Summer is heating up, and so is the whirlwind of possibilities on where some of the NBA’s best will play next season. While some teams are financially poised to give themselves the chance of a big summer, others face a race to create financial flexibility to retool their roster for a title run. One of those teams seeking flexibility is the Houston Rockets. While the Rockets intend to go big-game hunting, not only do they lack financial flexibility, there are other obstacles Houston faces before a relaunch can happen in 2019. What are they, and how does Houston overcome them?
1. No financial flexibility: General Manager Daryl Morey spent the last two summers going all in to build a roster capable of knocking out the Golden State Warriors. In doing so, he put the Rockets in a pickle, throwing virtually all Houston’s salary cap at James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela. The Rockets do have their mid-level exception, and they can pay players the veteran minimum. The mid level might be good enough to land maybe one free agent, but in a summer when many perceive that the West may be wide open depending on what the Warriors do, adding only one player is not enough.
As Houston begins exploring ways to improve their financial health, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports that Houston is making Capela, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker available in trades. Gutting the roster will open a little bit of cap space, but overall won’t make the elephants in the room disappear, which are the contracts of Chris Paul and James Harden. Having to pay the franchise’s two 30-year-old stars, one of whom (Chris Paul) is entering the late stage of his career, 40 million apiece in each of the next three seasons, adds significant challenges to making the desired roster improvements. Morey can wheel and deal as much as he would like, but convincing Harden or Paul or both to make a financial sacrifice would greatly improve Morey’s odds to improve the roster. But the chance that either star would take a pay cut is very unlikely.
2. Hiring a coaching staff: Part of being able to attract Free Agents, depends on the coaching staff. Why? Because when sitting down with players, finding the right fit is important. Does this guy fit our system? Is this guy going to be a starter, or will he come off the bench? All these questions can be answered when a team has their coaching staff in place.
The Rockets do have a coaching staff; well, sort of. The question is, how committed are the Rockets to current coach Mike D’Antoni? A month ago it seemed the Rockets were going to let D’Antoni coach out the final year of his deal; now the Rockets seem interested in beginning new contract discussions on an extension.
The Rockets would be best suited to get a deal done with D’Antoni now, then they can begin to explore the market for players who best fit what D’Antoni likes to run, as well as players who enjoy Mike’s up-tempo style.
3. Houston does not need a Butler: The Rockets are once again hot after Jimmy Butler. Houston offered four first-round picks to the Timber Wolves back in October, but were not successful. One year later, here we go again, even though adding Butler could be a disaster. That’s due mainly to the concern on how Butler would fit into D’Antoni’s offense; also, Butler, Harden, and Chris Paul each are ball-dominant playmakers, so how would they coexist in an iso-heavy system?
Do not get me wrong: Jimmy Butler is a really good player and would be an interesting addition to the Rockets. The thing is, if the Rockets have to gut almost their entire roster just to land one player, does that really put Houston over the top? Very likely not.
If Morey is truly in the market for another superstar, he could be best suited to check on the price tag for Kevin Durant. Durant, who ruptured his Achilles in the finals, will likely be out the entire 2019–20 season. Most still believe Durant is going to the Knicks, but if other teams are put off by the fact Durant is in his 30’s and coming off a major injury, who knows — maybe the Rockets get a seat at the table.
Because Houston’s financial structure is not great, going after Jimmy Butler as well as other big names may not be the best plan this summer. Instead, perhaps Morey should find a way to add depth by going after JJ Reddick, giving Houston another shooter. Houston was 28th in the NBA in rebounding in 2018–19, so perhaps Kevon Looney or Robin Lopez could help Capela out. PJ Tucker gives the Rockets an edge with his hustle and defense, but how about adding more tenacity and bringing back Patrick Beverly to play behind Chris Paul? Sure, Reddick, Looney, Lopez, and Beverly aren’t big names, but they each help give the Rockets more shooting, size, toughness, but most importantly depth.
Not to beat the dead horse, but unless Morey can somehow create financial flexibility without gutting the roster, it is going to be difficult for the Rockets to improve. Given the obstacles and challenges the Rockets face not only this summer but also the next three summers, it is fair to wonder whether the Rockets truly can win a title led by Chris Paul and James Harden.