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After missing out on Howard, Rockets to fight for playoffs

POSTED: Sep 7, 2012 9:49 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


Jeremy Lin will need to have an All-Star kind of season for the Rockets to improve.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Tuesday: the Phoenix Suns.

Smack in the middle of the dog days of the baseball season, the Rockets played home run derby in an attempt to get Dwight Howard to Houston. So it was only natural to call it a swing and a miss when the All-Star center wound up in L.A. alongside Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

But that doesn't mean the Rockets won't keep stepping back into the batter's box to take more cuts at landing the big-time star they need to climb back to relevance.

"The moves we made were designed to be the right moves whether we pulled off a bigger trade or not," said general manager Daryl Morey. "We want every player on the team to be one who has a chance to become an All-Star level player or give us the cap flexibility to sign that kind of a player.

"This trade didn't work out. We took a hack, and it didn't work out. But it doesn't mean we're abandoning our plan.

"I think our goal for this year ... is we fight for a playoff spot, even though it's one of the most challenging years to do that. The West is strong and if we were to make the playoffs, it means a lot of good things will have happened. Namely Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik or somebody else emerges to become an All-Star.

"I think that's a stretch goal, but were not going to go into the year saying we're not going fight. Along the way we'll keep trying to take advantage of every opportunity to make moves that will make us better."

So give the Rockets until the trade deadline in February or maybe even through another Draft and free agency next summer to keep swinging for the fences. If they still haven't hit one out of the park by then, it might be time for somebody to walk.

Where they've been

For the third consecutive season the Rockets were the best of the also-rans. In other words, they were the last team to miss out on the playoffs and had the best record of a team in the lottery. It is a situation the franchise was plunged into due to the raft of injuries that brought a rather sudden and devastating end to the era of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. In their first season under coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets had more than their share of injuries yet remained competitive, and usually entertaining, until a late nosedive -- 2-7 down the stretch -- took them out completely out of the playoff race.

Where they are now

They gave up their top two point guards, trading Kyle Lowry and letting Goran Dragic leave as a free agent, and unloaded power forward Luis Scola under the amnesty clause to clear out salary cap room on the roster. Now they're still stuck running on a treadmill after again being unable to swing an offseason deal for a bonafide franchise-changer or at least a perennial All-Star. After failing to land Howard from Orlando, they'll go into the season with a roster long on youth and much duplication of talent at the forward positions. The last thing McHale wanted -- and he stated it publicly -- was another batch of rookies, but they'll add Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones to last year's first-round pick Donatas Motiejunas and hope for the best. On the plus side, the Rockets landed point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik through free agency, solidifying those positions.

Biggest hurdle

Youth, youth, youth. At this point, the Rockets will open training camp with only two players on the roster who are older than 26 and a lineup that is more unsettled than a bridge straddling the San Andreas Fault.

Where they're going

It's a plain and simple fact of life that you can't win and consider yourself a legitimate playoff contender without an All-Star or two on your roster. Until Morey can find a way to parlay the young talent, a bevy of Draft picks, the expiring contract of guard Kevin Martin and an abundance of salary cap space into a big dog to anchor the lineup, the Rockets will just be barking up the same old tree. The franchise plan is to avoid taking the intentional dive into the deep end of the lottery pool, trying to remain young, entertaining and competitive while reloading on the fly. They'll run and hustle on the court and try to make a big deal at the trade deadline in February. Either way it looks like a fourth straight trip to the lottery.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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