We can safely say that the Houston Rockets overachieved last season, as much as they underachieved this year.
In the NBA's world of 7-game playoff series, the cream usually rises to the top and the best team wins. So when a team reaches a Conference Finals, as Houston did last season in the brutal West, they reach an elevated strata in our minds as basketball observers. The Rockets captivated us in 2015 with the remarkable comeback from a 3-1 deficit to beat the more star-studded L.A. Clippers. It was maybe the best moment for the Rockets franchise since the back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. But let's look at it a little more closely.
The Clippers were exhausted after an emotionally and physically draining seven game war against San Antonio. A perennially frustrating player, Josh Smith, caught lightning in a bottle when he drained three triples in the amazing fourth quarter comeback in Game 6 of that series. Dwight Howard played like he found the Fountain of Youth for seven games. None of that minimizes the Rockets' accomplishment. Any team that can rally back in an elimination game from down 19 in the third quarter is special. But in the NBA, special is a fleeting state of being. After being bounced by Golden State in the Conference Finals, they had a new identity - and burden - to carry going into 2015-16.
Reaching the NBA's final four heightened expectations on this season's Rockets. Expectations bring pressure, and this group was not equipped to handle such pressure. A sort of team of misfits led by the unorthodox James Harden, the Rockets were much more at home playing spoiler, the latest turd in the Clippers' punch bowl. But as frontrunners? Nah. They coasted, and by the time they learned that a team that over-performed the previous year couldn't rest on its laurels, it was too late. They lost their first three games of the 2015-16 season by 20 points. The narrative soon became, "This team is too talented to be playing this poorly." But how talented was it really? Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Patrick Beverley - the Rockets' system demands guys like this take a ton of threes. But none are great shooters. Ariza can be solid, but he's an enigma who will play as well or as awfully as his team plays. Howard's play declined significantly and Clint Capela wasn't ready for starter minutes, or even Sixth Man minutes. That left a lot on the shoulders of Harden, who set the pace by coasting through the offseason and had to play himself into shape. Offensive Superhero Harden reemerged in December, but Passable Defender Harden never got around to showing up.
From a team psyche perspective, if the star doesn't show effort on defense, why should anyone else? Basketball players notice everything their star teammate does. "He gets to take all the shots, take all the glory and get all the press, but he refuses to get back in transition defense or even stick with his man off the ball? Plus, I don't even like that guy." It was as palpable as it was uncomfortable how little this team enjoyed playing with Harden. That's a major reason why you go from #2 seed and Western Conference Finals to .500 and a first round exit.
Harden's diagnosis: "Guys got to get better. We got to live in the gym."
He's not wrong. He just better be looking at the man in the mirror when he says that.
The fundamental question facing the Rockets going forward is, who are the optimal teammates for Harden? Before we can get to that riddle, we must first look at who won't be playing with Harden anymore. There looks to be a major sea change in this roster make-up, and oh yeah, this team still needs a head coach that can create a winning culture with Harden as the centerpiece. The following players will be free agents this summer:
Dwight Howard - He can opt out of his contract and is widely expected to do so. The marriage with Harden was a failure, after much trial and error. Neither player is a locker room leader and their passive-aggressive relationship poisoned this team. Howard is out.
Donatas Motiejunas - A 7-footer with range and a couple of post moves, the Rockets may try to re-sign him. But they already tried to move him in a trade in February, only for Detroit to renege on the deal after D-Mo failed a physical. There are probably some bruised feelings there. Plus the big man is constantly getting injured, marring his development and fit within the team.
Terrence Jones - A once-promising forward drafted by the Rockets, Jones had a sad season that contributed to Houston's decline from last year's heights. Injuries and illness allowed him to play just 50 games and he never got off the bench in the playoffs. He could use a change of scenery.
Jason Terry - At 38 years old, it's all but over for the Bi-Plane (he's no longer the Jet).
Josh Smith - The Rockets hilariously tried to recapture the magic of last postseason by bringing Smith back in a January trade. Let's just say he wasn't the missing piece.
Michael Beasley - The Super Cool Beas was also not the missing piece. Houston acquired him after the Chinese Basketball League's season concluded. He played better than he ever has in the NBA, providing instant offense off the bench. But opponents targeted him on defense, where he was a complete sieve. His -2.53 Real Plus/Minus (RPM) suggests his poor defense more than cancelled out his shooting production. Houston has a cheap team option on Beas, so they may bring him back at little risk.
Andrew Goudelock - Houston can exercise its team option on the backup combo guard. It's anyone's guess as Goudelock didn't have much opportunity this season to show what he can do.
If all or most of these players are not retained, that is a ton of minutes to replace. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. In addition to a new coach, the Rockets need an infusion of new on-court talent in order to turn things around. By making the playoffs, they lost their 2016 first round pick to Denver, so expect them to be part of all the free agency rumors. GM Daryl Morey is not shy about making major trades or throwing money at big-name free agents, regardless of team chemistry implications. There have been recent rumblings about Morey being on the hot seat if this thing doesn't get better fast. But will this force him to change his talent-over-chemistry strategy? Believe it when you see it, as old habits tend to die hard (see: Morey disciple Sam Hinkie). This reputation could hamper their coach-hiring efforts, however. Coaches want a situation they can control. Harden is already a bit of a wild card and further haphazard roster construction will continue to make this team a nightmare to coach. Just ask Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff.
There are still several good coaches available - Jeff Van Gundy, Frank Vogel, Jeff Hornacek, to name a few. Whoever the next coach is, they'll need to be able to hold players accountable on defense and clean up the turnover problem. Like everything in Houston, this all starts with Harden. In addition to his well-publicized defensive woes, Harden led the league with 4.6 turnovers a game. The team as a whole ranked 27th in turnover percentage. Combine loads of turnovers with God-awful transition defense and, voila, you get the 2015-16 Houston Rockets. Their identity in that regard needs to change as much as the roster needs adjusting. It starts with coaching but ultimately the onus is on the core players to execute.
Speaking of, beyond Harden, is there a core anymore? Barring trades, Capela, Ariza, Brewer, Beverley and K.J. McDaniels will be back. But that doesn't look like the core of a playoff team. Rookies Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell should factor in more but can't be counted on just yet. So we're back to square one - who can be brought in from the outside to join forces with Harden to form the new nucleus of the Rockets? The key phrase there is "join forces," which Harden and Howard were unable to sustain. Harden gets probably more criticism than is warranted due to his perceived moodiness, frequent turnovers and Shaqtin' a Fool-worthy defensive lapses. Let's not forget he is an offensive superstar, posting 29 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game - preposterous numbers. Plus, he's on a bargain contract compared to what he'd command on the open market. The hard part is fitting the right players around his unique game; as a 2 guard who needs the ball in his hands and relies heavily on drives to the basket he needs space, deadeye shooters to kick to and a point guard that won't sulk about low usage.
The good news is the Rockets already have that point guard in Beverley. He picks his spots offensively, deferring to Harden, while being the heart and soul of the team's defense. Finding the right wings and big man is a harder chore. But the Rockets could have as much as $47M in cap space this offseason and there are many attractive targets out there. Here's a selection of free agents that could fit next to The Beard:
Kevin Durant - They simply have to put feelers out for Durant, the kind of superstar that doesn't come around often in unrestricted free agency. However, if Durant does leave OKC, he will likely want to be the unquestioned #1 option after years of co-existing with Russell Westbrook. Though they've played together before, he could clash with this version of Harden.
Hassan Whiteside - A younger, more mobile version of what Howard was supposed to be. He doesn't need a ton of post-ups offensively and he erases mistakes made on the perimeter defensively. It will be tough to pry him from the Heat, but the Rockets need to give it a shot.
Mike Conley - If the Rockets decide Beverley is on the decline it may make sense to look at Conley. The consummate traditional point guard, Conley loves to set up teammates and he can knock down threes. He's also a strong character guy that gives effort on defense.
Chandler Parsons - It's hard to imagine Parson re-uniting with Houston and his injury issues give you pause. But he's the kind of secondary ball handler and shooter that Harden needs to play with. He scored 16.6 points per game in his last season in Houston, and his 3-point shooting has only improved since then.
Nic Batum - Coming off his best year as a pro, Batum helped transform Charlotte into a successful 3-and-D team. He'd be a definite upgrade on the wing over Ariza.
Kent Bazemore - He's having a breakout season in Atlanta, showing off his ability to get red-hot from three. He's also a willing wing defender and has the IQ to cut to open spaces when defenses collapse on a ball handler. He and Harden could be an exciting pair.
Harrison Barnes - It all depends on what Barnes is looking for. He's a restricted free agent, so the Warriors can match any offer. Does he want to remain a key part of a historically great team? Does he want to try and be "the man" somewhere else? Will he be OK with playing Harden's wingman, knocking down open threes much like he does now? We'll find out.
Ryan Anderson - He'd improve their 3-point efficiency and open things up for Harden, but his terrible defense is not a great fit for this team. They can't really hide him on D and they're looking to improve upon their poor DefRtg (21st in the league).
Marvin Williams - A low-risk option. He will shoot efficiently from three, rebound and play defense. Can play some stretch four which will be needed should D-Mo leave or get hurt again.
Ian Mahinmi - In line for his first major payday, he can help Houston defensively and on the glass (Rockets were 30th in defensive rebounding percentage). May clog the lane too much on offense to make a ton of sense playing next to Harden. On the other hand, he could get a ton of alley-oops.
Mirza Teletovic - A 6'9" power forward with 3-point range. He'll be on a lot of teams' radar as the league searches for floor-spacing 4's.
To have a successful summer - especially without a first round pick - the Rockets need to nab at least two of these guys, which they could likely fit in their cap. Free agency is going to be insane with the inflated salary cap, so it's extremely hard to predict who will land where and for how much. But it's plausible Houston could sign Whiteside and one of the top wings (Barnes/Bazemore/Batum/Parsons) and truly reinvent themselves under a new head coach. Or something like: Conley, Mahinmi, Marvin would be a vast improvement.
We'll see what Morey chooses to emphasize this offseason, with cap space galore, a head coaching decision and possible trades up his sleeve. The hope is he's learned that when Harden is your focal point, chemistry on and off the court really does matter.