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How To Fix Houston: Pair James Harden With A New Big Man (Hint: It’s Not Dwight Howard)

With only four teams remaining in the NBA Playoffs, it means a few “contenders” have already been eliminated from title contention. The offseason is the time for these teams to retool to prepare for deeper runs next season. The Houston Rockets were one of the surprise teams of the 2012-13 NBA season. After pulling off a blockbuster trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire James Harden they landed a true superstar — something they haven’t seen since Yao Ming was on the roster. Harden was amazing for Houston, averaging 25.9 points, 4.9 boards and 5.8 assists a night, and was named to his first All-Star Game. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, their two other offseason pick-ups, and Patrick Beverley, a late season pick-up, were also key contributors to the Rockets.

Though the Rockets were the eighth seed in the Western Conference they definitely did not sneak into the playoffs. However, after suffering a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on the final day of the regular season they dropped down to final spot. In their opening series, they faced off against Harden’s former team: the Thunder. After two games, it looked as if Houston would have no chance to advance, but after a controversial play by Beverley left Russell Westbrook sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs, Houston found life. The team’s split the final four games of the series as OKC advanced in six games.

With cap favorable contracts (Chandler Parsons), the Rockets have left themselves a good amount of cap space heading into the offseason. They have the opportunity and the money to add better complementary pieces and maybe even a second star to surround Harden. The Bearded One showed he is capable of shouldering the load on a successful team, but they are missing another piece if they want to make it past the first round of the playoffs.

For the remainder of the post, I will assume the role of Rockets GM Daryl Morey. I will give my suggestions and analysis on who the Rockets should keep, who they should lose, players to target in free agency and the draft.

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KEEP: NONE
This doesn’t mean that the Rockets should not keep anyone who is on their current roster; instead it means that they have no impending free agents that I think they need to re-sign. Houston has one lone free agent this season and that is Francisco Garcia (team option that they’ll probably use). Every other player is at least signed through the end of next year. It would be great for Houston to lose Garcia’s contract ($6.4 million) in order to open up even more salary cap space, even though Garcia was an impact player in the playoffs, having a couple of good defensive games against Thunder star forward Kevin Durant.

LOSE: Francisco Garcia
As I stated above, Garcia is not needed for the Rockets success — especially at that price — and though he had a good showing in the playoffs, he can be replaced. Garcia’s best days are most likely behind him and the Rockets need to add more talent to build around Harden, Asik and Lin.

FREE AGENT TARGETS: Al Jefferson, Chris Copeland and Nick Young
Al Jefferson is one of the best young big men in the NBA today. The potential he possessed in Boston was the main reason the Celtics were able to snag Kevin Garnett away from Minnesota. All he’s ever done is produce. Last season, Jefferson posted per-game averages of 17.8 points and 9.2 boards, and made a formidable interior tandem with Paul Millsap. While Jefferson hasn’t shown that he is able to be the centerpiece of a franchise, he is certainly capable as an effective second option on a great team. Imagine the possibilities that a Harden and Jefferson pick-and-roll would provide.

Keep reading to see which no-name players Houston should go after in the draft…

Chris Copeland had a breakout season for the New York Knicks. He went from unknown bench player to a key component in the Knicks’ third quarter comeback in Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers. Copeland has shown that he is a capable outside shooter and willing to use hustle and will to make up for what he lacks in talent. While Copeland shouldn’t be confused for something he’s not, he is still a solid rotation player. Copeland could easily come to Houston and fill in for the minutes that Garcia received. Copeland is not the same type of aggressive defender as Garcia, but he is possibly a better shooter (42 percent from deep). As a restricted free agent, the Knicks will have a chance to match any low-figure offer he receives.

Nick Young, or Swaggy P as he refers to himself, has the ability to score at will. The problem is that he knows this too and he will often force a contested shot instead of moving the ball around to get a better shot for the team. Despite that flaw, he’s found his niche as a sixth man. Young’s ability to create instant offense in a flash is valuable. Swaggy P flourished in this role during his lone season with the Los Angeles Clippers and had a productive season with the Philadelphia 76ers this past season, averaging 10.6 points in 23.9 minutes per game. Young could also get some advice from Harden on just what it takes to be an efficient and effective sixth man.

DRAFT TARGETS: James Ennis, C.J. Leslie and Livio Jean-Charles
The Rockets are currently without a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. They do hold the 34th overall pick, the fourth overall pick in the second round. However that doesn’t mean that they can’t find a player of value in that slot. Throughout the draft’s history, there have been numerous great players that were drafted in the second round (Manu Ginobili, Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis, Marc Gasol, Carlos Boozer, etc.). At this spot I’ve focused in on three prospects — James Ennis, C.J. Leslie, and Livio Jean-Charles — that could be of help to Houston.

Ennis is a lanky, athletic 6-7 athlete from Long Beach State who has shown vital development in his perimeter game, garnering the interest of several NBA scouts. Ennis is one of the sleepers in this year’s class and with how weak this class is, there might not be much hoopla about him until he laces up his sneakers for the first time as a member of an NBA team.

Leslie is similar to Ennis in that he is best known for his athleticism. Coming into his career at N.C. State, Leslie was one of the most heralded recruits in the nation and was part of a transformation of the Wolfpack. But he never developed much of a perimeter game during three seasons in Raleigh.

Before April, Jean-Charles was a relative unknown to most of the people in North America. However, that changed forever following his breakout performance at the Nike Hoop Summit. Charles, a 6-11 forward, won MVP after posting 27 points and 13 rebounds. Originally from France, Jean-Charles has been making great strides in Europe and he has room to improve at only 19 years old. He may not come over to the NBA immediately, but when he does crossover, the big man will be more than ready to play.

What should Houston do this summer?

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