Free agency analysis: Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets head into free agency with a chance to give their roster the boost it needs to take down the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets are obsessed with the Warriors at this point. Every move they make this summer will be about structuring their line-up to somehow take down basketball's version of Goliath. What do the Rockets need to do to take the next step when they almost inevitably meet again in next year's conference finals?
Recruiting The King
Getting LeBron James on board is obviously the first priority for Houston, but reports indicate that his options have dwindled to two teams - The Los Angeles Lakers or his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Even if he wanted to join, would it be the right move for the Rockets?
Of course, they can't turn down James' services if he decides he wants to go to H-Town, but why do they need him? If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Houston had a halftime lead in game 7 on their home court, the league MVP, and candidates for most improved player and sixth man of the year. All that was missing was Chris Paul, The Point God, for the two most pivotal games of the year.
No, you don't turn down LeBron if he decides to come to Houston. But recruiting him means re-tooling a team which has already proved they can be in a position to take down the Warriors and win a championship.
Paul has indicated that he won't take less than the max of about $35 million next season, Harden will earn $30million next season, and LeBron will also demand a max contract starting at $35million next season, which puts the Rockets guaranteed money on three players at $100mil.
That means the entire supporting cast will have to be replaced in any efforts to sign or trade for LeBron. LeBron, Harden and Paul would make arguably the best big three of all time on paper, but that would leave Daryl Morey with an impossible task of forming a supporting cast without any money. I don't see this as the best fit for LeBron, nor does it seem like the safest move for the Rockets.
Retain last season's core rotation
Harden, Paul, Gordon, Capela, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, and Nene. Sure, a few of them are replaceable, but this is the core group that perfectly matches up with the Warriors. Of those nine, five are free agents this summer; Paul, Capela, Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Green.
Paul and Capela will earn max contracts which will put the Rockets over the cap, leaving them with no wiggle room to replace Ariza, Mbah a Moute or Green should they decide to seek a bigger payday. Both Paul and Capela are almost certain to re-sign with Houston; Paul is in the best situation to win a championship, and Houston will match any offer made to Capela as he is a restricted free agent. The only way Capela will end up at another team next season is if he is used in a sign and trade to acquire LeBron, but that is unlikely.
Ariza, despite his age, is rumoured to want a five year/$60million deal. It's hard to see the Rockets giving him the money or the job security that he wants, but they can afford to go over the cap to pay him with bird rights if they have to.
Negotiating to keep Ariza around for a good price will be a top priority of Morey this summer, but he is replaceable if he decides to join the Warriors and chase another championship. Mbah a Moute and Green both played brilliant basketball last season and will likely get better offers from other teams; it's nearly impossible to think Green will leave given his undying love for the city of Houston, but Mbah a Moute may go after a big pay day to be a veteran leader on another contender.
The Rockets should keep as many of those nine as possible, but they are in a position to attract veteran ring-chasers if Ariza or Mbah a Moute decide to test the market.
No risk, high-reward free agent signings and trades
Let's start with the trade aspect, because there is only one trade the Rockets should be looking to make. Even if the extra cap space won't help them land a star free agent, they need to unload Ryan Anderson and his colossal contract, which is in excess of $20mil for each of the next two seasons.
He is no longer an integral part of the rotation, and Morey should be looking to move him for some extra guard depth. This isn't a huge priority as Anderson isn't hurting anyone by sitting on the bench and occasionally playing some minutes, and they shouldn't sacrifice first round picks just to unload the contract, but it should be explored.
The benefit will be if Anderson can be traded in a salary dump before Paul and Caplea are re-signed. Should that happen, Houston will have just $60mil in guaranteed contracts for next season which would allow them to make free agent signings before using bird rights to retain Paul and Capela.
In terms of no risk, high reward signings, use Gerald Green and Joe Johnson from this season as an example. Both were acquired for less than a million dollars. Green turned into an important rotation piece and helped win some playoff games, he was especially important when Paul or Harden missed time with injury in the latter half of the season. Johnson was an unsuccessful acquisition as he simply isn't the player Houston hoped he could be, but he didn't hurt the team either. Neither player posed any risk, and Green turned out to be one of the best value signings in the league.
They have already made an intriguing move by signing undrafted rookie Trevon Duval - once thought to be a lottery pick before an ordinary freshman year with Duke - to their summer league team. Could he recapture his high school form and win himself a roster spot and a place in the Rockets' rotation this season?
Tyreke Evans, Wayne Ellington, JJ Redick, Joe Harris and Mario Hezonja are all unrestricted free agents and could help Houston's guard depth. Could Rudy Gay, Jerami Grant or Jeff Green be a cheap replacement should Ariza or Mbah a Moute decide to depart? Could Quincy Acy, Jordan Mickey or some other lesser known player with an appropriate skill set carve out a role in Houston's system? Small, but potentially deadly moves will be important for the Rockets this off-season.
Make subtle improvements but keep the core group together as much as possible. Assuming LeBron is off the table, the path to retaining Capela on a max deal is wide open. Paul, Harden, Capela, Gordon, Tucker, Nene, and Green will probably all stay put, while questions loom over Ariza and Mbah a Moute.
Should the pair of three and D specialists depart, the Rockets will have to prioritise filling those holes. There's no shortage of three-point specialists on the market, but Houston need players who can defend wing superstars, specifically Kevin Durant, and maybe play as a small ball 4 or 5; JJ Redick and Wayne Ellington are great scorers, but they can't be that guy for the Rockets. Jerami Grant looks like one of the best three and D options in the free agent pool within the Rockets' limited price range.
This might be the only team capable of bringing down the Warriors. They were so close this year; a couple of slight changes, another MVP type season from Harden, and a healthy CP3 might just be enough for them to take the next step.