Here's a look at what's in store for the Rockets this offseason after their first-round loss to the Thunder.
• What's the biggest priority for Houston this offseason?
I'll split the question and choose two: building out the offense and steadily improving the perimeter defense.
The Rockets are in great shape after sprinting ahead of the developmental curve, but there's still much to be done -- on both the coaching and personnel fronts -- before this bunch is ready to really challenge a high-level team in the postseason. Coach Kevin McHale did a magnificent job of providing Houston with clear offensive goals and the freedom to pursue them consistently, but a full offseason and training camp will give him the opportunity to aid this free-flowing team with more structure. James Harden can create a ton of offense and draw multiple defenders on most possessions, but even his off-the-dribble gravity doesn't fulfill the need for greater half-court stability. A big free-agent addition could help considerably in that regard as well, and Houston will have cap space aplenty to shop for one.
Beyond that, the Rockets were an average defensive team, largely because of their perimeter shortcomings. Jeremy Lin isn't quite quick enough laterally to keep many of the top point guards in front of him, but he can make gains in the way he funnels that penetration and maximizes his knack for picking up steals. Harden had a pretty disinterested defensive season in most respects, but building an offensive system that alleviates some of his playmaking burden should at the very least better allow him to conserve some energy for the defensive end. Chandler Parsons is easily the most promising defender of the three perimeter starters, but even he is guilty of some of the lapses and errors typical among young players.
Internal improvement among those developing, big-minutes players and a revision of the team's defensive principles will help -- as will finding a more stable choice to round out the starting lineup alongside center Omer Asik. I'd suspect that general manager Daryl Morey isn't above bolstering his roster at any position, but the power forward slot is the most pressing need and has been in flux since Houston dealt Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris at the trade deadline. Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and even Carlos Delfino have had their chances in that role, while Thomas Robinson played limited minutes after being acquired from Sacramento for Patterson. The acquisition of another every-night big man -- particularly one who functions as a reliable help defender and possesses some scoring range -- would help sustain Houston's momentum.
• How can the Rockets improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
The trade options will be there for a team with so many young pieces, and the Rockets are also set up to work the free-agent market because of their cap flexibility. (Houston does not have a first-round pick.) The Rockets will be suitors for the likes of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, though they would have to do some minor maneuvering with nonguaranteed contracts and smaller assets to create the space necessary to sign Howard. That much should prove relatively simple if Morey can indeed coax the star center to come to Houston, but early reports point to Howard's remaining with the Lakers. Howard's incumbent team will be able to offer him the most while satisfying many of the extracurriculars (prestige franchise, Los Angeles in general, massive candy shops to satisfy his sweet tooth) likely to be on his agenda. The Rockets are hardly the favorite despite being a great basketball fit.
The options beyond Howard each come with their own snags. Smith is an amazingly talented player, but the Rockets may not be comfortable paying him his desired wage, much less deciding to rely so heavily on a characteristically inconsistent player. In theory, Smith's skill set lines up with much of what the Rockets need -- help defense, versatile offense, passing and rebounding. But he has enough bad habits to make any team think twice before signing him. Utah's Paul Millsap could prove to be the safer choice as a free-agent power forward. But he's struggled to create offense on his own the last few seasons and is nothing more than a solid defender in the right matchups.
As for the rest of the free-agent market: Andrew Bynum is a 7-foot red flag; Jazz big man Al Jefferson may be the worst fit possible because of his defensive deficiencies; guards Monta Ellis of Milwaukee and O.J. Mayo of Dallas are redundant; and many of the other options are either negligible upgrades or a bit too old for Houston's competitive timetable. All of which brings us to yet another question ...
• Should Houston use its cap space on a significant addition this summer or wait for next year?
With teams like the Rockets, there's an understandable push among fans to get better as quickly as possible -- to take early gains and attempt to fulfill potential immediately. But Houston's financial outlook has been so cleanly managed that the Rockets would be in a similar position a season from now if they choose to make only temporary or marginal additions. If they opt for that approach, the Rockets could be rewarded for their patience by making a big splash in 2014.
The Rockets should absolutely pursue signing Howard this summer. (Also on the table: Using cap space to facilitate a potential trade. Free agency is the most straightforward option, but hardly the only one.) But if that chase fails, the Rockets could well wait for the summer of 2014 -- and a potentially fruitful free-agent class -- rather than commit to one of those aforementioned consolation players. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony will all have the option to become free agents in 2014, and beyond them Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Danny Granger, Luol Deng and Paul Pierce will hit the open market. Not all of those options are superior to the idea of signing Smith, for example, but they may make more financial sense for a team that will soon need to sign Parsons (who is on the books for a combined $1.9 million the next two seasons) to a fair deal and potentially re-sign Lin and Asik (who both have two years left on their deals). Houston has no need to commit to a questionable player such as Smith, Millsap or Bynum out of desperation this summer. The Rockets have the luxury of surveying their options and seeing what makes sense, all while reserving the right to table the decision until next offseason.