The Rockets sit in a bit of a precarious position as they approach the ninth year of the James Harden era in 2020-21.
Houston entered the Orlando bubble with championship expectations, only to fall short in a dispiriting five-game loss to the Lakers. And the road ahead won't get any easier. Both Los Angeles teams enter next season as leading title contenders. The Nuggets, Jazz and Warriors all sport legitimate Finals aspirations. The Western Conference is always the varsity bracket, but 2020-21 will take the competition to new heights. There are few, if any, non-playoff contenders among the 15 teams.
Houston should find itself well within the top-eight seeds in 2020-21 with a pair of MVPs leading the way. But can we really look at the Rockets as true championship contenders? It's a complex question. Houston looked like the best team in the Western Conference in brief spurts this season, sporting an electric offense and swarming defense. But that version of the Rockets was absent far too often for an extended playoff run. This is a team with true top-end talent, yet shaky depth and legitimate size problems continue to plague the roster. What can Daryl Morey do to fill out Houston's rotation in 2020-21? A difficult tightrope awaits.
We'll wait for another day to fire up the trade machine. For now, let's take a look at Houston's free-agency options. The Rockets won't be able to make a serious splash given their current cap inflexibility–two $40 million players doesn't exactly help–but there are opportunities to make a difference on the margins. Morey enters the offseason armed with a $9.3 million mid-level exception and a $3.6 million bi-annual exception, with the latter all-but-guaranteed to be used. The pair of exceptions are unlikely to land an All-Star asset, though there are plenty of quality candidates available.
Houston is likely to chase frontcourt assets in free agency given its size shortcomings. Don't expect a lumbering center to enter the rotation anytime soon, but there remains a glaring need for someone at least larger than Robert Covington. Jerami Grant would be a terrific fit given his length and flexibility, though his impressive playoffs will likely take him out of the Rockets' price range. Serge Ibaka would fill a similar need, yet cost concerns arise once again. Ibaka won't break the bank in free agency. He should still command upwards of $10 million per year, likely from Toronto if Marc Gasol does indeed depart for Spain. Both options appear more fantasy than reality for Houston at the moment.
Who else could the Rockets target outside of Grant and Ibaka? The frontcourt names should stay at the forefront. Houston could target Bismack Biyombo or Nerlens Noel if they wanted a more traditional big man, though their offensive shortcomings should be noticed. The Rockets could also eye Marcus Morris, JaMychal Green or Meyers Leonard, moves that would keep their spacing intact despite a minimal upgrade in rim protection. Dip into the bi-annual exception candidates, and the likes of Rondae-Hollis Jefferson and Solomon Hill could be of some interest. The middle tier of available free agents is deep, albeit not exactly flashy.
None of these pieces will headline Houston's roster next season. They may not even start. But there has to be some addition on the margins for the Rockets to compete for the 2021 title. Morey has found gems in the bargain bin before. He'll need to do the same ahead of next season as a new coach joins Harden and Co.