While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make.CBA expert Danny Lerouxbreaks down the major challenges and opportunities for theHouston Rockets in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
Houston's season ended with a thud, but the off-season offers hope. Last summer, GM Daryl Morey and the Rockets made big moves by signing both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to four-year contracts while also renegotiating and extending MVP candidate James Harden. Despite those expenditures, the Rockets could potentially become players in the free agent market this summer. Giving up a first-round pick to the Lakers to exchange Corey Brewer for Lou Williams moved Houston’s worst 2017–18 contract off the books for a useful and desirable playoff contributor. While their available cap space is barely above $10 million this summer, both Williams and Trevor Ariza would be in strong demand if they needed to clear additional room.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Rockets this offseason:
Wooing a starting-caliber free agent: Houston is in an unusual position because they have a talented starting five and capable bench already under contract for 2017–18 with some cap space to work with. The Rockets have the option to simply run it back next season but may be able to create an even better team in both the near and long term. While it would be hard to fit in a true max player, they should try to secure a meeting with Gordon Hayward, discussions with talents like Jrue Holiday, Serge Ibaka, George Hill and maybe even Paul Millsap could prove fruitful. A youthful replacement for the 31-year old Ariza would be perfect but those players are rarely free agents, particularly early in their careers.
Replacing Nene: With the starting five, Eric Gordon and Sam Dekker on the books, the most significant free agent will be Nene, who was an amazing value at the Room Mid-Level exception this season. Since the Brazilian big man only signed a one-year deal at a low salary, Houston would likely need to use cap space to bring him back or sign a replacement. Fortunately, there will be a ton of centers on the market though it is unlikely any of them will be able to match Nene’s production.
Clint Capela extension: The soon to be 23-year-old center showed some nice progress in his third season, his first as a full-time starter. The 25th pick in the 2014 draft has a low cap hold for 2018–19 even with the stronger new rules and any extension would replace that hold with his new salary. As such, the Rockets should only sign off if Capela takes a meaningful discount or if they will not have space next summer because they added another high-level player beforehand that will still be under contract for 2018–19.
Potential Free Agents: Nene (Unrestricted), Kyle Wiltjer (Non-Guaranteed), Isaiah Taylor (Non-Guaranteed), Bobby Brown (Restricted) and Troy Williams (Restricted)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: $10.7 million
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $11.7 million
2017 Draft Assets: Second-round picks from Denver (#43) and Portland (#45). First-rounder owed to Lakers from February trade for Lou Williams.
Potential Targets: There are two key tiers for the Rockets to consider: high-level starters like Hayward, Ibaka and Holiday or low eight-figure players they can sign for about $10 million per season. The second group would include forwards like James Johnson, PJ Tucker, Omri Casspi and Luke Babbitt or a center like Willie Reed or Andrew Bogut to fill Nene’s shoes. Houston has also been good at finding talent on the margins and having some cap space available would allow them to give those prospects more than their minimum.
Pressure Scale: 3. Houston’s daunting challenge came last summer as the team had to grapple with finding talent and creating value in a market flush with cash. Now, Morey and the front office can focus their energy more narrowly from a strong foundation. The league’s third-best team in the regular season serves as an awfully good fallback option. Another element in their favor is that the Rockets are not building on a collection of inexpensive but eventually costly players like Utah and Minnesota, so ownership does not need to worry too much about the franchise becoming a major luxury tax payer unless circumstances change dramatically.
State of the Franchise: Maintaining, mostly. Harden, Gordon, Anderson, Beverly and Capela are all under team control for at least two more seasons and would only need to be moved to facilitate a truly massive addition. That opportunity could come in either of the next two years but the Rockets can only spend that money one time so they will need to be confident in their direction at that point. They can also keep the prospect of Harden’s eventual Designated Veteran extension (should he be willing to sign it) in the back of their minds, since otherwise he will be a free agent in 2019.