After a franchise-best 65-win regular season and a seven-game slugfest against the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets are headed into a momentous offseason. Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Gerald Green will all be unrestricted free agents on July 1, while Clint Capela will be a restricted free agent.
That’s not to mention the elephant in the room: LeBron James.
In December, USA Today‘s Sam Amick reported there was “strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing” James this summer. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor perhaps confirmed those suspicions in March, as he reported the Rockets were one of only four teams on James’ short list of potential destinations. And Marc Stein of the New York Times recently wrote that Paul “has already begun his recruitment” of his Banana Boat buddy.
However, it won’t be easy for Morey to bring James to Houston.
As of now, the NBA has projected its salary cap for the 2018-19 season to be $101 million. The Rockets already have $77.6 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, and that isn’t counting the aforementioned three-fifths of their starting lineup not under contract. Since James will be eligible for a max starting salary of $35.35 million if he declines his 2018-19 player option to become an unrestricted free agent, the math doesn’t quite seem to add up.
Never doubt Morey’s salary-cap wizardry, though. If there’s a will—namely, James deciding to join the Rockets this summer—there’ll be a way to get him in Houston.
How could the Rockets go about making that dream scenario come true? They have multiple options to explore, but only one realistic pathway.
Option 1: Sign him as a free agent
If James does decline his $35.6 million player option for next season, it will be damn near impossible for the Rockets to sign him as a free agent.
James Harden is owed $30.4 million in 2018-19 alone. Even if the Rockets renounced the rights to all of their free agents (including Capela and Paul), traded the rest of their players under contract and somehow took back no salary in exchange, they’d have less than $62 million to divvy up between James, Paul and Capela after factoring in their 11 incomplete roster charges.
If Houston does go this route, it would likely keep Capela’s cheap $7 million cap hold in place, as he’s bound to receive far more than that as his starting salary for next season. The Rockets could divide their remaining cap space between Paul and James, and then exceed the cap to re-sign Capela afterward using his Bird rights.
However, James and Paul can each receive a starting salary of $35.35 million in 2018-19, which means one or both of them would have to be amenable to taking a significant discount to make this hypothetical scenario work. And regardless, there’s no way the Rockets would be able to trade away the rest of their roster—particularly the two years and $41.7 million remaining on Ryan Anderson’s contract—without taking any money back in return.
While signing James as a free agent isn’t a realistic possibility, that doesn’t mean the James-to-Houston dream is dead.
Option 2: Sign-and-trade
If James does decline his player option, the Rockets are far more likely to pursue the sign-and-trade route with him rather than attempting to sign him outright.
James may not be keen on this route, as players acquired via a sign-and-trade must ink contracts for at least three seasons (not counting option years). But even if he is amenable to a sign-and-trade, the finances would be difficult for Houston.
Teams acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade are prohibited from exceeding the luxury-tax apron, which is projected to be roughly $129.1 million this coming season. The Rockets, who will have nearly $63.7 million in free-agent cap holds this summer to go along with their $77.6 million in guaranteed salary, would be well in excess of the apron unless they renounce some of their free agents.
Even if the Rockets sent an equivalent amount of salary out in a James deal, they’d have approximately $51.5 million left over to retain the rest of their free agents. That likely wouldn’t be enough to keep all three of Capela, Paul and Ariza in town.
The most salary Houston can accept in a trade is 125 percent of the outgoing salary, plus $100,000. If the Rockets signed James to his full 2018-19 max salary of $35.35 million, they would have to send out at least $28.2 million in salary to make the trade legal. At a minimum, that would mean dumping Anderson, who’s owed $20.4 million next season, along with either Eric Gordon ($13.5 million) or P.J. Tucker (nearly $8 million) in the deal.
What incentive would the Cavaliers have to facilitate such a trade? If James leaves, they’re headed straight for the lottery and they already have nearly $102.4 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, not counting James. Why would team owner Dan Gilbert willingly pay the luxury tax for a James-less team with zero championship upside?
Unless the Rockets sent back multiple unprotected future first-round picks, they don’t have the type of young prospects that could entice Gilbert into facilitating such a deal. Perhaps Morey could finagle some type of complicated three- or four-way trade that brings James to Houston, but this route likewise belongs in the pipe-dream basket.
Option 3: Opt-in-and-trade
The most realistic way for the Rockets to get James is by replicating how they landed Paul last summer.
If James accepts his $35.6 million player option for 2018-19, he would immediately become eligible to be traded. The Rockets, who are hard-capped this season and have $118.2 million in salary on their books, have roughly $7 million in breathing room before nudging into the apron that they cannot exceed until the start of the new league year.
This scenario comes down to timing and Cleveland’s willingness to make a deal.
A trade involving Anderson and one of Gordon or Tucker for James would be cap-legal prior to July 1, but the Cavaliers have no incentive to absorb Anderson’s bloated contract without getting a huge number of unprotected first-round picks and/or young prospects in return. Since Houston already owes its 2018 first-rounder to the Atlanta Hawks, it can’t deal its 2019 first-round selection until after the draft, and it lacks the prospects to grease the wheels on any deal.
If the Rockets waited until after July 1 to trade for James, they would no longer be subject to the hard cap, which would give them additional financial flexibility. But since James would be earning $35.6 million in this scenario, they would have to send out at least $28.4 million in salary, which means a deal involving Anderson ($20.4 million) and Tucker ($7.9 million) wouldn’t be enough on its own.
Either way, Cleveland likely would use this as an opportunity to dump one of its undesirable contracts on Houston.
Perhaps the Cavaliers would try to package J.R. Smith or Jordan Clarkson with LeBron in exchange for Anderson, Gordon and Tucker, figuring they could then flip Gordon and Tucker to playoff hopefuls for future assets. Anderson’s contract will be all but untradeable, but his presence would make Kevin Love that much more expandable.
In essence, Cleveland could expedite its post-James rebuild around whatever it can muster for Love, Gordon and Tucker, restocking the asset cupboard after four years of a win-now push.
While the opt-in-and-trade route is more realistic than the first two options, it still won’t be easy to convince Cleveland to acquiesce.
Option 4: Turn their attention elsewhere
In an appearance on the Open Floor podcast, Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins revealed (via SLAM‘s Ryne Nelson) that some people inside of the Rockets organization expressed skepticism about bringing James in this summer:
I asked a couple people in Houston about it, and there was sort of a look of, ‘Why would we break this up right now?’
Because they know everything they would have to give up. They know how many moves they would have to make. And would they be able to preserve the same level of shooting, the same level of defense?
And this is people inside the organization. How much would they have to sacrifice of what they built as far as the way they play? Would they have to play significantly differently?
It’s a fair question. Even if the Rockets did somehow wind up with James, Harden, Paul and Capela, their depth would be ravaged. While their top-end talent could go head-to-head with the Warriors, one ill-timed injury would submarine their championship chances.
Rather than rip apart its roster to create a Big Four, Houston may be better suited running back its 65-win squad next season.
“My job is to try and always improve,” Morey told reporters during his exit interview. “I’ll be kicking every rock, like we always do. But Coach and I were talking, if we have basically this same group back, we feel very good about it as well.”
Rival executives likewise believe that to be a wise plan of attack.
“Just through the battle of attrition, you have to think Golden State is going to lose eventually,” a Western Conference general manager told Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. “If you’re Houston, you could make a pretty strong argument for keeping together what you have, addressing a few needs and taking another crack at it.”
The Rockets reportedly will “be aggressive in free agency,” targeting both James and Paul George, according to Kelly Iko of Rockets Wire. However, it won’t be much easier for them to land George than James.
Whereas James would make slightly more than his free-agent max salary next season by picking up his player option, George would make nearly $10 million less than his max by accepting his $20.7 million option, which likely makes the opt-in-and-trade route a non-starter. George’s max salary in 2018-19 is roughly $5 million less than James’, but the Rockets still can’t feasibly carve out enough cap space to sign him as a free agent.
A sign-and-trade would be Houston’s most realistic route to land George, although it would still wind up depleting significant depth.
Rest assured, Morey has long been preparing for how best to approach this offseason, so he’ll have a plan of attack for whichever road the Rockets go down.
If he somehow lands James or George, it’ll be a masterpiece of cap wizardry.