The most noteworthy move of an eventful Houston Rockets off-season came quietly, announced at a press conference without warning and without preliminary report. James Harden had agreed to a renegotiation of his contract and an extension of its terms. A deal with two guaranteed seasons under contract now stretches to three with a player option in year four, all escalated financially to reflect the max contract particulars of today's NBA. Harden wasn't a free agent this summer but assumed the full benefit of the salary cap spike regardless.
Harden will be paid roughly $10 million more than originally scheduled in each of the next two seasons before drawing $30.4 million in the first (and possibly only, should Harden decline his eventual option to hit the market again) year of his functional extension. This was a possibility months in the making and one contingent on Houston missing out on their primary free agent targets this summer.
"When those top few bigger free agents went off the board, we thought [Harden's extension] was the best use of cap space that we had," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said.
This particular use of cap space is far more than a raise for Harden. It's a play in superstar equity. Smart NBA teams generally approach deals that age in their favor as an opportunity. Golden State, for example, leveraged Stephen Curry's below-market contract relative to a rising cap to sign Kevin Durant to an already loaded roster. Houston would have done the same had that kind of superstar scenario been available, but instead fell into a value proposition of either reinvesting in Harden or exploring the reserve market with what cap space remained.
It's a little wild that Houston functionally committed around $50 million in total for what could be one bonus season of Harden. Yet from a macro perspective, the Rockets have made one of the strongest gestures yet in asserting the real value of a superstar. A player like Harden is worth so much to a franchise that the Rockets chose to pay him significantly more than they had initially agreed for the sake of keeping their best player happy and subtly pitching the best players in the game.
"You have to have top-five, top-10 level players to have any chance to win in this league," Morey said. "We've had a long history of both being able to recruit them in free agency [and] get them through trade. We're not a team that ever picks high in the draft. I think our highest pick we [made] here was 14, since the team got Yao Ming in 2002. If we're never gonna pick high, which is where a lot of those top players come from, you've got to be able to get them though trade or free agency.
"Even through trade, those deals are often made to teams that the player wants to go to. It was a pretty easy analysis in that you need the [top-tier] player no matter what and you want to be able to signal to those players across the league that if you're in Houston, at any given moment, the team's always going to try to take care of you—whether it be with money or a top team you're playing with."
Houston invested years of work in acquiring a player like Harden. It makes sense that they would invest even more resources to keep him under contract for as long as possible, not to mention consider his extension an endowment in superstar relations. Committing to this kind of trickle-down teambuilding comes at a significant cost. Yet Morey is right in one critical respect that could make it all worthwhile: Today's superstars only end up where they'd like to be, and there's a lot riding on the Rockets establishing themselves as that kind of destination.
With that comes the pressure to field a competitive team. The Rockets split their regular season games last season due to ill fits, frontcourt injuries, and floundering defensive engagement. Some of that was addressed by Houston's off-season moves but not all; the team's defense, in particular, seems a glaring omission when it should have been a primary focus. The 2016–17 Rockets should live up to the full brunt of Mike D'Antoni's (sometimes unfair) reputation: fast, well-spaced, efficient, and sorely lacking the necessary defensive emphasis.
Harden is part of that and will have to do better. That said, his prodigious offensive skills are the sort to build around—to complement with players who can do what he doesn’t. Houston needs to be able to hold Harden accountable for his defense but also needs the personnel to handle difficult defensive responsibilities that Harden shouldn’t. It remains to be seen whether the Rockets have that in the kind of sufficiency to make them even a respectable defensive outfit.
Houston will win more games by sorting out some of the lingering weirdness of last season, and more yet by amping up what was already one of the league's best offenses. The arrival of D'Antoni and more consistent three-point shooters should streamline Houston's effective concept. The departure of Dwight Howard, for as productive as he still is in some respects, helps to keep the offense away from ill-fated post-ups. Eric Gordon makes sense as a supplemental scorer in the backcourt. Nene gives the Rockets an interior look with ball-moving sensibilities. And Anderson, at least on offense, makes all the sense in the world as a lane-clearer for Harden.
"We really saw Ryan as the perfect spacing four in the league," Morey said. "Not only is he an elite shooter—he's got more game than that. There's a lot of switching in the league now and he can attack switches well. He's someone who's got a versatile offensive game. And then defensively, obviously it's not his strength, but he's been a strong defensive rebounder, definitely, over his career."
There seem to be enough players on the roster for whom defense is not a strength to slate Clint Capela and Nene for truly thankless work in clean-up. Howard was visibly frustrated by his teammates' inability and/or disinterest when it came to containing their man off the dribble last season. There is little satisfaction in being the last line of defense against breakdown after breakdown. Yet Capela and Nene will be tasked for just the same, even from their well-meaning teammates.
Problems will arise from Anderson's defense. Gordon's slowed lateral speed and shorter profile will come into issue. Even the respectable defenders of the bunch (Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, K.J. McDaniels) won't be enough to counterbalance the clear tilt toward offense at the roster's core. An experienced coach was brought in to do what he does best and players signed in service of that goal, even at the sake of balance. There wasn't a player on the market who would have made an elite defense of the Rockets as currently constructed. Yet some of the players they've chosen to sign to lucrative, long-term deals augment what the team did well while exacerbating what it did poorly.
Still, there are smart synergies across the roster worth exploring. Harden, as a high-volume creator, and Gordon, as a utility shooter, could run a backcourt to ridiculous efficiency. Nene might wind up as a fun feeder on Corey Brewer's backdoor cuts and leak-outs. Capela (in whom Morey sees latent, if distant, All-Star potential) and Anderson have games tailored to support the other. A lot will work for the Rockets this season when their best players are working off of one another, running a system proven to fly when the right personnel is involved.
Keeping those players on the floor, however, could be part of the trouble. Morey noted that the Rockets specifically targeted players in their prime—preferring those who could "boost [Houston] at the highest levels of the league" over others who might play at a slightly lower level more consistently. Availability factors into that same line of thinking; given their current goals, the Rockets made clear their priorities by signing veterans with effective games and not insignificant injury histories.
Gordon has played in just 56% of his team's games over the past five years. Anderson never seems far removed from his last nagging injury, the sum of which cost him roughly a third of his team's games over the past three seasons. One could argue that Nene, a 15-year veteran, has never been healthy in his NBA career. These records are impossible to ignore, though Morey claims Houston found some reassurance in the nature of the injuries involved.
"Their injury history is real, obviously, and I do believe players who were injured are the most likely to get injured,” Morey said. "But none of these guys have anything that's sort of [a] long-term concern, at least from what our doctors are telling us. Eric broke his fingers a couple times. Ryan's had issues that are completely resolved as well. We feel pretty good about that going forward."
That optimism doesn't much protect the Rockets from the peril of committing $133 million over the next four years to Anderson and Gordon alone. This could end in disaster and will at the least require that Houston contort its rotation and roster to account for their individual weaknesses. Both, however, can help. Harden has never operated with this kind of shooting around him, even as the Rockets tried to tease out a more efficient offense by taking more three-pointers than any other team in the league last season.
The ball will be in Harden's hands. An extra $10 million will be in his pocket. And the Rockets have, if nothing else, alleviated some of the internal stressors to stage a fun and reasonably competitive showcase for their best player. Disagree with their methods if you will, but Houston's commitment to its top talent is undeniably thorough.