The Houston Rockets have been one of the biggest surprises of the season, finishing second in the West in the regular season before making a run to the conference finals.
Despite a star-studded duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard, most people thought the Rockets would fall apart this season after a disastrous offseason that saw them swing for the fences in free agency and come up well short.
Heading into the summer of 2014, the Rockets were bent on adding a third star to their team and unloaded much of their roster to make it work financially. They lost Chandler Parsons to the Dallas Mavericks for nothing, gave a draft pick for the Lakers to take Jeremy Lin, and traded center Omer Asik to the Pelicans just to clear enough cap space.
Instead of using the extra cap space to sign a star, the Rockets missed on their two biggest targets. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh both re-signed with their original teams for five-year max offers that were worth millions more than the Rockets could offer. Houston was left with a top-heavy team with little depth that many people didn’t think could contend in the deep Western Conference.
However, Houston rebounded and wisely used that cap space and found bargain-bin players from around the league to create a diverse, well-rounded team.
Signings (Trevor Arizona, Josh Smith)
In the wake of losing Parsons, the Rockets signed Trevor Ariza to a four-year, $US32 million contract. Though Ariza is older and doesn’t have the upside of Parsons (or the cheap contract the Rockets could have kept Parsons on), he has filled in more than admirably. Ariza averaged 13 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 35% from three and often defending the opponent’s best perimeter player during the regular season.
The Rockets also made the bold move of signing Josh Smith, the player the Pistons spent $US27 million to cut because nobody would trade for him. Smith has long been a divisive player — an elite athlete and defender, one of the best passing big men in the league who shot long jumpers too frequently and slipped into cruise control too easily.
With Houston, however, Smith played near the peak of his capabilities. Smith’s basic numbers have been solid — about 12 points, six rebounds, two assists per game in the regular and postseason — but he’s become more efficient (a combined 45% from the field, 35% from three-point range) and has been valuable on the court for the Rockets. With Smith on the court, the Rockets had a 7.4 net rating (second on the team) during the regular season and have a 2.6 net rating with Smith on the court in the playoffs, best on the team.
Trades (Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, Pablo Prigioni)
The Rockets have also picked up cheap players in trades throughout the year. They traded for Jason Terry in September, picking up what they thought would be a backup veteran guard. Instead, because of a wrist injury to starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the 37-year-old Terry has been forced to play and has played well, averaging nine points and nearly three assists per game with 38% three-point shooting in the playoffs.
The Rockets also traded for wingman Corey Brewer from the Minnesota Timberwolves midseason for a relatively low cost. Brewer has been productive in the playoffs, averaging 12 points on 46% shooting, 35% from downtown, with three rebounds per game. Though he’s far from a go-to scorer, Brewer can heat up quickly, as he did in the Rockets’ come-from-behind Game 6 victory over the Clippers, when he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter.
The midseason trade for 38-year-old point guard Pablo Prigioni has been crucial, too. Prigioni, like Terry at the beginning of the season, didn’t figure to be a big part of the Rockets’ plans, but because of Beverley’s injury, he’s had to play. While his basic stats are unimpressive, he provides needed ball-handling relief for Terry and Harden, and he’s actually a pesky defender, even at his age. With Prigioni on the court, the Rockets have a 104.3 defensive rating in the playoffs, the best number of any regular rotation player on the team.
The Rockets are still buoyed by Harden and Howard, the latter of whom is finally healthy and has provided the Rockets with a needed defensive anchor. However, what originally looked like a shallow team that would have to rely solely on star power has turned into a fairly well-rounded squad that can throw different looks at opponents.
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