HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – When the time finally expired during the Rockets regular-season finale win over New Orleans on Thursday night, there had to be a sigh of relief that a disappointing end to a once promising season was over.
Now comes the real work as lots of hours get poured into assessing for the next several weeks how the Rockets spiraled into their third straight playoff-less season and more important how to change the franchises’ fortunes going forward. The reality of failure has a way of providing a lasting sting.
“We had one goal which was to make the playoffs and we didn’t do it. That’s the bottom line,” said first-year Rockets coach Kevin McHale, whose team finished 34-32. “We didn’t have a successful season now everybody has got to figure out what we can all do to get better. We are going to have to look at everything we put in offensively and defensively, how many things really fit and how many things we have to modify. “
But well before getting to the point of modifying schemes there are a mountain of pressing roster issues that are sure to bring an offseason of change for the Rockets. The questions are how much change is necessary and how successful can the Rockets really expect to be if it keeps this core group, which lacks any true star power, together for another season?
The reality is there are no easy answers as the Rockets head into the offseason knowing change either internally and most likely from the outside is going to be necessary to break into the postseason. Don’t expect much help to come through the draft where the Rockets are again picking 14th in the first round and will have the New York Knicks mid first-round selection, too, in June.
“We have to make the playoffs, but you always have to add talent. That’s just the way this league is,” McHale said. “And then you have to develop the guys you have. Chandler Parsons has got to be a better player. Goran (Dragic) has got to be a bit better, Chase (Budinger) has got to be, Patrick Patterson has got to have a year where he is healthy this summer where he can get a good summer workout. You develop from within and then hopefully you add pieces that mesh. But we’ve got to get better.
“The bottom line is we have to get better and the easiest way to get better is from within. The most sexy way is we go sign player X, Y or Z. But there is one of them and there are 15 teams to trying to get him. The unsexy way to improve is from within and with hard work.”
But that is much easier said than done with the roster uncertainty the Rockets face as they head into this offseason. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and McHale head into this earlier-than-expected offseason with some major decisions to make that will shape this franchise and its playoff viability for the next five to seven seasons.
We thought a couple months ago that toughest decisions would be do the Rockets trade one-dimensional star Kevin Martin and do they fight off teams to retain the rights to unrestricted free agent shooting guard Courtney Lee this summer?
But after an ill-timed illness to point guard Kyle Lowry and the evolution of Dragic in his place has now created an even bigger dilemma for the Rockets brass this offseason. Dragic has clearly played his way into becoming one of the most coveted point guard free agents with Portland and Toronto already in line for his services.
Now the Rockets must decide do they keep a kid who looks like he could be a real star in the making or stick with the established commodity they have in Lowry? Both players say they want to remain in Houston but the option of keeping both, due to the price tag and the desire of both to be starters, is unrealistic.
“I want to be a starter and that’s my goal and I am working hard for that,” Dragic, who took over as the starter when Lowry was sideline for over a month with a bacterial infection in early March. “But I am still a Houston Rocket right now. I’m going to go home, talk to my family a little and talk to my agent and see what’s going to be best for me and of course that is to play a lot of minutes.”
There will be a lot of that going on both sides this offseason as the Rockets obviously have to assess what is best for the franchise going forward. Their decision to start the NBA lockout-shortened season by attempt to trade Luis Scola, Martin and Dragic is a strong indication Morey isn’t afraid to remake the roster for the chance to land the right superstar.
But now instead of moving Dragic and Scola, the decision could be trading Martin and Lowry and perhaps not matching a qualifying offer for Lee. The players seem to understand now more than ever that anything is possible this offseason.
“I’ve been here for two years, I love it here,” Lee said. “But we all know the NBA is a business and things change overnight so … Wherever I go I will make the most of it and I will be happy there.”
Martin, who missed the last 24 games with a strained right shoulder, doesn’t seem to have much of a preference of staying or moving on. There has been lots of speculation this season that the Rockets leading scorer and best shooter never quite bought into McHale’s system.
“I just want to be in the NBA playing basketball,” Martin said when asked about his preference to remain with the Rockets. “That’s the beauty of everything.”
Certainly much of that could just be the frustration of a season that didn’t end the way most expected. The Rockets seemed primed to making a playoff push a recently as two weeks prior to the season ending, but a stunning collapse at the end which including losing 7 of the final 9 games after moving to 32-25 which derailed their postseason plans.
“I view it as everybody is frustrated we didn’t make the playoffs,” Martin said. “I felt like we had a better team than last year so there is no reason we shouldn’t have been in the playoffs or finished with a better record than last year because our team was better this year.”
The frustrating was clearly shared by McHale, who since December had made known his belief this roster was good enough to make the playoffs. That was supposed to be the first step in the remaking of the Rockets.
“The frustrating part is we didn’t finish the season off the way we needed to to get into the playoffs,” he said. “We should be practicing and being excited about playing in playoff series and feeling what that is like and feel the heat of going against one of the top seeds in their building. That’s how you get better. You can talk about that but until you go do that… There is no experience like actually doing it.”