The Houston Rockets? Gone till November

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.

The Houston Rockets entered the 2012 offseason as a great unknown, flush with draft picks and cap space and the usual batch of assets. It entered last fall’s training camp as a great unknown, with a massive roster with no clear cut direction. It then entered the regular season as a great unknown, dealing those assets for James Harden and ushering in an intriguing new roster without the benefit of a training camp or exhibition season to warm up its new star.

After a fantastic 2012-13 campaign, the Houston Rockets now enter the 2013 offseason as, you guessed it, a great unknown. The team has still managed to retain endless assets and cap space, and figure to be a major player once again as it deals in trades or works with free agents. There is a very real chance that the Rockets that their fans knew and enjoyed in 2012-13 could be moved elsewhere by autumn, as the team attempts to take that tough step between the lower rungs of the playoff bracket, and a potential championship contender.

Harden worked fabulously. He had his growing pains towards the end of the season, a likely result after having worked as a minutes-heavy starter for the first time of his career on a fast-paced team, but a full training camp and year under his belt with the Rox could lead to stellar things. The issue in general manager Daryl Morey’s hands here is the team that surrounds him. The Rockets lack a clear second star, and though youngsters Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons are all fantastic prospects, this isn’t a third or even likely second round team without another All-Star on the roster.

Morey’s masterful salary cap work will help here. If the Rockets decline to pick up Francisco Garcia’s team option (Garcia played well for the team down the stretch and can help a contending club, but he’s set to make over $6 million next year if his option is picked up), the team will head into the offseason with just over $42 million on the franchise’s books for 2013-14. This includes Harden’s massive contract extension.

It’s a weak draft, but this selection could be used to either facilitate a trade on draft night, or as an offseason bargaining chip as Houston did last year with promising off guard Jeremy Lamb. Assets, assets, assets.

It’s been that way for years with the Rockets, amid much deserved criticism, until the deal for James Harden. It takes two to tango with NBA trades, and though the Rockets did well to position themselves for a Harden deal, a much-respected NBA general manager had to be on the other end of Morey’s phone, willing to trade an All-Star in a transaction that is still being heavily criticized over six months later. Other NBA GMs can respect Morey’s planning and assets all they want, but they still have to be the one deciding to make a move with the Rockets, and give him that second star for yet another appealing Rockets package.

One that could involve any number of current Rocket helpers, even promising types like Asik and Lin. Chandler Parsons wouldn’t figure into any of this, because he’s working on what is by far the most productive contract in the NBA, making less than a million a year both this season and through the next two. The Rockets would have enough money under the cap to toss a maximum contract at Dwight Howard, but the Lakers center won’t come to Houston because he doesn’t like to upset people (he’s very bad at doing this), and because he can make more money in Los Angeles to play with potentially a very good team in a city he likes.

Which means Morey will be back to either using that cap space to facilitate deals, or working around the edges to shore up depth instead of going for a top-heavy star system.

Or, once again, he could sustain that flexibility (Morey just signed a contract extension) and work for another year of assets and cap flexibility, rolling over in anticipation of a better free agent class in 2014. The man’s given himself options, and though the patient touch may wear on Rocket fans, in the end it might be enough.

That’s the great unknown for you. Morey kind of digs it this way.

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