After winning game one of their second round matchup vs. the Lakers, the Rockets went on to lose the next four games in the series and have been eliminated from the NBA playoffs. The underwhelming playoff run brings me to the question, where do they go from here?
The Rockets went all in on their small-ball lineup when they traded Clint Capela at the 2020 trade deadline. During the regular season, it seemed like it was working. Russell Westbrook was benefiting greatly from the open lane to the basket. It looked like the Rockets found a great way to get Russ involved in their offense, but when playoff time came around, it was a different story.
Although there are some positives such as an open lane for Russ, mostly shooters all around him, and the ability to abuse other teams bigs on the perimeter, there are some major flaws to small-ball. Rebounding and scoring in the paint are some of those flaws. With the Rockets tallest player on the court being 6’ 7” or 6’ 8” usually, they would get outrebounded on a nearly nightly basis. Scoring inside became a big problem for the Rockets. Although threes are greater than twos, I think the Rockets took that a bit too much to heart. Yeah, they have some great shooters on their team, but shooting so many threes can lead to many inconsistent performances. The lack of consistent scoring inside really gives the Rockets this streaky style of play and will allow them to have some great games, but it also will result in some poor ones as well. I think there are two things that the Rockets need to do to become a real championship contender. The first being they need to get a traditional sized Center, and the second being they need to develop more of an inside and mid-range scoring game.
I think a traditional sized Center that can space the floor will help take the Rockets to the next level. With a Center that can space the floor, you still have the option to leave the lane open for Russ to drive, and you still give him the option to kick it out for a three. On defense, you won’t get dominated on the glass, and you will be able to hold your own against other bigs. Now the question is, who is that Center?
Here are a few stretch bigs that I have in mind that I think are reasonable for the Rockets to acquire. The first is Aron Baynes. Baynes is a free agent this year, and he will not demand a lot of money. Baynes is a solid three-point shooter, shooting 34.9% over the past two seasons. The Rockets could sign Baynes to a one-year deal and see if this style of play works out.
Another stretch big I could see the Rockets going after in free agency is Serge Ibaka. According to tradenba.com, Ibakas value sits at $5.4 million, which would be good for the Rockets as they are paying Russ and Harden $81.83 million next season. Ibaka is a career 36.0% three-point shooter and shot a superb 38.5% in the 2019-2020 NBA season.
Myles Turner is another stretch big that I think the Rockets should go after. Turner is not a free agent, so the Rockets would need to trade for him. I think the Pacers would be willing to trade Turner, considering they have an all-star big in Domantas Sabonis. I put together a potential trade for the Pacers big man. In addition to Turner, the Rockets would also acquire Doug McDermott who is a great shooter. The Pacers could move Sabonis to Center and play Robert Covington at Power Forward while bringing PJ off the bench to add some shooting and defense to the second unit.
Acquiring a traditional sized Center will also help develop an interior game that I think the Rockets need. Although the Centers mention above can space the floor, when the outside shooting goes cold, you still have the option to feed your big man down low to settle down the offense and stop a potential run. With the Rockets current style of play, they don’t have that threat down low to calm the offense when they need it. In addition, I think the Rockets need to be more willing to take a mid-range jumpers if they have an open look. Russell Westbrook is the only person on the Rockets that takes mid-range shots, and that allows defenses to be able to leave the mid-range area of the floor open. I’m not saying that the Rockets need to take 30 mid-range shots a game, but I think taking them when they are open will cause defenses to think about guarding that area of the court rather than disregarding it altogether.
With Mike D’Antoni stating today that he is not coming back next season, I expect there will be some changes in their offensive style with a new head coach. I think it will be beneficial for them to abandon the small-ball and begin to take more interior shots.
Over the next season we will see if Rockets General Manager, Daryl Morey, is able to make some moves that will change the Rockets from a pretenders to contender.