contest. Coming in at 15 out of 16 teams in the postseason.
Numbers like that are good enough to get by a team like the Dallas Mavericks who were falling apart at the seams but the run should have stopped there. Houston was fortunate to see the Clippers decide to have their biggest choke in franchise history. With some credit to Kevin McHale’s coaching in game six of course.
But you can’t beat teams like the Golden State Warriors with that type of defense. Especially in a league where the point guard position is possibly the best it’s ever been, guys like Beverley are all-the-more valuable today.
He’s also a perfect sidekick to James Harden. Considering how much Harden dominates the ball he doesn’t need a true point guard, but with the way he plays defense he sure as heck needs someone on his side that can defend. Beverley is a restricted free agent this off-season and while I’m sure there will be several teams interested in his services, I can’t imagine him going for more than seven million in year one. Even if Brewer accepts his player option the Rockets should be able to squeeze Beverley under the cap.
One wild card for Houston going forward is guard K.J. McDaniels, who General Manager Daryl Morey completely stole from Philadelphia last season in a trade for Isaiah Canaan and a 2015 second-round pick.
The Rockets have a qualifying offer on McDaniels which no doubt they will extend. He may get some intrigue on the market as a restricted free agent but likely none too rich for Houston to reconsider matching. K.J. is an athletic freak with the highest of ceilings and he showed some of that over a short span in Philadelphia last season when he posted averages of 13.0 points, 8.0 rebound, 1.3 steals and 2.2 blocks over 32.8 minutes during a six-game stretch early in the season.
He of course isn’t ready to produce those numbers on a consistent basis quite yet. McDaniels is a raw talent who can jump out of the gym and shoots a ton of threes but isn’t that a good shooter just yet.
Even if they don’t have enough space under the salary cap to land another big free agent this off-season I don’t think anyone would rule out Daryl Morey from at least attempting. After all, he somehow got two teams to take on Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin last July to free up money to chase after Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
A player like Kevin Love or Paull Millsap would be an excellent fit in Houston’s offense. Having a stretch-four that wouldn’t interfere so much in the low-post next to Howard and provide Harden with a legitimate second scorer could do wonders for this team.
But how can they manage?
Well, their best bet would be if Corey Brewer decided to reject his player option and seek a multi-year deal on the market. That would leave themselves with approximately $11.3 million in cap space. Then if the Rockets deal both Terrence Jones and Pablo Prigioni for future draft picks that would open up another $4.4 million and give Houston $15.7 million available to spend on one of those guys. At that point there would likely have to be some convincing to either Love, Millsap or even a LaMarcus Aldridge to take a lesser two-year deal with a player option and be eligible for a bigger contract when the cap shoots up to $89 million in 2016-17.
That would also mean not picking up the team option on Papanikolaou and more than likely not being able to re-sign Beverley unless he takes a discount.
Whether or not the Rockets are able to bring back Beverley, they should still target a point guard in the NBA Draft. Jason Terry is a free agent and Pablo Prigioni is 38 years old so they’ll need some depth at the position.
Thanks to the New Orleans Pelicans for dealing a first-round pick in 2015 for Asik, the Rockets have the 18th pick in this year’s draft and Jerian Grant of Notre Dame is projected to go in the 15-20 range.
Grant is the rare senior entering the draft but that shouldn’t discount his NBA appeal. He has great size for the position at six-foot-five and is an exceptional athlete. He showed great leadership during Notre Dame’s tournament run and earned First-Team All-American honors. Grant is part of a basketball family, son of Harvey Grant and Nephew of Horace Grant. His brother, Jerami, currently plays for the 76ers so they’d be getting a kid that knows what to expect from the NBA life which could pay dividends.
Though Morey shouldn’t be counted out, I don’t see the Rockets being able to lure in a big name player like that this July, but it doesn’t mean this team can’t contend again next season. Retaining Beverley and going to battle with the same roster in hopes of it actually staying healthy this time is a perfectly fine approach. One that could land them back in the top two or three in their conference again.
And who knows, maybe when the cap shoots up another $22 million next off-season Harden’s old buddy in Oklahoma City decides to join forces in Houston.
After all, Kevin Durant did play college basketball at the University of Texas so that scenario can’t be completely ruled out.
Featured image: espn.com