Daryl Morey's reputation makes it possible that this post will become completely outdated by Opening Day. After all, consider last year's team. SlowBreak wrote an excellent state of the Rockets post last May. By August, nearly the entire team had been turned over, and I wrote another Rockets post. A little over two months later, the Rockets traded for James Harden, remodeling the team twice in one summer. Houston has assembled something like a stable, young core, but with near max cap space, and a bevy of young, tradeable assets, it is entirely possible that this team will look completely different come the autumn.
Part One: The Core
James Harden (13.7 million in 2014). Harden is a superstar. He averaged 26/5/6 with a .600 TS%, and has finished in the top 5 in the league in offensive win shares the past two years. His defense fell to embarrassing depths this year as he was forced to run the offense for almost forty minutes every night. If he improves his effort on that side of the ball, he'll cement his status as a top ten player. He is signed through 2018, and not going anywhere.
Omer Asik (8.4 million in 2014). Asik's success is another victory for the primacy of per minute statistics. A dominant per minute rebounder and defender behind Joakim Noah, Asik seized the chance to play 30 minutes a game, leading the league in total rebounds (14 per 36), and singlehandedly lifting the defense from "Kingsesque" to comfortably above average in the time he was on the floor. His much derided 3/25 contract is now looking like one of the biggest free agent bargains in recent memory. His awkwardly acrobatic layup attempts are also amusing, if somewhat frustrating for Rockets fans, who wish he would just dunk the ball.
Jeremy Lin (8.4 million in 2014). After all the hullabaloo, Lin was an exactly average NBA player in 2013, posting a PER of 14.9 (15 is average) and a WS/48 of .099 (.1 is average). Of course, "average" is quite a good for a (n essentially) sophomore point guard coming off a serious knee injury. Encouragingly, Lin improved quite a bit throughout the year, and was a ~40% 3 point shooter during the final three months of the season. There's no reason not to expect him to continue to improve over the next couple years.
Chandler Parsons (0.9 million team option in 2014). A practically perfect role player, Parsons can shoot, to the shock of those who watched him at Florida, rebound, pass, and play defense. Like several other Rockets players, Parsons' defense suffered at times this year, due to excessive gambling and increased offensive responsibility. My estimation of his "ceiling" keeps rising, but I think he has the potential to become a similar player to Hedo Turkoglu, with better defense. And how about that contract?
Patrick Beverley (0.8 million team option in 2014). My old friend! I may be overreacting here, but I do think Beverley deserves to be listed in this group. For those of you that have not seen him play, Beverley is a spark plug extraordinaire. He's an exceptional rebounder for his position, a good passer, always pushes the pace, is a really tough defender, and will hit the corner three. A very aggressive player who can play on the ball and off, he's exactly what you want from a third guard. By the end of the year, many Rockets fans were clamoring for him to start over Jeremy Lin. While I don't endorse that viewpoint, he is a valuable player that the Rockets found for nothing (mid season free agent signing from Russia). Sigh.
Part Two: The Young Power Forward Army
Remember last summer, when the Rockets had a dozen power forwards on the roster? Ironically, that is now the weak spot on the team, although there are plenty of young talented fours still on the roster.
Greg Smith (0.9 million team option in 2014). Last year, I wrote "He's tall. Put up good numbers in the D-League." This year? He's tall. Put up good numbers in the NBA. Smith is a fantastic finisher, both on the roll and on the offensive boards. His range extends about five feet from the basket, and his defensive awareness is not at a NBA level, but the undrafted free agent is a very useful player off the bench. The Rockets had a lot of success playing Asik and Smith together in the starting lineup at the end of the year, killing opponents on the boards, but that duo didn't fair as well against OKC in the playoffs. Interesting bit of trivia; Smith is the guy the Rockets kept on the roster when they initially cut Jeremy Lin. At least he's good.
Thomas Robinson (3.5 million in 2014). Robinson is a reminder that "upperclassman" does not always equal "polished". Robinson is a fantastic rebounder who struggles doing anything else. If he develops defensively, he could be a valuable role player for a long time.
Donatas Motiejunas (1.4 million in 2014.) Let me copy and paste what I wrote last year. Another almost Timberwolf, Motiejunas is a seven foot tall power forward/center-when-he-gets-older with an advanced-for-his-age back to the basket game, a sweet, if inconsistent, jump shot, and concerns about motor and rebounding. He dominated in stretches in Summer League, averaging 16-8 on 62% shooting in 25 minutes a game, which is a good sign. Like many European prospects though, especially considering how much of his value will be in learning how to play in the low post, I would expect him to take a year to get acclimated to the NBA before (possibly) breaking out in 2014. He is very skilled, and needs to get stronger to survive in the NBA. I think he will, and really like his potential.
Terrence Jones (1.6 million in 2014). He has a very Josh Smith-y game. Very athletic tweener forward who can pass, handle, and shoot a little bit, but not well enough that you want him shooting. Was very impressive in Summer League and preseason, spent a lot of time in the D-League and the injury list this year, but showed flashes towards the end of the year after Morris and Patterson were traded. The lefty isn't quite the passer Smith has become, but he has a lot of potential, especially defensively.
Royce White (1.7 million in 2014). Yeah, no.
Part Three: Flotsam & Jetsam
Carlos Delfino (3 million team option in 2014). Cabeza was encouraged to embrace his inner gunner, chucking 9 three pointers per 36 minutes, and bringing veteran influence to a team that needed it. Like Budinger, Delfino showed the importance of having a player who knows where to be and how to shoot, improving the team by 6 points/100 possessions while on the court. Injured at the end of the season, whether or not he returns depends on what Houston can accomplish in free agency.
Francsico Garcia (UFA in 2014). Houston has already declined his 6.4 million team option. The 3&D veteran was one of Houston's best players in the playoffs, and I assume they would love to bring him back to bolster the bench at or near the minimum after completing any big moves Morey might make. As a side note, Delfino & Garcia are two cheap wing options I would love to see the Wolves pursue this summer.
Aaron Brooks (2.5 million team option in 2014). He was signed as point guard insurance, and will probably be cut for cap space this summer, then resigned if the Rockets can't do anything better with that space. His value has plummeted as fast as any player I can remember.
James Anderson (0.9 million team option in 2014). A semi-useful former Spurs prospect. He looked decent in limited minutes for the first time in his career, but might be cut to wring some extra cap space out of the roster. If he is, you could do much worse for your third string shooting guard (as the Wolves know).
Tim Olbrecht (0.8 million team option in 2014). A big guy from Germany who played well in the D-League this year.
Tyler Honeycutt (0.1 million buyout in 2014, RGV). I feel sorry for him. Played under Ben Howland, then drafted by the Kings. He hasn't had the chance to show much, but I think he could be a decent wing defender and facilitator. Needs to get stronger, though.
Part Four: Draft & Stash
Sergio Llull. A talented combo guard last seen playing for Spain in the Olympics, Llull may come over in 2014 or 2015. He recently signed a new contract, and appears to be happy in Europe.
Furkan Aldemir. A rebounding beast acquired in the 2012 second round, he'll probably stay in Turkey a bit longer.
Part Five: The Future
The Rockets have one pick in the upcoming draft, #34, acquired from Phoenix in the Marcus Morris trade. They have about 41 million in contracts, counting Parsons, Beverley, and Smith's options (but not Delfino, Brooks, Anderson, Olbrecht). Assuming the cap stays around 58 million, they would need to move 3-4 million in order to sign Dwight Howard, their #1 target, to a max deal (~20.5). The most obvious route would be to trade Thomas Robinson in order to open that space. Trading Motiejunas & Jones would be another possibility. If Howard comes to Houston, do not assume that Asik will be traded. They would only need to share the court for 12-15 minutes a game, and I'm sure they will experiment with a Twin Towers approach before trading Asik. Both big men are mobile enough to be terrifying defensively (together).
If Dwight decides to take more guaranteed money to remain in LA, the Rockets have plenty of options. They could go after other free agents, including power forwards (seen as their weakest position) like Josh Smith, David West, or Paul Millsap. They could double down on small ball, and try to sign Iguodala. They could use their cap space and young players in a trade. They could also make small, one year signings, and wait for the 2014 free agent class.
The Rockets' major needs are; backup center, backup shooting guard, and starting power forward. The defense collapsed when Asik sat, and I expect them to pursue a veteran defender like Sam Dalembert on a generous one year contract if the Howard pursuit fails. They need another shot creator to take some pressure off Harden, ideally as his backup, to limit his minutes to a more reasonable ~34 a game. Finally, they need a good power forward. All of their young options showed potential, but none were able to lock down the position for thirty minutes a game. I do not expect the Rockets to begin next season with so many power forwards on the roster, so it will be interesting to see which player the coaching staff values the most. My guess is Terrence Jones, but that's only a guess showing my player evaluation biases.
The Rockets are in an enviable position, a reminder of how much can change in a year. Despite their lack of experience, they made the playoffs in a tough conference, and possess young talent locked into below market contracts for the next few years, tons of cap room, and young assets with which to improve the team. I expect them to be linked to every free agent and trade rumor over the summer, and will be fascinated to see who they decide to acquire.
Edit-Thanks to Sham Sports for all salary numbers.