Season Predictions and Analysis for the 2014-15 Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets will try to put the disappointment of last season behind them and advance deep into the Western Conference playoffs this year. Can James Harden and Dwight Howard help Houston make a run?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher join Adam Lefkoe to break down the upcoming season in Houston in the video above.

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NBA Preseason Determining Destinies for Houston Rockets Bench

It’s the night of Oct. 13, 2014, and the Houston Rockets are hosting the Phoenix Suns. Dwight Howard and James Harden are sitting this one out, but that’s no surprise. After all, this is just a preseason game, and the preseason isn’t for superstars. It’s for the rotation guys, the end-of-bench guys and the guys who won’t make the team.

It might as well be any preseason game. The names change, the teams change, but the struggles are the same.

It’s 45 minutes before tipoff, and the locker room is almost empty. Jeff Adrien is there, stretching out on a foam roller, doing what head coach Kevin McHale might call a “Jane Fonda workout.” His headphones hint he doesn’t want to be bothered.

Jeff is just 28, but he’s bounced around a lot for a relatively young guy. According to ShamSports, he started his professional career playing in Spain for a year, then did a stint in the D-League.

Over the next two years, he was picked up and waived by the Golden State Warriors twice and by the Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats once each. There were two more trips to the D-League thrown in for good measure. Last summer, the Bobcats signed him again only to trade him to the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through the year.

In spite of the fact he posted solid averages of 10.9 points and 7.8 boards, the Bucks didn’t give him a new contract, so the Rockets picked him up for the minimum. With no clear-cut favorite among the reserve bigs, he now has his best chance to prove he’s worth a bigger contract.

At least it should be. He played well his first two games but now has a nagging ankle injury. Hence the secluded Jane Fonda workout.

It’s just a preseason game, but it’s an important one to Jeff, even if it just means getting through it without aggravating his ankle. 

***

Troy Daniels comes in and grabs a seat at his locker. Last year, Troy didn’t make the Rockets’ final cut in training camp, so he played for their D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He tore things up, draining a freakish 5.0 three-pointers per game.

On the court, he’s brash and bold. Off it he’s so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear what he’s saying.

He believes he benefited from the experience—even more than if he’d made the Rockets in training camp last year. “I think that I’m a better player,” he says. “Instead of sitting on the bench, going to the D-League, I’m playing in the games and getting on the floor. It’s better than being on the bench and not getting the proper playing time.”

And it helped him learn what they do in Houston: “The Houston Rockets and Valley Vipers run the same system and call the same plays, so that helped a lot when I got called up.”

Troy knows the benefits of the D-League, but now he’s in the NBA to stay. He parlayed what he learned in Rio Grande into a call-up to the mothership. He turned that into a game-winning shot in the playoffs. “When I hit that shot, I felt that everything was for that moment, and now that moment is for this year.”

Now he’s on a guaranteed contract, but he’s looking to extend that into more playing time. He’ll have to take that from Jason Terry, former Sixth Man of the Year.

Troy’s played just 20 total minutes in the Rockets’ first two preseason games, but Terry and Harden aren’t dressing tonight, so he has a chance to get some run. It’s an important chance to prove himself as a viable sixth man.

***

A choir is singing the National Anthem, but press row is still only half-filled. After all, it’s just a preseason game.

Kostas Papanikolaou gets the start for Harden. “Pops,” as they call him, is a dynamic rookie from Greece.

Joey Dorsey takes Howard’s spot. This is his chance to prove he can be an NBA player.

Joey is another one of those guys who has been working hard to get back into the Association. He was first drafted by the Rockets back in 2008 with the 33rd pick. After playing sporadic minutes for Houston, he got traded to the Sacramento Kings.

After they waived him, he was picked up by the Toronto Raptors. After they didn’t want him anymore, he went to Europe. There, he played in Spain, Greece (where he won an award for Best Defensive Player), Turkey and then Spain again.

Now he has his second shot with Houston, which gave him a guaranteed deal.

***

The game is a competitive one despite the facts that the Suns are playing all their starters and the Rockets don’t have their stars.

Joey leaves the game midway through the second quarter. Other than that, not much notable happens. Neither team takes more than a five-point lead. Surprisingly, the kids and vagabonds are holding their own.

But then the Suns start out the second half on a 17-4 run, and it looks like reality has caught up with the overmatched Houston reserves.

That’s when Tarik Black subs in for Joey, who is clearly struggling, and shortly thereafter things start to turn around.

Tarik’s an undrafted rookie out of Kansas. He did both the Orlando and Vegas summer league thing twice, first with the Orlando Magic, then Houston.

Frist, Troy takes over. With the Rockets down nine, he drains a three. Then he steals the ball from Anthony Tolliver and gets a hockey assist via Donatas Motiejunas, with Isaiah Canaan getting the finish.

Isaiah draws a foul on Goran Dragic with the Suns over the foul limit. He hits both free throws. Tolliver misses a shot, and Troy grabs the rebound. Then Troy knocks down another three, sparking the hashtag#TreyDaniels.”

Then Tarik draws a foul and makes a pair of free throws. Suddenly, the Rockets have a three-point lead.

It’s no surprise the three kids have chemistry. Tarik tells me how tight the younger group has been.

“Me and Nick (Johnson), we’ve been bonding together all summer. Since summer league we’ve been having fun together…talking…speaking. I’m actually staying with Isaiah Canaan at his house, in his extra room, until I find out what happens with me, and I get my own spot. Troy comes out, and we hang out all the time. So we all get along, as well as getting along with the older guys on the team.”

That camaraderie between Troy, Isaiah and Tarik is useful in their comeback.

Beginning with Troy’s three, the trio—all scoreless until that moment—combine to score 36 of Houston’s last 46 points, including the last five from Isaiah. He puts the game away on a three-point play with 29 seconds remaining.

The crowd loses sight of it being a preseason game and gets into it.

***

McHale is asked if he thinks it’s good for the kids to get a preseason win. “It’s always good to win,” he answers. “It’s good for Isaiah to see the ball go in the hoop.”

The feeling in the locker room is positive.

Trevor Ariza played but watched the fourth quarter from the bench. He’s wearing a big smile, as though he enjoyed being a fan instead of a player for a quarter. “It’s very fun,” he says about watching them play. “They bring a lot of energy—a lot of passion.”

Troy and Isaiah are as linked in their interview game as they are in their on-court skills.

Troy says, “That’s my job. My job is to shoot the ball, to make shots. I did it last year, but I still have to prove to a lot of people that I can go out and make shots. When Coach calls my name, I will always be ready, no matter when it is in the game.”

Isaiah says, “I want to show them I am always ready. … It’s just my job to be ready, so I just try to do that and be as professional as I can and always be ready when my name’s called.”

Be ready: That implies watching and waiting. Those aren’t things superstars have to deal with; that’s for the bench players fighting for playing time. Not knowing if or when you’re going to play but being able to come in already heated up requires a different kind of mentality.

Troy and Isaiah proved themselves worthy of that calling tonight.

***

Not everyone is happy, though. Joey is frustrated with his game; he didn’t play well tonight. The Rockets were outscored by eight points with him on the court, the worst plus/minus of anyone on the team. He has no points and only two rebounds.

So now he’s sitting beside his locker, talking to someone on the phone. “It’s been two years. What do you expect?” you can overhear him saying.

He keeps his back to the media as he gets dressed. When he finishes, he skirts the reporters moving toward him, then makes a bead for the exit. Mercifully, no one tries to chase him down. His disappointment didn’t need words to convey it.

McHale calls him, “very rusty” in the postgame presser, but he expects Joey to get better with time.

Jeff, who never returned after leaving in the second quarter, is trying to be optimistic. He’s asked about what happened with his ankle. “The kid (he doesn’t specify which one) stepped on my foot, and it kind of stretched. It’s not there, but it’s almost there. I think it’ll be fine tomorrow.”

Something in his tone reveals the hidden struggle of the professional athlete. His words speak optimism, but his voice carries a resonance of doubt. It’s as though he feels by preaching optimism he can make it so. The mental challenge of staving off the negativity is probably greater than we mere mortals realize.

And it works. The next night in New Orleans, he plays 17 minutes, scoring seven points, grabbing two boards and blocking a shot.

It’s a dilemma for the Rockets: Tarik has been playing better than Jeff or Joey, but they’re on guaranteed deals, and he’s not.

McHale notices how well Tarik’s been playing too, saying, “Tarik does a very good job of filling up the paint and banging bodies.” With all the injuries, though, McHale says they haven’t had a chance to get enough bigs in a practice to gauge where the competition stands.

That’s code for “the guy without the guaranteed contract loses.” Tarik is likely to open the season in Rio and knows it.

“Me…myself….I’m not expecting to be on this roster like them,” Tarik says. “I hope for the best, but I also know that I’m a rookie and I have to earn my stripes. And I know that any day of the week they can call and say go down for a D-League stint. I already expect that. I’ve already accepted that. It’s not a problem.

He’s at a different place than Jeff or Joey are: Getting the Rockets’ attention and a gig in Rio means success for him.

***

These games mean nothing in the standings. There will be no preseason champion crowned. For the stars who have thousands of game minutes ahead of them, the preseason is nothing more than an inconvenient necessity.

For men like Jeff, Joey, Troy, Isaiah and Tarik, there’s no such thing as “just the preseason.” This is their proving ground. This is where roster spots are earned, where contracts or won and playing time is the prize.

This is where hopes are realized or dashed.

This is where everything they’ve done in their lives to this point is vindicated: the hours on the court from the time they were kids; for guys like Joey and Jeff, the thousands of miles traveled from team to team, country to country, league to league. It’s all for now.

To them, this is the preseason! It is their lives.

 

All quotes for this article were obtained firsthand.

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Rockets beat Warriors 90-83 in exhibition game (Yahoo Sports)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 14: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets shoots against Omer Asik #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on October 14, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

HIDALGO, Texas (AP) — The Houston Rockets welcomed back two stars who had been dealing with injuries most of this preseason. The Golden State Warriors rested their two stars.


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Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets 10/19/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Golden State Warriors squared off against the Houston Rockets in a preseason matchup Sunday night. 

Steph Curry’s Warriors are finding a groove this preseason under new head coach Steve Kerr. 

The Rockets will be looking to prove that their top-heavy roster is capable of contending with any team in the Western Conference. 

Watch the video for full highlights. 

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Houston Rockets Highlights to Get You Pumped Up for 2014-15 Season

A lot has gone wrong for the Houston Rockets lately. Ever since Damian Lillard sent them packing earlier than expected in the 2013-14 postseason, the Rockets have had the bad news pile on.

General manager Daryl Morey took a big swing this offseason and came up empty. He lost Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons in a bold attempt to bring in Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. This whiff has left the Rockets reeling, and now the bench consists of young, unproven talent.

But it’s not all bad for Houston fans.

The Rockets still have two All-Stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard. They also have some promising players looking to burst on the scene in their new roles this upcoming year. And, with a new mindset on defense combined with the team’s impeccable offensive efficiency, there could be a lot to look forward to in Houston.

Here are some videos to pump you up for the Rockets’ 2014-15 campaign.

Begin Slideshow

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NBA Rights Deal Gives Rockets More Fuel, Competition in Future Free-Agency Talks

Not long after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s long fly ball sailed foul this summer, he pledged to keep swinging. Opposite-field singles are not his style. 

Soon, nearly the entire NBA will swing for the fences too. A free-agent frenzy like no other looms on the horizon thanks to the NBA’s new media rights deal and corresponding salary-cap increases. 

Recently, the Rockets haven’t needed salary-cap spikes to seek the best free agents or biggest deals available. Morey scored the free agent of 2013 in franchise center Dwight Howard, before whiffing on a home run swing for Chris Bosh this past offseason.

That led to the stunning decision to let Chandler Parsons flee to Dallas. Morey claims the Rockets’ championship chances are better with Trevor Ariza at just over half the price, giving Houston salary-cap flexibility in lieu of a strong roster virtually locked in place.

While making his case for flexibility, Morey has pledged Houston won’t shy away from the next long-shot superstar acquisition.

“Sometimes you have 11 and you double down and you get two,” he said after the smoke cleared following Bosh’s decision and Parsons’ departure. “It doesn’t mean it was wrong to double down.”

But when the new rights fee deals with Disney (ABC/ESPN) and Turner (TNT, Bleacher Report, NBATV) drop crisp dollar bills into league coffers, the Rockets could face an unprecedented number of competitors ready to spend like, well, the Rockets.

Morey has in past seasons carefully built his roster to have the cap room or flexibility to trade for James Harden in 2012, to sign Howard in 2013 and to chase Bosh and Carmelo Anthony in 2014. When he regrouped from this summer’s near miss—after Bosh took the extra $30 million the Heat added to their offer at the last minute—Morey offered only short-term deals to make sure the Rockets would remain free-agent players in 2015, and especially in 2016.

Now, with the salary cap likely to jump between $25 million and $30 million for the 2016-17 season and maybe sooner if the NBA can convince the Players Association to accept a more gradual phase-in of the increased cap, all kinds of teams that would not have otherwise had the cap room to gain admittance to the free-agent dance will be able to make their moves too.

(In a league memorandum issued last week, NBA executives were barred from commenting on the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations or the impact of the new rights fees.)

Of course, the Rockets’ flexibility could still come in handy, offering a chance for players to team up in a Heat-like axis of power. The Rockets have just four players—Harden, Ariza, Howard and Nick Johnson—with guaranteed money for the 2016-17 season, and Howard could opt out of his deal in the summer of 2016 to take advantage of all that new cap room.

(Howard passed on a Los Angeles Lakers‘ offer $30 million richer than the Rockets could offer him in 2013. He could make up for that by starting his new deal in the rich, new landscape one season earlier.)

By then, the Rockets will have also likely committed years and dollars to point guard Patrick Beverley, a free agent after this season. They could keep forward Terrence Jones or forward Donatas Motiejunas around. For now, they have just $25.5 million, not including Howard’s $23.3 million on the books for 2016-17, when the cap could jump to the pricey neighborhood of $90 million.

But even if they choose to have only enough players under contract for a decent poker game, they would have roster spots and cap room like never before. 

They won’t be alone. Less certain will be whether teams choose to spend their money carefully in 2015 in anticipation of a free-agent class likely to be headlined by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Howard in 2016. Even then, players might have to weigh taking the windfall that will come with the new TV deal versus waiting another year for the new collective bargaining agreement and whatever forms of riches it could bring the league’s upper crust.

For example, would Rajon Rondo seek only a one-year deal in 2015 so he can be a free agent again in 2016? Would teams offer him maximum money for just one season if they could lose him so quickly? A player like Paul Milsap, who would be a coveted free agent but not necessarily a max-contract player, could have to choose between waiting a year for the salary cap to jump or taking the offers that might be richer because teams may attempt to lock up stars with the current salary-cap structure.

Eric Bledsoe and Kenneth Faried chose long-term contracts now, contracts that might not seem quite as much of a gamble for their teams when the new world order kicks in.

Many of these questions could be answered as the NBA begins working through the new uncertainty, beginning with a board of governors meeting this month.

Morey will continue to gamble on landing big names because that is the strategy he and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander value. That would not change if the new money to spend brings more teams into the market, though the Rockets could use their flexibility and again chase multiple free agents, as they did with Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.

In the era of the short contracts, decisions in 2014, including the Rockets’ willingness to let Parsons bolt for Dallas, are not likely to bring regrets because of changes to come in 2016. More than ever, however, teams will look for guidance about how and when the rights fees will change their lives.

This could give NBA front offices, especially teams that have saved their allowance, two years of waiting to go shopping in a buyer’s market with new money burning holes in general managers’ pockets. Morey has been there before. Now, more than ever, he is certain to be back to try again.

 

Jonathan Feigen covers the Rockets for the Houston Chronicle, and can be followed on Twitter at @Jonathan_Feigen.

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Houston Rockets vs. New Orleans Pelicans 10/14/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Houston Rockets looked to continue their preseason dominance on Tuesday night when they faced the New Orleans Pelicans. The Rockets had won each of their first three games, but they faced a tough test from Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans.

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Jones leads Rockets to 95-92 win over Suns (Yahoo Sports)

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 13: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets dunks against the Phoenix Suns on October 13, 2014 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

HOUSTON (AP) — Terrence Jones scored 18 points and Isaiah Canaan put Houston ahead for good with a three-point play with 29 seconds left as the Rockets defeated the Phoenix Suns 95-92 on Monday night.


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Phoenix Suns vs. Houston Rockets 10/13/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Houston Rockets hosted the Phoenix Suns on Monday in a Western Conference preseason clash.

The Rockets hope to maintain pace among West contenders this season, while the Suns look to improve on last season’s ninth-place finish.

Watch full highlights here.

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Back in Houston, Ariza Happily Finds Role That Right for Him, Rockets

Jonathan Feigen

 

HOUSTON — From the moment Trevor Ariza first joined the Rockets and in some ways even in the months before he signed on that day in July, 2009, he was filling in for someone else. He had been fated to that no-win situation in the Rockets’ era of injuries, but that was what he wanted. It did not go well.

Months after the Rockets had finally escaped the playoffs’ first round and the Lakers team that eliminated them had rolled all the way to the 2008-09 championship, Ron Artest had jumped ship to Los Angeles, leaving a void for Ariza to fill in Houston.

It did not end there. Ariza was signed to the disabled player exception made available by the season-ending injury to Yao Ming. And when the season began, Tracy McGrady was still working his way back from microfracture surgery and on his way to playing just six more games with the Rockets.

 

For Ariza, that all offered an opportunity to expand his game beyond his role-player duties next to Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. He wanted that chance and pushed the limits of his game, hoping to become the star he could not be on Bryant’s Lakers or with Yao and McGrady.

 

Ariza had joined his fourth NBA team, but was still just 24-years-old and ambitious, confident from his breakthrough playoff run in that championship season. He was not, however, that kind of player. He was a very good supporting actor. He was a miscast leading man.

 

Ariza was traded after one season, playing in New Orleans and Washington before he signed as a free agent last summer to come back to Houston to fill the void left by Chandler Parsons’ departure. But as Ariza returns five seasons since his first in Houston, he will not attempt to be Parsons, any more than he could be Artest, Yao or McGrady.

 

“I learned my game,” Ariza said. “I learned what I can do. I know what I can’t do.”

 

Unlike that one season with the Rockets – and to a large degree, because of it – he has learned to simply be the player he has always been and to find a team that just needs that.

 

“He’s very comfortable with who he is,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Whenever you get comfortable with who you are you end up being a very good player. You don’t do what you don’t do well and you do do what what you do well a lot more. He’s very comfortable. Good defense. Makes the extra pass. Good shooter.”

 

More than that, he has grown to accept who he is and understand how important that can be. The four-year, $32 million contract the Rockets gave him might have demonstrated that his contributions are valued, but the Rockets had signed him to a five-year, $33.8 million deal in 2009 when he was determined to “expand my game.”

Ariza was so driven then to become more than he could be next to the sort of star he had played with before, he turned down the Cavaliers and a chance to play with LeBron James so he could play with the Rockets without Yao and McGrady.

 

“I think it was real important,” Ariza said of those lessons. “I got to understand what it was like to play without superstar players, which was tough to do, very stressful.”

 

He might have learned the hard way, but he did come to embrace his role and accept his limitations in order to make the most of his strengths. They are strengths as a 3-and-D small forward that fit the Rockets’ needs, but that might not have been able to stand out the way they now do had he not cut away the rest.

 

“He was still finding himself,” Rockets vice president Gersson Rosas, then the Rockets director of player personnel, said. “You see him now, he’s found himself. He knows who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He understands what his strengths and his weaknesses are. And he understands and values the opportunity to get where he was before he got to us which was as an NBA champion.

 

“Seeing where we’re at now compared to where we were his first time around (with the Rockets) and his understanding of the role we need him to play and what he does for us and how he can be such a great complement to James (Harden) and to Dwight (Howard), it’s not even just a situation where he fits in well to it. He wants it and he’s passionate about doing it.”

 

For a player to know his strengths and weaknesses requires that he acknowledges that he has weaknesses, an admission foreign to many NBA players, especially in those early, ambitious years in the league. The term “role player” is still treated as faint praise at best, when excelling in a few ways next to a star wins championship rings, including the one Ariza won with the Lakers.

 

“A lot of guys don’t figure that out,” Rosas said. “A lot of guys never get the understanding of who they need to be. He’s done it. And not only has he done it, but he’s thrived. He’s learned that what he does great is very valuable to help a team win.”

 

Ariza’s goals were not entirely noble. He wanted a way on the court and he was not going to get it by carrying a team’s offense. He does take pride in his defense and has steadily improved as a 3-point shooter. He considers his ability to get in passing lanes and disrupt an offense special.

The trick was honing those talents and finding a team that would value them.

 

“I don’t think any player that is a competitor ever wants to be put in a box because once you’re put in a box it’s hard to get out, especially if you start to do something exceptionally well,” Ariza said. “One thing that always stuck with me is if you want to be on the court, you have to do something different. Everybody in the NBA can play basketball, but you want to make yourself special on the court.

 

“That’s one thing I always thought about. I’m not naturally a great scorer, but I want to play. I’m a competitor. I felt like when I’m on the floor, I give my team a better chance to win. So I figured out other ways, other things to do to help my teams be good teams, to win.”

 

The Rockets have said that Ariza’s influence has been nearly as valuable. Parsons’ ambition was good for the Rockets when they were the youngest NBA team through most of his three seasons in Houston. It was not enough to have reached the NBA. He and the players he helped lead wanted more.

 

With Ariza, the Rockets have moved to the mindset of a team and player that already knows what they can be and have learned to be happy with that.

  

“It’s very refreshing,” Rosas said. “Trevor always had a great heart, always was a great worker. His first time around he was trying to be the best he could be for us, for the needs that we had. Now our structure is set up a lot better for who he really is. It allows him to be genuine to himself and help us at the highest level which is refreshing for all of us.”

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