R.I.P. to the 2015 Houston Rockets. It was a hell of a ride:
- 56 Wins despite a rash of injuries.
- Champs of the NBA’s toughest division.
- An incredible comeback against the Clippers in the Western Conference semis
- An MVP caliber season from their best player.
There’s no doubt this was Houston’s best basketball team since the back to back Championships in ’94 and ’95. But the end shouldn’t feel this salty, right?
Here’s why it hurts so . . . bad. This saying: “It’s not how you start, It’s how you finish.”
There’s no shame losing to the Warriors in 5 games. They’re the NBA’s best AND deepest team. It’s just the way the Rockets lost that fifth game: with a whimper. The resilience we saw in the series against the Clippers was replaced by . . . what seemed like relief.
The end of the road is all the more frustrating when you consider this: A game 5 upset was on the table for the Rockets. And the fire was cooking.
The Warriors weren’t their typical selves Wednesday night. Steph Curry – likely dealing with right elbow issues AND maybe shaking off a concussion – wasn’t in typical shooting form (7-21 from the field, 3-11 from 3). Draymond Green (3-15 from the field, 0-5 from 3) couldn’t buy a bucket. Foul trouble held starters Andrew Bogut and Klay Thompson to just 19 and 22 minutes respectively. If there was ever an opportunity for the Rockets to beat the NBA’s best team, last night was IT. And yet . . .
With all those things going in Houston’s favor, James Harden drove them off a cliff like Toonces the driving cat. He had all the efficiency of a Hummer: shooting 2-11 from the field AND turning the ball over a playoff record 13 times. After an MVP caliber season AND 3 incredible games in the Western Conference Finals, THIS ending was both jarring and anti-climactic. Much like Tommy’s demise in Goodfellas.
That said, let’s pipe down with some of the crazy talk I’ve been seeing:
“GET RID OF HARDEN”
He was awful in game 5. And he isn’t my cup of tea. But does one horrendous game – and that awkward benching during the game 6 comeback against the Clippers – erase an entire regular season? Nope.
And who the hell are you going to replace him with? Lebron James? Steph Curry? There are maybe 3 or 4 players in the league that are better than Harden, and they ain’t going anywhere this off-season. Do you really want to go back to the days where Luis Scola was this team’s best player? Hell no.
First off, he got a three year extension in December.
Second – no matter how much his play-calling and [lack of] timeout calling may frustrate you – he did just lead a team to 56 wins (despite missing Dwight Howard for nearly half the season) AND the Western Conference Finals (without starting point guard Patrick Beverley AND key bench player Donatas Motiejunas). He’s going nowhere.
The question now? What the Rockets do this offseason.
There is no Rocket more frustrating than Josh Smith:
- He might be their most athletically gifted player
- Yet he’s somehow worse at free throws than Dwight Howard
- He’s the Rockets’ second most dangerous offensive threat
- But his consistency, shot selection and irrational confidence often leads to 5-17 (Game 2) and 3-14 (Game 5) performances.
He giveth. And he taketh away.
That said, Smith found his calling as a bench player this past season. He seemed MUCH happier playing for a contender in the Rockets after his abrupt release from the Pistons. It also seems he has a good relationship with Kevin McHale. With that in mind, Houston should try to resign him.
But will another team – a contender looking to put him in that same role – be able to lure him away?
Money isn’t a problem for Smith: Detroit owes him $5.4 million over the next five seasons. Still, there are plenty of teams that could use his talent off the bench, OR as a starter. He’s worth at least three times (around $6 M based on salaries of other NBA Sixth Men) the $2.077 M he made with the Rockets. I doubt Houston will be able to sign him again for that same price. The big question: will other teams drive his price too high in a bidding war?
Like Smith, Brewer showed that playing for a contender can bring out your best. Brewer’s high energy, scoring ability, and big play in crunch time proved his value as a role player.
Also like Smith, Brewer (who waived his player option for next season) could probably earn up to $6 M on the open market (again, based off comparing NBA Sixth Men salaries). I vote to bring him back as well.
At 37 years old and now a free agent, it’s quite possible that Terry outright retires. At this point, the only thing he brings to the table is the occasional big time three point shot. The Rockets need better defensive depth at the point guard position next year, and while his offense is still NBA worthy, he brings nothing to the table on D. Happy trails, bro.
Beverley took a step back this past season, but there’s no denying his defensive presence was sorely missed during the playoffs. The problem: the odds of his contract remaining a bargain (He made $281K, $789K, and $915K his first 3 seasons with the Rockets) are low as he enters restricted free agency.
I imagine Houston wants to bring him back. What other options do they have at point guard? Yes, there’s Spanish guard Sergio Llull (The Rockets own his NBA rights after drafting him in 2009), but there’s no guarantee he’ll come play in the United States (though the Rockets reportedly are willing to offer him a 3 year, $17 M deal). After that, the cupboard is empty.
And there lies the problem. Since he’s a restricted free agent, there’s the possibility that another team – whether interested in Beverley OR looking to drive up his price to stick it to the Rockets – will over-bid for Mr. 94. The end game in that scenario: Beverley in another uniform, or significantly less cap space for Houston.
I don’t care how many tents Matt Hammond pitches over him: the guy barely played for the Rockets. I’m totally okay with letting him walk.
Let’s Go To The . . . Shop.
The Rockets should be looking for the following in free agency:
- A consistent second scorer
- Better three point shooters
- Veteran leadership
- Point guard depth
I’ve already mentioned the possibility of Sergio Llull playing for the Rockets. But what other options will be available in free agency?
Let’s rule out the pipe dreams first. The only way LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love would join the Rockets involves complicated sign and trades. They don’t have the cap space to sign a player to a max deal. And sorry, but I’ve got zero interest wasting time with the NBA Trade Machine.
Instead, here are some realistic free agent possibilities:
1. Paul Pierce
Pierce hinted at retirement just moments after THIS shot didn’t count.
That just can’t happen. Daryl Morey should roll out the welcome wagon to get Pierce to Houston. He can shoot. He has championship experience. He still gets under the opposition’s skin. And he’s a crunch time DESTROYER.
Pierce made just over $5.5 last season. He’d be well worth that cost for the Rockets. It’s up to Daryl to convince Paul that he’d have a legitimate shot at a title in Houston.
2. C.J. Watson
Considering the Rockets led the NBA (by a wide margin) with 2,680 3 point attempts, it might help to add players who shoot at a higher percentage. Sure, Jason Terry (39%, 19th in NBA) and James Harden (37.5%, 33rd in NBA) are respectable. But the rest of the Rockets? They’re mediocre at best from outside.
Watson – a 6’2 combo guard – is a damn good shooter. Averaging just under 25 minutes a game this past season with the Pacers, he shot 40% from outside. He’s a more than capable defender as well. His weakness? He isn’t a great ball handler. But with Harden usually running the offense, that shouldn’t be a problem.
3. Mike Dunleavy
12 year veteran guard Mike Dunleavy can also stretch the court. He shot nearly 41% from outside for Chicago in ’14-’15, the 10th best mark in the league. His size – 6’9 – makes him difficult to defend.
Paul Gallant co-hosts the “B-Straw and Pauly G” show – weeknights 7-11 PM on SportsRadio 610. He also hosts SportsZone Unfiltered – Fridays at 10 PM – on The Kube: Channel 57. Get in touch with Paul via email or at his facebook page: Paul Gallant: SportsRadio610.