Expectations can change quickly. Rockets fans didn't expect much heading into the start of the season and just hoped they would play a fun style of ball and possibly sneak into the playoffs. Those expectations were quickly surpassed during the season and many started to believe they could pull off an upset during the first round of the NBA playoffs. Fans continued to ride a roller coaster of emotions as the Rockets lost crucial games down the stretch, including two games against lowly Phoenix, and stumbled into the eighth seed in the Western Conference and a date with the top seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. Fans were ready to jump off the ride completely after the Thunder crushed the Rockets in game one and eventually took a 3-0 series lead despite losing Russell Westbrook to a knee injury. Like a classic volley between Federer and Nadal, the momentum and expectations managed to shift again in the series and the Rockets are now a home win away from forcing game seven.
Regardless of how the series ends, the Rockets have the look of a team poised to take the next step in the near future and become a title contender. The steps they'll need to take to reach those expectations seem very clear, but they won't be easy. Three big steps separate this team from being expected to make the playoffs, to being expected to reach and possibly win the NBA Finals.
1. Hero Ball - When the Rockets are able to run, when they move the ball, and when they attack the basket for an easy bucket or kickout for an open three point shot, they have one of the best offenses in the league. However, too often when opponents are able to slow them down, especially in the 4th quarter, the Rockets fall back into a lazy, isolation, "hero ball" style of play. According to Henry Abbott of ESPN:
"NBA.com's advanced stats tool says that this season in the final minute of games within five points, the Rockets shoot worse than 30 percent from the floor."
The Rockets currently have the youngest roster in the league, so some of these lapses might be fixed with experience, but this team has to become more consistent to take the next step.
2. Find A Power Forward - They've tried about a dozen options at the position this year with very limited success. I like the upside of Terrence Jones, Thomas Robinson, and Donatas Motiejunas but I'm certainly not comfortable enough to give them over 30 minutes for a team with championship hopes. Adding a player who can score in the post when the Rockets are forced to run a half-court offense is a must this off-season. The Rockets have enough money available under the cap to hand out a max contract; expect them to chase after an all-star caliber power forward.
3. The Role of Jeremy Lin Going Forward - Lin is a below average point guard in the Western Conference. He's not a bad player, but he's a limiting factor. James Harden likes to dominate the ball and isn't a great defender, so the Rockets need their point guard to be able to play off the ball and play solid defense. Lin is a poor spot up shooter from behind the arc and struggles to keep quick points guards in front of him. It doesn't seem like a good fit going forward but with his contract, the team probably doesn't want to just bench him. If they're not able to trade him, they'll have a difficult decision going forward because Patrick Beverley has clearly out played him.
Pulling off moves to fix these issues will be difficult, but Rockets fans expect the team and general manager Daryl Morey to get the job done.