On paper, the Houston Rockets have everything you’d want in a potential NBA champion. With speedy, play-making point guard Ty Lawson joining a rotation that already includes MVP runner-up James Harden, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, veteran 3-and-D guy Trevor Ariza and underrated power forward Terrence Jones, Houston possesses one of the best starting fives in basketball. Additionally, the team’s bench is solid with Corey Brewer, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley leading the way.
The Rockets have improved in each of the last four seasons under head coach Kevin McHale, but the time has come for the club to finally live up to its immense potential. Injuries derailed Houston’s championship hopes last season, and now the team must navigate through a Western Conference that got even tougher over the summer. The defending champion Golden State Warriors retained most of the core from last year’s 67-win team. The San Antonio Spurs brought in All-Star forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and David West in addition to re-signing Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. The Los Angeles Clippers kept DeAndre Jordan and added veteran depth with Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. Former MVP Kevin Durant will make his triumphant return to the Oklahoma City Thunder after missing most of last season with foot troubles, while the Memphis Grizzlies remain a fearsome opponent.
Luck hasn’t been on Houston’s side in recent years, but if everything breaks right, the team has the talent to hoist its first championship banner since the 1994-95 campaign.
What Happened Last Year
Houston won 56 games and made its first Conference Finals appearance in 18 years, but last season will still be remembered for what could have been. Despite not winning the league’s most prestigious individual award, Harden put together an MVP-caliber season and did the best he could to will the Rockets into the Finals. He averaged 27.4 points (second in the NBA), 7.0 assists (eighth), 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals (tied for fifth). After allowing 107 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14, he stepped up considerably and lowered his defensive rating to a career-best 103. He posted a similar stat line in the playoffs (27.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5.0 boards and 1.6 steals) but couldn’t lead the Rockets past a dominant Warriors team as Golden State took the series in five games.
Injuries plagued the Rockets throughout the season. Howard missed 41 games with a litany of damages. Beverley was in and out of the lineup due to elbow problems before going down for good in March due to torn ligaments in his wrist. Jones played in just 33 games while Montiejunas was lost for the season in April due to a back injury that still plagues him. The emphasis on Harden to carry the team culminated in The Beard finishing with the sixth-highest usage rate (31.7 percent) in the NBA. In his five previous seasons in the league, Harden never had a usage rate above 29 percent.
Injuries and fatigue weren’t the only cause for Houston’s downfall. The team committed the third-most turnovers in basketball last season, marking the third-straight year it finished in the bottom-three of that category. The Rockets also continue to develop an obsession with the deep ball. They led the league in three-point attempts for the second year in a row, which wouldn’t be as disheartening if not for the fact they only converted 34.8 percent (14th in the NBA).
The good news is the team is mostly healthy to start the season, and the addition of Lawson should allow Houston to get more creative on the offensive end.
What Happened This Summer
After bringing in Harden, Howard and Ariza in each of the last three offseasons, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made another big splash this summer by adding Lawson from the Denver Nuggets. The speedy point guard and worn out his welcome in Denver after being arrested for two DUIs in the span of seven months, which helped Morey acquire his services for the low price of four role players (Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanikolaou and Pablo Prigioni) and a first-round pick.
With all due respect to Jeremy Lin and his legions of fans, Lawson represents the Rockets’ first legitimate offensive weapon at the point guard position since the days of Steve Francis. His ability to create for himself and others will take pressure off of Harden and give Houston a capable scoring option when The Beard needs a breather. The combination of Lawson’s elite speed and Howard’s prowess around the rim should quickly make them one of the best pick-and-roll tandems in basketball.
The Rockets also added some intriguing pieces through the draft. No. 18 overall pick Sam Dekker was a key cog in the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the NCAA Tournament finals. He averaged 13.9 points and 5.5 boards as a junior last season while shooting a modest 34.9 percent from three during his collegiate career. At 6’9″, 230 pounds, he has the size to play either forward spot and could eventually fill the void left by last summer’s departure of Chandler Parsons.
Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, taken No. 32 overall, could be a potential second-round steal. He contributed 15.7 points and 9.2 rebounds for Rick Pitino’s Cardinals last season. Harrell’s a tad undersized for the power forward position at 6’8″, 235, and he’ll have to develop an outside shot to be a scorer in the pros. However, with Motiejunas still nursing a back injury and the recent rib injury suffered by Jones, the opportunity is there for Harrell to make teams pay for passing on him.
Houston rounded out its depth chart by bringing back K.J. McDaniels and Jason Terry while adding journeyman shooting guard Marcus Thornton. Beyond the four players given up in the Lawson deal, the team’s other key loss was Josh Smith, who opted to sign with the Clippers.
Obviously, the health of Harden and Howard are crucial to Houston’s title hopes, but the player to watch this year is Lawson. Given all of the baggage he comes from his stint in Denver, it will be interesting to see if he can get his act together in his new surroundings. During the summer, Harden seemed confident that Lawson’s recent stint in rehab will help turn things around for the troubled point guard and talked about what the team’s latest big addition will bring to the table.
“We’re happy to have him. He’s going to be a great addition to our team. I’ve been with him these last couple weeks. He’s more focused than ever. He has a great opportunity with a really good team to showcase his talents and help us with that push that we need.”
While the Rockets are clearly taking a gamble on Lawson, he is also taking a gamble on himself. As part of the trade, the former North Carolina Tarheel agreed to make his 2016-17 salary non-guaranteed. That means if, for any reason, this experiment doesn’t work out, the Rockets can waive Lawson and save $13.2 million. That’s a lot of incentive for the 27-year-old to make the most of his second chance in the pros.
One more tidbit: Sources say Lawson has agreed as condition of trade to make the final year of his contract — 2016-17 — non-guaranteed.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) July 20, 2015
As if there wasn’t enough pressure to succeed, Lawson made himself an even bigger target this summer by throwing darts at some of his most accomplished peers. First, he accused reigning MVP Stephen Curry of coasting on defense during the NBA Finals. He also claimed point guards who lack postseason success can’t call themselves elite, which could be taken as a subliminal dig at Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen so many good point guards in one conference at one time in the league ever. But you’ve got to win. If you want to be an elite PG in this league, you’ve got to win. You’ve got to be in the conference finals, the NBA Finals. If you’re not winning, you’ll always be a second-tier, or third-tier point guard.”
While Lawson is making headlines off the court, all eyes will be on him when he steps on the floor. The move to Houston may mean a greater shot at an NBA championship and overall success, but it also means taking a backseat from the featured role he had in Denver and sharing playmaking duties with another ball-dominant guard in Harden. The Rockets struggled in a similar situation a couple years ago when Harden and Lin shared the backcourt together. The best-case scenario is the two dynamic guards find a happy median. Worst-case scenario, this becomes another example of having too many cooks in the kitchen.
Even with injuries ravaging the roster last season, the Rockets still managed to come three wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals. With better health and the arrival of Lawson to improve an already-great offense, the opportunity is there for Houston to build on its 2014-15 performance.
However, with the injury bug already rearing its head before the season even starts, it’s tough to trust the Rockets to stay healthy enough to make their way through a stacked Western Conference. When you couple that with the club’s struggles with turning the ball over since Harden’s arrival, you get the makings of another 50-win season that will once again come up short of the ultimate goal.
Projected Record: 53-29, Eliminated in 2nd Round