Year One of the Houston Rockets’ backcourt duo of Chris Paul and James Harden exceeded all expectations. Together, they became the first Rockets team to reach 60 regular-season wins, earning the top seed and surprising everyone by taking the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals.
The Harden and Paul-led Rockets are one of eight teams to have faced the Warriors in a playoff series since they added Kevin Durant and became the first to hand Golden State more than one loss in a series; they also handed the Warriors their first loss at Oracle with Durant on their roster.
If Chris Paul isn’t sidelined for Games 6 and 7 after re-injuring his hamstring at the end of Game 5, we very well could be asking ourselves how the Rockets stay at the top of the league. But the injury did happen. So, we are left with questions that revolve around how much the franchise really needs to change to go from second-best to top dog. Here are five that stand out:
5) Chris Paul wants to stay in Houston. Assuming the Rockets sign him to a max deal, what will that look like down the stretch?
Right now, Paul is 33 years old and this wasn’t the first or second time we’ve seen him miss time or be limited by injury in the postseason. Since Houston couldn’t afford to add the all-star point guard in free agency last year, they got creative in acquiring him. Rather than opting out of the final year of his previous deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul informed the franchise he wanted to go to Houston, opting in to facilitate a trade. In turn, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told CP3 – who is the president of the NBA players association – that he would be rewarded with a big new contract this offseason. And here we are.
A max deal would make Paul nearly $47 million in the fifth and final year of the contract. He’ll be 37 at the start of that 2022-23 season. Now, let’s just say the Warriors’ four all-stars are still in Oakland five years from now. Stephen Curry and Durant would each be 34 at the start of that 2022-23 season, while Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would each be 32.
As currently constructed, the Rockets already showed us they can give the Warriors trouble. So, as risky as it is to sign Paul to a contract worth more than $200 million that would pay him through his 38th birthday, it could be worth it. If – and only if – the Rockets can secure at least one World Championship in the next couple years. That’s a tough ask. But after the first game of the Western Conference Finals, it was tough to imagine the Rockets leading the Warriors 3-2 in the series. And that happened. So, let’s see if the Rockets can earn the franchise’s first NBA Championship since 1995 before Chris Paul’s salary becomes more harmful than helpful.
4) How much does it cost to keep Clint Capela?
Clint Capela had a breakout season for the Rockets. Across the board, the 24-year-old center was better than he was in his previous three seasons with Houston. During the regular season, he averaged a career-best in points (13.9), rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9), while seeing his playing time increase.
He didn’t disappoint in the postseason, either. He outplayed all-star center Karl-Anthony Towns and big man Rudy Gobert en route to the Western Conference Finals. In both the regular season (65.2) and postseason (66), he led the league in field goal percentage. As efficient as he can be setting screens and cutting to the rim to finish lobs in the pick-and-roll, Capela’s versatility on the other side of the ball makes him an even bigger asset for Houston. He was a catalyst for the Rockets’ defense throughout the playoffs, as his ability to protect the rim and switch onto guards on the perimeter was on full display against the Warriors.
As a restricted free agent, the 6-foot-10 Swiss big man can sign an offer sheet with any team. But Houston can retain him if it matches the terms of that offer.
This past season, in the final year of his rookie contract, he made $2.3 million.
Coming off such an impressive fourth season in the league, he is going to be making a lot more in his second contract.
Early reports indicate multiple teams are interested in pursing Capela and could offer him almost max-level money, which would pay him about $90 to $100 million over a four-year span.
While keeping Capela won’t be cheap, Morey can’t afford to let him go. His ability to run the floor, catch lobs on the move and switch on the other side of the ball fits perfectly with what Mike D’Antoni’s team likes to do.
3) Which role players will be part of the Rockets’ future?
Trevor Ariza has been a key component for the Rockets since he was traded to Houston ahead of the 2014-15 season. Without his contributions – especially on the defensive end – Houston isn’t the best team in the regular season. He averaged 11.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals, while shooting 36.8 percent from deep and averaging 2.5 made threes per game. In the playoffs, he was tasked with guarding Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell.
The 14-year NBA vet was a steal for the franchise last season, as he only made $7.8 million in the fourth and final year of his $32 million contract. Barring a superstar off-season acquisition, the Rockets should do whatever they can to keep the 6-foot-8 swingman around. That may mean overpaying him the next couple of years to keep him from leaving town. Since Houston owns his Bird rights, it can exceed the salary cap to re-sign him.
Ten-year NBA vet Luc Mbah a Moute is also a free agent this offseason, after signing a one-year minimum contract prior to the start of last season. There was a lot to like about his contributions to the Rockets throughout their impressive regular-season run. He brought good defensive energy to the second unit and hit on 36.4 percent of his shots from deep – averaging 7.5 points, three rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest. The 6-foot-8 forward missed the first round of the playoffs after dislocating his shoulder for the second time in the season on April 10 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though he returned during the second round of the playoffs, he was limited by his injury throughout the postseason. As such, depth became one of the Rockets’ primary issues in the Western Conference Finals. In some ways, that highlighted his importance to the franchise.
It’s going to take more than a standard veteran minimum contract to keep him, but Mbah a Moute has proven to be worth it.
Gerald Green, Tarik Black, Joe Johnson and Aaron Jackson are also free agents. Of the four, Green – who was signed to a one-year non-guaranteed deal in late December – had the biggest role this past season. The 6-foor-7 swingman added solid depth, scoring ability and played hard for his hometown team. But a decision on the 11-year NBA vet should come after they test the market and re-evaluate their cap situation. For Black, Johnson and Jackson, their future with the Rockets is even less clear.
2) What is the biggest key to getting Houston past the Golden State Warriors?
The Rockets need to stay the course. They are too close to reaching the Warriors to blow things up or make major changes this offseason. Remember after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals when Houston’s offense was too isolation-heavy to make the de facto NBA Finals a long or competitive series? Two days later they moved the ball more, but the offense was still iso-heavy as it wore down Steph Curry and beat the Warriors by 22. Even playing without Paul, the Rockets held third quarter leads in both Games 6 and 7.
Their approach to taking down the Warriors is solid. The biggest key is going to be in the shooting and defensive depth they are able to add and retain this offseason, as well as the ability to keep their core healthy.
1) Should the Rockets be in the LeBron James sweepstakes?
There are ways the Rockets could add LeBron James to their roster for next season. Much like the franchise’s acquisition of CP3 last summer, it would take some creativity. Our Bryan Toporek outlined how Houston could land James – or Paul George – this summer.
Rather than focusing on how the league’s second-best team could land the game’s top player, let’s ask ourselves if that union would truly be in the best interest of either party right now.
No one should claim to know where James is going to play next year. But, we all assume the decision is going to come down to A) What provides him with the best chance to collect rings year in and year out. or B) What works best for his family, while providing him with a great chance to win not one, not two, not three, not four – you see where I’m going with this – championships.
Sure, James, Harden, Paul and Capela on a court together sounds unstoppable. But the Rockets would have to put together something that makes sense for the Cavs if they were going to allow James to opt-in in order to facilitate a trade to Houston. A year after CP3’s deal, it doesn’t appear the Rockets have enough attractive pieces to get a deal of that magnitude done while also working on big new deals for Paul and Capela.
The addition of James would also completely alter the way Houston currently plays. So, the franchise would be paying Paul win-now money while he and Harden figure out their roles in The LeBron James System.
We’d go from living in a world where third graders didn’t know there could be an NBA Finals without James, to the King likely sitting home next season to watch the Warriors take on the Celtics or Sixers for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
And there’s no reason to think living in eastern Texas is what’s best for the James family.
So, Morey’s magic would be better used this offseason in trying to continue to add depth and retain vital pieces to a team and system that has shown it isn’t too far off from beating the best.