As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues today with the Houston Rockets, who were sent home for the summer by the Golden State Warriors last week.
A year ago, the Houston Rockets were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and gave the eventual champion Golden State Warriors plenty of trouble in the Western Conference Finals – winning one game and having chances at two others. In short, things looked promising for the Rockets moving forward.
Then this season happened. Coach Kevin McHale was fired after a 4-7 start. James Harden, a deserved runner-up to Stephen Curry in MVP voting in 2015, regressed to his prior comical effort levels defensively, and he and Dwight Howard openly feuded throughout the year.
Houston, despite having virtually the same team as last year, needed all 82 games to scrape their way into the eighth and final playoff seed in an inferior Western Conference. After getting into the playoffs, they were promptly obliterated by those same Warriors they challenged in 2015, getting one win without Stephen Curry but then getting outscored by 60 points over the final six quarters of the series.
Now the Rockets head into a summer filled with plenty of uncertainty, including finding a new coach and trying to find a replacement for Howard as a second star to pair with Harden.
2016 draft picks
First round: None.
Second round: Their own, New York’s.
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $92 million cap)
$22.1 million (Eight players for $45.6 million; $1.1 million for two picks; $23.2 million player option for Dwight Howard). Doesn’t include non-guaranteed contracts for Michael Beasley and Andrew Goudelock.
2016 free agents
PG Jason Terry, PF Josh Smith, PF Donatas Motiejunas, PF Terrence Jones
Five questions to answer
1. Who will be this team’s next coach?
After watching the Rockets implode this season, this much is clear: whoever Houston hires, that coach needs to have the ability to discipline Harden, and hold him accountable – particularly on defense.
The expectation of many around the NBA is that the next coach of the Rockets will be a prior one – ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. It likely will take someone of Van Gundy’s stature to have the gravitas to take on Harden’s massive personality in Houston’s locker room.
Whether Van Gundy is the next coach or not, Houston needs a new culture. Things spiraled badly this season, and need to get reined back in if the Rockets are to start back up the Western Conference ladder.
2. What’s next for Dwight Howard?
Howard’s three-year tenure in Houston is almost certainly going to come to an end. After feuding with Harden and being involved in trade talks at the deadline in February, the expectation of virtually everyone around the NBA is that Howard will opt out of the final year of his contract with the Rockets and test free agency.
That’s when the fun will begin. There is nothing close to a consensus on what Howard will get in free agency, and what options he might consider. Teams like Portland, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Dallas and even his original one, Orlando, have all been considered potential landing spots for him.
Even though he’s begun to break down with injuries, he’s proven to be a player that can turn it up in the postseason. His free agency will be one of the more fascinating story lines to watch in July.
3. Can James Harden mature as a leader?
James Harden has been happy to accept all the trappings that come with being an NBA superstar. But, as this season progressed, he showed he wasn’t willing to do the other things necessary to warrant that title.
Harden’s defense was awful, and it’s hard to watch the clip of him hitting the game-winning shot at the end of Game 3 of Houston’s first-round series with Golden State — only to cut to the bench and see half the team not celebrating — and not think this group hated playing together.
Is that all Harden’s fault? No. But if you’re going to be the leader of the team, that comes with responsibilities, and consequences if those responsibilities aren’t carried out. The blame for this disastrous season is going to be placed on Harden; how will he respond to that?
4. What will happen with Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas?
Houston entered the season with two talented power forwards that seemed like potential long-term fits with the franchise. They left it with two power forwards who were mostly non-factors, and who will enter restricted free agency with plenty of questions about their futures.
Motiejunas was nearly traded to Detroit, only to have the deal voided because of issues related to prior back injuries. Jones, on the other hand, only played in 50 games, basically stopped playing in March, and will be an interesting free agent this summer.
How much both of them will get in free agency will likely impact whether Houston keeps them or lets them go. Both could prove to be undervalued assets, or both could prove to be overpays. But with the amount of money available, expect teams to take long looks at both of them.
5. Can Clint Capela produce in a starting role?
With Howard almost certainly set to leave in free agency, Capela will likely step into his place as Houston’s starting center.
Capela, who won’t turn 22 until March, is an intriguing talent. He averaged 7.0 points and 6.4 rebounds in less than 20 minutes a game this season and has the athleticism to be a strong option for Houston as a roll-man in pick-and-roll situations with Harden.
Like Howard, he can’t shoot – he was a 38 percent free throw shooter – but with the possibility for Hack-A-Shaq rule changes next season, that might not matter as much. And with a cheap contract he could provide Houston with starter-level play while helping add cap flexibility for the Rockets moving forward.
More in our NBA Postmortem series