By: Rahat Huq
Hello all. This is Rahat. You may remember me. Well, if you're wondering where I've been, and why I went silent on Twitter following the Game 2 thriller, I got married this past Sunday. But Mrs. Red94 is asleep right now, so I have a few moments to reflect back on this season. Where to start? I can't remember the last time I was this excited about the team's prospects following a season. Maybe 2004-2005 after the Game 7 loss to Dallas? The Rockets basically gutted their entire team this past summer in a failed pursuit of big game, appeared to be punting on the season in letting Chandler Parsons walk, and ended up as the third best team in the league. Remarkable. We learned many things along the way, but our prolonged season also gave rise to many new questions looking ahead:
- The greatest development, unequivocally, was the emergence of James Harden. Before this year, I thought of Harden as a guy who was a mega-star, and among the league's very best, but still a notch below the game's transcendent talents. After his 2015 campaign, I'll be viewing him in a different light - Harden absolutely can go toe to toe with anyone in the game, and can absolutely be the best player on a championship team. At still just 25, he is going to continue to get better with age, especially as he seems very cognizant of his weaknesses. Had this been 1995 or 2005, instead of 2015, with Houston's defense, the Rockets probably win the title this year. But in this NBA, even having a singular talent like Harden does not suffice, and it will be up to Daryl Morey, again, to find pieces to surround Harden and fuel the Houston attack. Far too often, the team just had nowhere to turn when they needed a basket and James was either on the bench or struggling. That has to change to get past Golden State.
- Dwight Howard is still a beast; Dwight Howard is a complete train-wreck in the post. As Tom Haberstroh so succinctly put it in that clip, and as our own Richard Li has been reporting all year, Dwight Howard is among, or is, the very worst postup player in the league. I've been screaming for two years now that the Rockets need to abandon the notion of feeding Dwight in the post. He's incapable and far too prone to turning it over. Strangely, many of you have failed to recognize that despite the glaring evidence. As we saw, Dwight, when focused on rebounding, defense, and rolling to the rim, is a dominant, dominant force of nature. But it remains to be seen how committed he is, full-time, to that role. This is where self-awareness becomes key. The best thing Dwight can do this summer is take the time to let his body heal and...just that. Please, no more private sessions with Hakeem. This sort of enabling is damaging. Instead of being fed misplaced encouragement on how he has the potential to dominate the post, in a manner suited for a different era, I wish someone in Dwight's life would bestow some #realtalk. There's no shame in being Tyson Chandler. Was anyone besmirching Dwight's good name when he was tallying 20 rebounds and helping his team advance? No.
- With that said, Dwight will be turning 30 and concerns over his future are in no way overblown. It took sitting out half the season to even have enough in the tank for what we saw in the playoffs. If placed on a similar maintenance plan, can he provide a repeat performance? One thing is clear, the days of Dwight Howard playing 35+ minutes a night in the regular season are a thing of the past. This is where Houston should be counting its blessings that Daryl Morey appears to have struck gold again in the form of Clint Capela. A good shot-blocker, and an able finisher at the rim, Capela will allow the Rockets to run the same schemes they employ with Howard on the court. The Rockets now, going forward, need to take an approach with Dwight similar to San Antonio's handling of Tim Duncan. If the team platoons both players at around 24 minutes per game, they can preserve and prolong Howard, and fast-track Capela's development.
- The Chandler Parsons/Trevor Ariza exchange is probably the best example in recent Rockets history of the impact of defense on a team's overall output. Ariza was everything for Houston this year, helping them finally establish a defensive identity. Offensive stars are very alluring and Houston will again be tempted this summer. After the Rockets' run through the postseason, one can easily see both Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge having interest in joining the team. The Rockets certainly have a hole to fill at power forward. But at what cost? In Aldridge's case, there probably isn't a drop-off, but with Love, can a team win big with an interior defender who is that bad? More importantly, if it takes Ariza to clear the cap space to make such a deal, you're basically back at square one. Are you hoping you can fill the void just sliding in K.J. McDaniels? Maybe you can, but what about all the chemistry you built this season? Shipping out Ariza destroys that continuity. Does it even matter?
- Having said that, the prospect of pairing Love with Harden, 26 and 25 respectively, with neither reliant upon athleticism, for the next half decade, is so, so tempting. They'd be unguardable in the pick&roll, and in sets with Dwight as the roll man, Love would provide all of the spacing from the corners. You could also feed Love in the post when Harden sits. But again, is it worth it to lose Ariza?
- One thing has become clear and that is that Terrence Jones just can't be relied upon. Many of you will find this unfair, but understand that I'm not saying Donatas Motiejunas is necessarily the answer either - we just don't know. With Jones, we now have two straight postseasons where he basically crapped the bed. I'm not saying Jones is irredeemable or won't get better - please calm down. At his age, he undoubtedly will get better. I'm saying that I don't want to go into another season having to rely on Jones as the team's starter. This team, with championship aspirations, needs a more dependable solution at that position.
- And lastly, Houston must find a way to upgrade its point guard position as they closed the year out playing two 37-year-olds. A point guard playing next to James Harden would ideally have the ability to shoot, defend, and create off the dribble. Unfortunately, any player possessing those traits is probably an All-Star and thus, probably out of reach for the Rockets. If you sacrifice on defense, Ty Lawson would be a great option and would bolster Houston's already potent transition attack. If you sacrifice on the ability to create, bringing back Pat Beverley and hoping he stays healthy might be your best bet. I personally think it would be wise to let Beverley walk at this point - despite his reputation, he wasn't stopping anyone this year, and his shooting took a nosedive. Lawson is enticing, because you already got by with Terry at that position. But then you have to make sure you are rock solid up front, defensively, to cover up for him and Harden. If you can acquire Lawson for Jones and the Pelicans pick, slide Motiejunas back into the starting role, and bring back Josh Smith, while of course retaining Ariza, I think you might be better overall than you would be with a Love/Aldridge acquisition. But again, the latter scenarios are so, so tempting.
- Ultimately, despite how it ended, the Rockets are headed in the right direction. They finished as the #2 seed and a conference finalist in one of the most brutal conferences in league history, all without two of their starters. No one can take that from them.