For a third-consecutive season, the Rockets were at the top of the lottery pack, heading to the 14th pick of the draft unless they get a lottery miracle. It was not a comfortable homecoming.
This was different, with the Rockets returning to their familiar spot as the franchise with an NBA-record sixth season with a winning record that was not good enough to make the playoffs. This time, the Rockets were in position to make the playoffs until a six-game losing streak, their longest of the season, sent them spiraling back to the lottery.
Overall, they are not very different than they expected to be, falling a win or two shy of projections. This time, however, they believe they are in better shape to retool.
They remain high on last season's draft picks, Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris and Donatas Motiejunas, who is expected to join them in time for next season after spending the season playing in Poland. They have two draft picks in the middle of the first round. Most of all, unlike previous seasons, they have cap room to make the sort of deals they could not before.
The Rockets could have as much as $19 million in cap space, though the cap holds on Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic would drop that to $12 million. They are unlikely to pursue a free agent that would make that kind of salary, but they could use the cap room to facilitate trades they could not make before.
The off-season goal remains unchanged. They have sought a star to be the foundation of the rebuilding. They thought before the season it would be Pau Gasol, only to have that trade nixed by the commissioner. They hoped at the trade deadline that it would be Dwight Howard, only to have those talks end when Howard signed the paperwork to opt-in for another season.
They will pursue other roster-changing moves. If they bring back Lee and Dragic, they could offer Kevin Martin and perhaps even Kyle Lowry in deals. They have more young prospects than they likely need, especially if they use both draft picks, and could use players collected in solid draft to sweeten a deal.
They will, however, look to make the kind of trades they have not in recent seasons to replace Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming as the foundation stars they build around. As much as the season ended very much as the previous two did, the Rockets do believe they are in position for a very different off-season.
The Rockets began a four-game road trip with wins in Chicago and Los Angeles, making them the only team in the league with road wins against the Thunder, Bulls and Lakers. When they backed up those road wins with wins in a back-to-back at Sacramento and Portland, Goran Dragic was the Western Conference Player of the Week and the Rockets came back home in sixth in the Western Conference and a season-high seven games better than .500.
After a four-game sweep of a road trip, the Rockets were only a few home wins away from returning to the playoffs. In the next three games, all against teams battling them for the final Western Conference playoff spots, they trailed by as much as 18, 16 and 23 points, sending them on their way to a season-long six-game losing streak. After losses to Utah and Phoenix in Toyota Center, they lost both games of a back-to-back with the Nuggets, were blown out in the fourth quarter in Dallas before fading late in New Orleans to go from likely in the playoffs to out.
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