Rockets offseason outlook

Improving this team won't be easy, but they'll still be hard to beat

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Last Friday the Rockets had their chance.

There was blood in the water, and Houston whiffed.

The Golden State Warriors were up 3 games to 2 on the Rockets, but lost their star forward Kevin Durant in the process. Seemingly wounded, the Warriors arrived on the Rockets home court as 7.5 point dogs. Houston was healthy, Houston was motivated.

Houston was eliminated.

Now, instead of forcing a game seven and potentially discussing matchups and strategy for a Western Conference Final round against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, we're left discussing one topic:

What now?

As heartbreaking as last season's game 7 loss was, Rockets fans could at least console themselves with the fact that they had gone down swinging with their second best player sidelined with a hamstring injury. They weren't healthy. They had a historically fluky shooting slump. Rockets fans had valid excuses.

This year they don't. This year everyone was healthy. This year they shot 17-39 from 3-point range. No James Harden slump, no Chris Paul clunker. This year they just weren't good enough.

Houston now finds itself in an unenviable predicament. Paul still has three years left on his deal roughly $40M/yr deal and, while still good, his game play took a drastic step back this season compared to 2017-2018. Between Paul, Harden, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon the Rockets have zero cap space to work with.

Once again the Rockets will watch difference makers leave. It will be hard to imagine guys like Austin Rivers, and Kenneth Faried returning. They were signed after they were bought out midseason, so playing with the Rockets was essentially a showcase for their next team. Bench guys like Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert, and Danuel House could likely be headed out as well.

Chris Paul is 34. Defensive star P.J. Tucker is 34. Nene is 36, with no guarantee of returning. Eric Gordon is 31, and Harden will be 30 when next season tips off. There is an understandable sense of urgency, but there are no clear ways to improve.

Trading will be difficult. Houston has no draft picks this off-season and the only tradable assets are Gordon, Capela, and Tucker. Tucker and Capela are most likely untouchable, but without any draft picks to dangle next to Gordon, you won't see him being traded for an upgrade.

In short, Houston's chances at improvement this offseason don't look great. But with their starting 5 locked up, their chances of being worse are fairly small.

General Manager Daryl Morey has made a habit the past few years of keeping his core guys and slapping the bondo equivalent of journeyman players on the bench to soak up regular season minutes. They're usually redemption projects that fit Houston's unique system, signed for veteran minimum contracts or scooped midseason like this past one off the buyout market. It's a very hit or miss tactic though. Sometimes you get a Luc Mbah A Moute, and sometimes you get a Michael Carter-Williams.

As it stands, if the Rockets go that route and simply fill in the inevitable bench holes, they will still be a great team. Will they be better than this year's? It's difficult to think so, but they will still be competitive.

In order to improve beyond being this generation's Knicks to Bulls-esque Warriors, the Rockets have shown that they need to improve. That task seems incredibly difficult to pull off given the Rockets' financial constraints and lack movable assets, but if there's a GM out there that can find a way, Morey is certainly among them. Until then, Houston fans will have to be something they've become frustratingly accustomed to:

Patient.

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Eric Gordon has lost a tremendous amount weight during the shutdown. His biggest aspiration is to stay healthy and be more fit for the shorter season. He told the media that he feels confident about this team, and is optimistic about getting his shot back consistently.

"Everybody knows we're a dangerous team. We can beat anybody, and we can beat ourselves" said Gordon. "It's all about finding that consistent path. There are only eight games and playoffs around the corner, we have to be dominant from start to finish."

Gordon is at a career low shooting 37 percent from the field this season, while playing in only 34 games. During the season he went through a couple of injuries while averaging 14.5 points per game. For Gordon to be productive he needs to remain healthy so the Rockets can be successful. If Russell Westbrook or James Harden are off to a bad start, Gordon is a great weapon to go to. Even though Gordon's stats dropped from the previous two years, there can always be a quick turnaround.

Gordon's injury caused him to miss quite a bit of time, so it was hard for him to get back in rhythm. That can always throw a great shooter like Gordon off. The quarantine allowed Gordon to get healthy and practice his shot more. Before the season started, Gordon signed a four-year, $76 million contract extension. Daryl Morey is extremely confident about having Gordon on the Rockets. Morey was seen working with Gordon after practice Tuesday.

Mike D'Antoni has loved the way Gordon has looked on the court. As D'Antoni watched the Rockets five on five practice, he's been observing Gordon very carefully.

"He hasn't missed a rep. Looks good. Shooting the ball extremely well," said D'Antoni during the Zoom press conference. "Getting Eric Gordon in the groove and getting him going is very important. And also, getting the other guys to be able to maybe even have more opportunities."

When Gordon is consistent and healthy, it is a scary sight to opposing teams.

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