The Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs in dramatic fashion on Friday, when Damian Lillard’s incredible three splashed home at the buzzer to allow the Blazers to advance.
But Houston being ousted in the first round was no miracle. The Western Conference is as deep as ever, and Portland was simply a terrible matchup for the Rockets. LaMarcus Aldridge was too nimble and successful in the mid-range for Dwight Howard and Omer Asik to deal with, and the guard play of Lillard and Wes Matthews throughout the series — in terms of both quickness and shooting ability — was too much for Houston’s weak perimeter defense to deal with.
None of that makes being bounced in the first round any easier to accept, however, and the first season where Howard and Harden were paired to contend for a title will undoubtedly go down as a disappointment.
So, where does Houston go from here?
Target another big star via trade or free agency: Carmelo Anthony is the highest profile free agent on the market, but is more scoring really what Houston needs? The offense was rarely the problem this year, as the Rockets finished fourth in the league per 100 possessions. There is something to be said for simply outscoring people, however, and Anthony would certainly help if that’s the way Houston wants to go.
There’s Kevin Love to discuss, too, but it remains unlikely that Minnesota would trade him unless he essentially demands it by deciding well ahead of time he won’t be re-signing once his contract is up at the end of next season. ESPN’s Marc Stein also reports that Houston’s GM will revisit Rajon Rondo’s availability in a trade with the Celtics, just in case Boston decides to go in a different direction.
Does Kevin McHale return as head coach? McHale technically isn’t under contract yet for next season, but he has an option for one more year that the Rockets are able to pick up. Being one of the greatest low post players to ever play the game, McHale is a natural choice to remain on to continue to work with Howard on developing his offensive game. But when a team underachieves, everyone’s job is in jeopardy, and McHale’s is no different.
Anytime you look to replace a decent head coach, you better have some options in mind that will make things significantly better. Depending what happens to the roster, McHale seems likely to return — but it’s far from guaranteed until his contract for next season is in place.
Upgrading from Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik: Asik was on the trading block earlier in the year, due to a combination of his unhappiness with a reduced role and the team realizing that the fit wasn’t the best with Howard now in place. But Houston’s asking price remained high, so Asik played out the season.
It’ll be even more difficult to trade him this summer, and the same goes for Lin, thanks to the way their contracts are structured. And because of that, Houston may have to part with an additional asset in order to get something done.
From Marc Stein of ESPN.com:
Teams are likewise said to be telling the Rockets all the time, when Morey is shopping either Asik or Lin, that it will also cost you Parsons if you’re expecting us to take on one of those infamous balloon payments scheduled to lift both Asik and Lin to the brink of $15 million in annual salary next season … albeit with a salary-cap number of just $8.4 million.
Parsons is not someone Houston wants to lose, so it’ll be interesting to see how, exactly, the Rockets go about overhauling the roster. They need to improve a defense that was ranked just 12th this season, while providing enough of an upgrade around Harden and Howard to help the franchise reach its championship aspirations.
There are more questions in Houston than answers right now, which should certainly make for a fascinating summer.