The Houston Rockets entered last summer with one goal: find a way to take down the Golden State Warriors. They kicked things off with pure wizardry to trade for Chris Paul. During free agency, they went rangy wing hunting, snagging P.J Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to go along with Trevor Ariza.
Houston slowed things down offensively, opting for an isolation-heavy style that wasn’t always pretty but almost always worked. They switched any and everything defensively, prepping themselves for a showdown with the defending champs. Virtually everything went to plan and then some. The Rockets led the NBA in wins and net rating, finished in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and genuinely looked like the best team in the for large portions of the season.
Houston mostly breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs before meeting up with the Warriors. The Rockets were able to take a 3-2 lead in the series before the basketball gods pulled the rug from under Chris Paul. The Warriors finding their third quarter mojo, and Houston missing an improbable 27 threes in a row in the deciding Game 7 also hurt.
Now, the Rockets find themselves in a crucial spot. They must find a way to keep their title contention window open while juggling the contracts of three of their most important players — and being hindered by Ryan Anderson’s deal. It’s a tricky proposition, but if there’s anyone that can pull something off, it’s Daryl Morey.
7. ND: Did a pulled hamstring close Houston’s title window?
It’s possible, but I doubt it.
I suppose the case for it would be this: If the Rockets can’t make a splash offseason addition and simply “run it back” with the same group of core players, the only rotation player younger than 29 years old will be Clint Capela (24). While no one that played major playoff minutes is in the 35 or older bracket where you’d expect major slippage, you do have a number of guys (Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute) who are in their low 30s, and it’s possible some regression could start to occur.
My counter is this: Consider how enormous the gap was between Houston and every other team in the West, aside from Golden State. Portland was the next-closest team, and they were 16 games back! The Rockets went 8-2 (.800 clip) in the playoffs vs. Minnesota and Utah, and I’d argue those are the two West teams (excluding Houston and Golden State) best positioned entering next season.
Even if there’s some slippage over the 82-game grind, Houston has an enormous buffer zone to work with. Barring a major injury to Harden, and that’s never happened in Houston, the Rockets can basically sleepwalk their way to a top-two seed in the West, which puts them on track for the Western Conference Finals again and another shot at the Warriors. And with Golden State coming off four straight NBA Finals trips and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant both entering their 30s, I don’t think Steve Kerr goes all-out in the regular season to try to win 70-ish games.
It’s very possible the Rockets could take the No. 1 seed again. And if this veteran group can get back to the West Finals, no matter what building they’re in, my hunch is they’ll be able to recapture their peak form when they see Golden State on the other sideline. Think back to Doc Rivers’ latter Boston teams, when their playoff form consistently outpaced their regular season form once they raised the intensity. I think that’s a fair parallel for the current Rockets, and it’ll be up to Paul to stay healthy and finish the job this time after coming up one game short in 2018.
6, How much, if at all, does Chris Paul reportedly demanding a max worry you?
It worries me a little, but not as much as it seems to bother most people.
The reality is this: Barring a radical roster reconstruction, which isn’t likely since they were effectively one win away from the NBA title, the Rockets are already capped out for the foreseeable future. And they’re certainly capped out this summer, no matter what CP3 signs for. Any marquee acquisition (LeBron James, Paul George) would almost certainly have to come via an opt-in-and-trade scenario, just like what brought Paul to Houston a year ago.
Would I prefer Paul to take a three-year deal instead of a five-year deal? Of course. The more flexibility, the better. But after giving James Harden the richest contract in NBA history, which will be paying him over $40 million per season after 2020, and likely giving a deal to Clint Capela this summer that could come close to $30 million per season in that same range… you’re going to be at close to $70 million a year just between Harden and Capela.
So, in terms of Paul potentially getting the max at age 36 and 37 — is it an overpay? Sure. But it really doesn’t have that large of an effect on team-building and available resources. Perhaps it does if new owner Tilman Fertitta eventually gets stingy about the luxury tax, but to this point he’s expressed a willingness to pay it for a contender.
5. How surprised were you by Clint Capela’s growth this season?
Very surprised. Capela has always had great chemistry and timing on the pick-and-roll with Harden, so adding another Hall of Fame point guard in Paul was inevitably going to be great for him on the offensive end. He’s always been extremely efficient. But I didn’t expect his defense and toughness to improve as much as it did.
Going into the year, I wondered if Daryl Morey might go after DeAndre Jordan (a Houston native) this offseason based on the potential defensive upgrade. Not anymore. Capela was actually Houston’s most irreplaceable player on defense, in my opinion. The key to the team’s enormous defensive improvement was their ability to switch on all picks, and most teams can’t do that because there are so few centers who can move their feet well enough to defend guards and also be disciplined enough to stay out of foul trouble. Capela can.
As far as toughness, after being dominated in the 2017 playoffs by Steven Adams, he opened the 2018 playoffs by outplaying both Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. In the Minnesota matchup, he bullied Towns at times. It’s been an incredible physical and mental transformation for Capela in less than a year, and at 24 years old, he might still be getting better. I think the next step for Capela is to prove he can score enough offensively to punish teams who go small — namely the Warriors — but scoring 20 points on 90 percent shooting in Game 7 is a nice building block to enter the offseason.
4. The Rockets will throw their hats in the ring for the King, but wouldn’t Paul George make more sense? He’s younger, an easier fit, and it’d probably be easier to work out a sign-and-trade with OKC than Cleveland.
Mostly agree. If you can get LeBron, you do it. He’s the best player in the world, and he’s better than Paul George. I don’t buy the fit concerns about ball dominance — everyone said the same thing about adding Chris Paul last summer, and look how that worked out. If Paul, Harden, and LeBron want to make it work, they’ll make it work. And with LeBron and CP3 each turning 34 next year, perhaps both want and/or need to play off-the-ball more to reduce the physical toll and prolong their careers.
That said, it’s complicated because of what we laid out before — Houston is most likely capped out. It’ll most likely require LeBron or George to opt into the final year of their existing deals to facilitate a trade, which allows Houston to avoid the hard cap, but LeBron opting into his final year means Houston has to send out close to $35 million in players to match salary.
Eric Gordon, at 29 years old and making $13 million per season, is a positive asset and probably has to be included in most proposals since Houston doesn’t have many other positive assets. But from there, it’s hard for the Rockets to make the math work without including Ryan Anderson, who at $20 million per season for two more years is one of the worst contracts in the league.
The Cavs are in luxury-tax territory with LeBron (or his comparable salary slot), so why would they pay it for a rebuilding team and Anderson? You could possibly rope in a third team to either take Anderson into cap space or send expiring or non-guaranteed deals to Cleveland… but Houston would have to give most of its assets (future 1sts) to that team for taking Anderson, which would leave Gordon and not much else for Cleveland. Would Dan Gilbert do that? Possible, but not easy.
The math for George is much simpler, because if he opts in for the final year of his existing deal at $20 million… Eric Gordon and Nene makes it work. You don’t have to deal with the Ryan Anderson problem. And for OKC, with no cap room for the foreseeable future and Russell Westbrook at 29 signed to a supermax deal, getting Gordon is clearly a better scenario than watching George walk to LA for no compensation. And if they need a future draft pick as sweetener, it’s available because you don’t have the Anderson problem.
I know all the rumors about PG and the Lakers, but I think he’d be open to a one-year trial run in Houston on a legitimate title contender. Worst case, even if he doesn’t like it, he could revisit the Laker option in July 2019. At 29 years old, he’d still have max offers. And for the Rockets, while George isn’t as transcendent as LeBron, he’s still a perennial All-Star who might fit perfectly in that No. 3 role with Harden and Paul doing the heavy lifting as playmakers. He’d be a massive defensive upgrade on Gordon and by the numbers, an even better shooter on offense. To use a Warriors’ analogy — and that’s the focus of everything here — George could be Houston’s Klay Thompson.
3. Gerald Green has to come back, right? That man eats, sleeps, and breathes Houston.
I’d be stunned if Green isn’t back. Great locker-room fit, proved willing to accept DNP-CDs without making a fuss, and at 32 years old isn’t likely to have major offers elsewhere. Legend in the community. My personal favorite player to interview, too. Great guy. I’d expect him back for the minimum. He’ll probably be out of the rotation when the season starts, but able to step in as injuries and other issues (maintenance on older players?) inevitably arise.
2. As of now, the Rockets only have one pick (#46) in this year’s draft. If they don’t sell off the pick, who are some players you’d like to see them target?
Daryl Morey will always go best player available, particularly that low in the draft. But if all things are equal, I’d like them to go smaller. Houston already has a lot of young prospect bigs (Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi, Isaiah Hartenstein) from recent second rounds. And if there was one hole on the roster from a depth perspective in 2017-18, it was the fourth guard spot behind Paul, Harden, and Gordon.
They tried to go after several veterans, including Jameer Nelson, but between limited financial resources and no guarantees of playing time (if Paul, Harden, and Gordon are all healthy, they’re getting all 96 guard minutes), it was tough to strike a deal. Yet as we saw in the playoffs, if one of those three goes out like Paul did, they were in a tough spot. Well, if you can’t strike the right deal in free agency, that’s what draft picks and club control are all about.
I like Jevon Carter out of West Virginia a lot — he actually gives me a bit of a Pat Beverley vibe with his defense and hustle, and everyone knows how well Beverley fit in Houston. But other guards in that mid-second range could be guys like Devonte Graham, Keenan Evans, Grayson Allen, Malik Newman, and Tony Carr, just to name a few. In general, Houston has more of a pipeline of young bigs than they do of guards, so this pick would ideally help even that out.
1. Aside from the obvious stars, who are some players you’d like to see Houston go after?
The Rockets are almost certainly going to be a luxury-tax team moving forward with Paul, Capela, Ariza, and Mbah a Moute all due for richer contracts. So that means they’ll only have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (MLE) (~$5.3M) available, as opposed to the Non-Taxpayer MLE (~$9M) that they used last year for Tucker. Based on that, it’ll likely be a lower-tier of free agents that they go after this year, though it’s possible they could get a big discount or two based on the opportunity to play on contender.
They did go after J.J. Redick last year, and if they end up trading Gordon in a deal for a star, there’d be a clear hole for Redick’s skillset. But I don’t know that it’s reasonable to expect Redick to go from making over $20 million to the Taxpayer MLE level. Tyreke Evans could also be interesting in that role, though he’s less of a shooter and more of a playmaker.
In the lower tier, I’d expect shooting and defense to be the main priority – essentially, more 3&D, two-way players. For the Rockets, it’s all about catching the Warriors, and if you have a huge deficiency on either end… Golden State will exploit it. Maybe an Anthony Tolliver type could work, given his energy on defense and career-best 43 percent showing from behind the arc last year.
They could also go for more flexibility up front, because there was a huge dropoff from Capela to either Nene or Ryan Anderson since neither could switch anywhere near as well as Capela could. Perhaps Brandan Wright, who they actually signed on the buyout market in February but had to release for medical reasons, could be an option again if his knee checks out. He’s still only 30 years old and moves really well defensively, when healthy. And on offense, he can still provide the element of “vertical spacing” that D’Antoni raves about with Capela and says is extremely important.