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The Houston Rockets? Gone till November

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James Harden and Dwight Howard won 54 games in their first season together. (Getty Images)

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Houston Rockets.

What has to be understood about the 2013-14 Houston Rockets is that they should not be considered a terribly disappointing basketball team. Yes, the team boasts perhaps the two best players at two different positions, and the squad’s depth looks good enough on paper, but they also lost to a very good Portland Trail Blazers outfit that has second and perhaps third-round talent. Was the play of James Harden, on both ends of the ball for once, disappointing? Were the constant missed fourth quarter opportunities disappointing? Was the play-calling questionable at times? Were the rotation choices dodgy?

Yes, to each. Those things can be identified, and fixed, however. The bottom line is still the same – the 54-win Houston Rockets lost in the first round to a basketball team that was at worst their equal and at best better than Houston. Those fourth quarter flameouts and James Harden’s sub-40 percent shooting, to say nothing of the “let’s keep Terrence Jones on LaMarcus Aldridge”-fiasco, will haunt Rockets fans all summer. The first round outing, devoid of explanation and specifics? It’s not too bad.

This is a top-heavy, superstar-led team, and teams like this rarely come out of the gate with championship gusto. Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers needed years, Kobe and Pau Gasol’s Lakers needed a Finals loss, and they lost to a superstar-led team in the Celtics that was the rare first year exception (though Boston still needed seven games to down both the Hawks and Cavaliers in the first two rounds of the playoffs). Miami famously fell short in 2011, and while these Rockets don’t seem to have the same ready-made championship expectations as the squads listed above, one shouldn’t hand-wring too much over a first round failing.

It’s another tricky summer for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, as years of asset-hounding and delayed rebuilding have finally cashed in on two giants in Harden and Dwight Howard, but adding to that core will be tricky. Fine on-paper acquisitions like Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia, Jordan Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer and Reggie Williams absolutely did not pan out. A saddened and sweaty Omer Asik had a frustrating waste to his season, Jeremy Lin was revealed as more of a third guard scorer and penetrator than ball-distributing leader of men in his second full NBA season as a rotation player, and Chandler Parsons just isn’t yet the third star that the Rockets probably aren’t expecting him to be.

This is why it was a little daffy to see Rockets owner Les Alexander talk up his plans to “bring in a terrific free agent” with “cap room” this summer. Houston is on the hook for just under the expected salary cap mark of $63 million next season, prior to drafting 25th overall in this June’s draft, and that’s prior to possibly extending Chandler Parsons’ ridiculously cheap six-figure contract. Parsons could be a restricted free agent this summer if the Rockets decide to turn down their team option, and it might be in all sides’ best interest to extend Parsons’ contract at a rate typical of his contribution level (somewhere approaching eight figures a year), taking him off the unrestricted free agent market in 2015 and beyond.

This would push the Rockets over the cap, which would allow the team to use the mid-level exception to sign, perhaps, a “terrific free agent.” It is a players’ market this year, however, which is why Morey will try his damndest to see what he can get for both Lin and Asik on the trade market.

Both players will count against the salary cap at a very reasonable (especially for Asik, a solid starting-caliber center) $8.3 million next season in the final year of their three-year contracts, but in actual payroll terms each will make over $15 million next season. That’s a lot for any owner to handle, even if the $15 million won’t count against the salary cap or luxury tax. It’s true that Lin’s still-potent fan base and Asik’s defensive skill set could make such a deal worth it, but $15 million is $15 million, and that’s still a hard sell.

On top of that, if Morey takes the glass half-full approach with his roster and plays out the string, he could be looking at yet another re-start with Parsons, Harden and Dwight Howard already in place in the summer of 2015, with heaps of cap space to work with. Rocket fans may not like yet another year of turning flexibility over, they’ve been through this before, but there’s no reason to think that in spite of the first round ousters this squad (plus more minimum salaried veteran helpers, plus a mid-level perhaps pass-first pickup) can’t do a goodly amount of damage in next year’s postseason.

It was a frustrating end to the season, what with Harden playing so poorly, all those lost fourth quarter leads, and the wasting of what was a dominant turn on both ends from Dwight Howard in his first postseason with Houston. It’s still a start, though, and there still are options.

Daryl Morey wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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