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We’ve Only Just Begun

The curtain has finally closed on the strangest, most exciting Houston Rockets season in years. All the games have been played, all the scores tallied. The Rockets weren’t able to pull off a historic upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, losing at home in a wild game six. They might not have broken out of the first round of the playoffs, but they broke out of the three year funk they had been mired in. This season might be over for Houston, but this team is just getting started.

Every longtime Rockets diehard and newly minted fan watched with sorrow as the Thunder turned the Tables on the Rockets in the fourth quarter of game six. The Thunder grabbed not just a win, but the right to leave the first round of the NBA playoffs and face off against the Memphis Grizzlies, Houston’s Southwest Division rival, leaving Houston to tidy up the Toyota Center. Just like 29 other teams, the Rockets’ season ended on a loss, and nobody can argue that’s an enjoyable finale. A double digit lead evaporated into a double digit deficit in just a few scant minutes, slamming the door in the face of a near-historic run by the Rockets.

But now that the dust has cleared and the second round is upon the 8 teams left standing, The Rockets and their followers have a chance to take a deep breath and look at what lies ahead. With all expectations surpassed, all predictions shattered and a great many heads turned, this isn’t an ending for Houston. The Rockets have only closed the prologue of what promises to be a long and exciting story for this new era of the franchise.

As the playoffs continue in the coming weeks, Houston transitions into the second most exciting time of the year for this team: free agency. Somehow, despite being in every trade and signing conversation last summer, despite actually pulling off the biggest trades of both the off season and the trade deadline, the Rockets are still in position to have their most important free agency period in years. While it may simply be posturing and pretense, players like Dwight Howard have changed their tune on Houston, now citing it as a prime location, while previously avoiding the city at all costs. With New York, Los Angeles, and Miami sporting five teams overflowing with team salary, the markets that free agents flock to are unavailable. The two biggest markets with room to spare are both in Texas, and for the first time in ages, Houston actually looks closer to a championship than Dallas.

Of course, having James Harden, dream team 2012 member doesn’t hurt either. He’s openly stated that he’s going to be stumping for Houston this summer, and it won’t be surprising if someone listens. The Lakers and Clippers sport the two biggest names on the market this summer in Dwight Howard and Chris Paul respectively. Neither team performed any better than the Rockets did, both losing out convincingly in the first round of the playoffs. While the chances (and money) suggest that both will remain with their teams, seeing Harden, Parsons, Lin, Aşık and (impressively) Beverley push the Thunder can only help Houston’s case.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey finally has that first star in Harden, and it’s only going to make him more bold. Don’t be surprised to see a blockbuster signing or a blockbuster trade bring a big name to Harden’s side. And even after any giant transactions, this is the time of year when Morey rewards the hardcore hoopheads with endless small, smart trades. Morey’s penchant for bench tweaks and savvy drafting should provide intrigue over a long, hot summer. Don’t cry for any fan favorite players Houston might lose; Rockets management always finds a way to bring in a new unsung hero to the fold.

And once the sawdust and debris are cleared out this summer, there will be an even newer, even better Rockets team ready to take the stage in coming years. With no moves at all, this team and its young core can only improve, and Houston won’t make any moves that won’t improve the team. The Rockets are ahead of schedule, and ready to start shooting for the stars immediately. The Thunder didn’t end the Rockets in game 6. They just gave them an opportunity to really get started.

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