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Outlook: When I first look at this team on paper, I like what I see quite a bit. A quick glance down the roster shows me they only have three players over 25, with lots of cap space available. As a GM, almost regardless of current talent level, this is a good position to be in. The Rockets also hold the Knicks’ first round pick in the 2012 draft (protected top five, but the Knicks are not likely to be among the five worst teams in the league). If I’m in Kevin McHale’s shoes, I know that some savvy maneuvering by Daryl Morey could put the team in contention in short order.
Strengths: This team has had no problem scoring the ball, and as their central scorers (namely Kevin Martin and Luis Scola) continue to improve this doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. I can gush for days on Martin; he has thrived in Houston’s system since coming over from Sacramento, showing a huge improvement since the move in scoring, shooting percentage and 3-point-shooting percentage. He is signed through 2013 on what I believe to be a reasonable contract for him, about a $12 million annual cap hit. His defense could certainly improve (as could most of the team’s, which we’ll discuss later), but he’s a definite keeper to me. Scola is also somewhat of a liability on the defensive side, but he is effective offensively, averaging 18 and change a game plus over eight rebounds (2.0 offensively) and 2.5 assists last season, another player showing huge improvement from the previous few years.
Kyle Lowry also had a breakout year last season at point guard, with career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. His turnovers were also a tad higher, and much of this increase in production can be attributed to his move to the starter’s role, but overall he seems to be stepping up and showing he is ready to lead the team from the point on the offensive end. Goran Dragic has always been my idea of the ideal backup point guard (I loved him in Phoenix disrupting defenses while Nash rested), and the team also did well in the draft, getting Marcus Morris and Donatas Motiejunas (via trade) to add to their core of young players. This, coupled with the approximately $20 million in cap space they rate to have this season, means they could easily take a stab at improving some of their weaker positions, namely center and small forward. They have both the assets and the dollars to be able to either sign free agents or make trades, a valuable commodity in the NBA today given all the recent ridiculous spending that’s gone on.
Weaknesses: Number one on this list by a long shot is defense. While Houston was third in the league in points scored last season, they were 22nd in points allowed, at 103.7 per game. Given the current core of players this isn’t likely to improve, with Shane Battier and Yao Ming long gone. The trio of starters mentioned above is effective offensively, but ranges anywhere from lukewarm to outright terrible on the other side of the ball. They aren’t complimented by a whole lot in Chase Budinger and Chuck Hayes, although Hayes did average a steal per game last season, impressive for a center. The defense has consistently struggled during life-after-Yao, with their presence at the hoop among the worst in the NBA. They have no shot-blockers and losing Battier took away their only lockdown defender and efficient help-defender. They should hope to improve on this long-term with Patrick Patterson and the aforementioned Morris to build up, but at the moment, defense remains the number one priority to fix for Houston.
I also don’t like either Hayes or Budinger a lot on either end; although I think Budinger does have a lot of upside if he has the right leadership around him. Hayes I just downright wouldn’t want on my team. He isn’t particularly efficient on either side of the ball, is a terrible free-throw shooter (when he gets to the line, which isn’t often), and is woefully undersized for his position. His only backup is perennial underachiever Hasheem Thabeet, who I’d never trust with the starting duties on any NBA team.
Potential Moves: While it would be well within McHale’s right to make no big moves and continue down the path of building up his young guys, there are a few things I think could happen for the Rockets that would not only help them down the line, but also could make them contenders for a home playoff series this year. The first would be to bring in a little more defense, and a way to do this would be taking a run at Andrei Kirilenko. AK-47 may be past his prime as an All-Star, but he is still one of the best defending small forwards in the NBA, and doesn’t lack his moments on the offensive side either. Beyond just his ability, however, Kirilenko has 10 years’ experience in the league, more than enough to allow him to mentor Budinger, also a small forward, as well as Patterson. He is well aware he will be taking a pay cut from the outlandish $17-plus million the Jazz paid him last season, and it may be possible to get him at a bargain… the guy has got some money in the bank. The only tough thing would be luring him out of Utah, where he has already stated he is willing to stay for a large pay decrease. If McHale is willing to invest a few extra dollars, however, he will find this move would both improve his team now and in a few years when Kirilenko isn’t even playing anymore.
My second priority would be to make a change at center. Whether it involved moving Hayes or not, the position is clearly in need of a shakeup. Nene and Marc Gasol are the first names that come to mind, with Tyson Chandler also potentially available. I would love to see Houston take a big swing at any of these three, especially Nene or Chandler, who both are excellent on the defensive end. The cap hit will not be small, but as we have discussed, the Rockets have a lot of space in that area and can afford to spend. Taking on Kirilenko and Nene, just for the sake of argument, would likely fill the remaining cap space they had, although the resulting shakeup could leave them with some left over after getting rid of people to make room for them. Nene has a player option for this season in Denver while Chandler is a free-agent, so getting Chandler might be easier, but Houston should look into both without question.
I don’t entirely love Scola, but given his slightly loaded contract, I’m not sure what kind of options would really be out there for getting rid of him. Unless a very good offer were to surface, I’d go at least another year with Scola, but also attempt to get Patterson as many minutes as possible in the hope of having him develop into a starting NBA power forward. If Scola continues to improve on offense as he has recently, it may be possible for Houston to get good value out of him in a year or two if someone is willing to overpay for his scoring.
Overview: If I’m in Kevin McHale’s shoes, I like the feel of things right now in Houston. Tons of young assets coupled with cap space give a GM tons of room to maneuver, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey is no new kid on the block. Their biggest weakness is at center and on defense, and several good defensive centers are available as free agents, all of whom are well within the Rockets’ spending range. They hold two first-round picks in what promises to be a loaded 2012 draft, picks which they could use to trade for talent or even further stock their young core. As long as those in charge in Houston remain on an even keel and don’t do anything too outlandish, expect to see this team contending within the next couple years.
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