The Houston Rockets finished the 2014-15 regular season with the second-best record in the West behind the MVP-caliber play of James Harden, and they advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals despite losing two notable players in Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas toward the end of the year. The Rockets wouldn’t have been favored against the Golden State Warriors even if completely healthy, but it’s fair to wonder if the series would’ve been a bit more competitive.
This season, Houston will have the chance to see if it can stay healthy and if that’ll improve the team’s chances. However, the West is getting better around them. With the Spurs adding LaMarcus Aldridge and the Thunder coming back with a hopefully healthy Kevin Durant, can the Rockets look to improve on their finish from last year? Or will they drop down a tier in the hierarchy of the Western Conference?
In addition to bringing back Motiejunas and Beverley from the injury (and Beverley was re-signed this summer), the Rockets have also brought in Ty Lawson in exchange for a protected first-round pick and a collection of bench players. Lawson was coming off a DUI arrest in July after already appearing on the way out thanks in part to the Nuggets’ selection of Emmanuel Mudiay, who plays the same position as Lawson.
Lawson’s trade value was low, and few teams wanted to take a chance on him, especially at a significant cost. Despite Denver’s need to get rid of Lawson, he was still their best player, leading the team in both scoring and assists this past season. Provided he’s able to play, the addition of Lawson to go along with Beverley and Jason Terry makes Houston much more dangerous at the point-guard position.
Beverley is an important piece for the Rockets when it comes to matching up with the other teams in the West. His tough defense was sorely missed against Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, with Curry putting up 31.2 points per game in the series against the likes of Terry and Pablo Prigioni. While Terry enjoyed a resurgence with the Rockets last year, he’s hardly my ideal choice as the first point guard off the bench, let alone the starter. Having a one-two punch of Lawson and Beverley will help fill out the depth chart and give the Rockets more of a cushion in their backcourt.
Houston has taken some losses this offseason. Josh Smith bolted to the Los Angeles Clippers for less money, and there were some useful role players sent to Denver in the Lawson trade. But the biggest hit they’ve taken has come from the West getting even stronger. While teams like the Blazers and Mavericks will likely take a step back, the rest of the top guns are set to be as good or better than last year, and there are other teams in the bottom half of the conference poised to improve.
The Rockets will be competitive and once again in the mix of the top playoff teams in the West, but it’s going to be tough to take that next step and get into the NBA Finals.