Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future for the Houston Rockets after their first-round elimination Friday night with a 99-98 loss in Game 6 at Portland:
1. Where do the Rockets fall on the Most Disappointing Teams of Round 1 scale?
Indiana is in a class by itself. Obviously.
The 62-win San Antonio Spurs, if they wind up losing their steel-cager with the Dallas Mavericks from a 3-2 position of strength, can still bump Houston out of the No. 2 spot. Ditto for Oklahoma City now, since the Thunder would proceed to the longest of summers if they can’t win a Game 7 at home against Memphis when Zach Randolph is suspended and Mike Conley is playing on a bad hamstring.
Houston, however, enters this weekend of Game 7s feeling just crushed, having come so close and then missing out on forcing its own decider. Disappointing doesn’t quite cover it after four losses to the Blazers by a combined 13 points, two of them in OT.
In the Rockets' case, it's the way they lost, too. It's the disconnected vibe they too often gave off as a group, falling down 2-0 at home and losing Damian Lillard on the series-clinching shot on a multilayered defensive breakdown. It's the woefully low assist rate all season for a group whose coach constantly calls for his players to make the ball "pop.” It's the first sustained, loud burst of negativity that’s being unleashed on James Harden, when the combination of The Beard and Dwight Howard -- according to a prognosticator as respected as Jeff Van Gundy -- was supposed to give Houston an outside shot of upsetting its way all the way to the NBA Finals.
The youngest team in the playoffs, as close as most of these games were, often looked like it. Houston couldn't stop Portland, despite the Blazers' own well-chronicled defensive limitations, from busting out a better-than-ever LaMarcus Aldridge early in the series to take command and ultimately winning a playoff series for the first time since 2000.
So, yeah. Only Indiana's had it rougher in Round 1.
2. Is Kevin McHale's job really safe?
About a week ago, before Houston had won a game in the Portland series, sources close to the situation were adamant that McHale "deserves more than one season with this group."
As the story from Ramona Shelburne and me related then, McHale can't be completely sure of survival after the Rockets won the Dwight sweepstakes but still failed to win a playoff series. The reality, though, is that McHale's biggest fan in town just might be Rockets owner Les Alexander, who's a handy person to have in your corner.
Locker room unease was bubbling in this series. And McHale's perceived shortcomings as an in-game strategist have been a talking point going back to his days on Minnesota's bench. But sources insisted again this week that, to date, there has been no tangible evidence to suggest that the Rockets have a coaching change in mind.
They still have to formally pick up McHale's 2014-15 option to remove any doubt. And links to Stan Van Gundy, Howard's old Orlando coach, are bound to persist until Stan is coaching somewhere else.
For now, though, McHale’s return next season remains the most likely scenario.
3. Who really ranks as Houston's dream target in terms of another marquee acquisition?
Carmelo Anthony has been billed as the biggest name Houston will chase hardest come July.
It's inevitable that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will likewise check in with his old boss Danny Ainge in Boston -- as he did before the trade deadline in February -– just to make sure Rajon Rondo isn’t suddenly available.
Kevin Love isn't nearly as available as Melo will be this summer. He might not be available at all via trade. Yet you can rest assured that Houston will be lobbing frequent calls to Minnesota to test the Wolves' resolve, since Love would complement Howard better than pretty much anyone else you could nominate.
Yet it’s also rather reasonable to ask: How much sense does Melo make?
Neither Anthony nor Rondo looks like the ideal addition, in terms of skill set, if you're planning to keep the incumbent stars together, whether the concern in question is Anthony's defensive deficiencies on a team already asking Howard and Patrick Beverley to do too much on D or Rondo's need to have the ball in his hands as much as Harden.
4. How will Chandler Parsons' unique contract situation play out?
Parsons is the Rocket every rival team tries to steal. Boston would insist on Parsons if Rondo-to-Houston talks ever got serious. Teams are likewise said to be telling the Rockets all the time, when Morey is shopping Omer Asik or Jeremy Lin, that it will also cost you Parsons if you're expecting us to take on one of those infamous balloon payments scheduled to lift both Asik and Lin to the brink of $15 million in annual salary next season albeit with a salary-cap number of just $8.4 million.
The Rockets, though, surely can't be willing to trade a former No. 38 pick who has blossomed so far beyond draft-night expectations and happens to have played such a big role in the recruitment of Howard to Houston.
For much of the season, you heard just the opposite. You mostly heard that Houston is planning to decline Parsons' modest sub-million option for next season, make him a free agent July 1 and then re-sign him as a restricted free agent to a much more representative salary than his rookie-scale numbers.
The Rockets have until June 29 to pick up or decline Parsons' option. If they don't, Parsons becomes a restricted free agent. Some insiders have wondered aloud whether Houston actually prefers to pick up the option and then re-sign Parsons in 2015, but he'd be an unrestricted free agent that summer. So I tend to believe it has to happen this summer.
5. Where do we go from here with James Harden?
Wish I were prescient enough to forecast it precisely, but I do know it’s going to be a riveting case study.
Dwight undeniably delivered against the Blazers. He averaged 26.0 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks and realistically couldn't have delivered much more, coming up especially big in the fourth quarter of Game 6. He certainly never imagined having to deal with a Round 1 exit in Year 1 of his ride with the Rockets, but it seems safe to suggest that the primary scapegoat from this series is bound to be Harden.
The Rockets’ top gun didn't shoot the ball up to his usual standards until Friday’s series finale. And his indifferent defense, to put it politely, has never been subjected to more scrutiny, all the way down to his passive participation in the final, fatal play that will forever belong to Lillard.
And he's bound to spend as much time under the microscope, for the foreseeable future, as any star you wish to name.
Speaking of the collective burden the Rockets feel, Morey told ESPN's Shelburne halfway through the series: "Obviously we all want to win now. Our owner only cares about two things: his granddaughter and winning a title. Dwight is at that stage where there's nothing to accomplish but winning a title. I'm hungry: I'm in my eighth year and we've only advanced once. So, while, logically, you know that younger teams that come together -- and we're the youngest team in the playoffs -- take longer to win. We logically get that, but we're all impatient emotionally."