Grades: Rockets Ensure Defense With P.J. Tucker, Nene Deals

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Sunday July 2nd, 2017

After clearing out their roster to acquire Chris Paul via trade, the Rockets are now starting to piece together a playing rotation. Between Paul, James Harden, and other Houston incumbents, the starting lineup is already accounted for. Most everything else is in flux. Eric Gordon will play a crucial role spelling both backcourt positions. P.J. Tucker—who agreed to terms with Houston on a four-year, $32 million deal late Saturday night—will serve a similar function in the frontcourt, filling either forward spot as circumstances demand.

It appears Andre Iguodala was the Rockets’ first choice for that role. But once Iguodala made arrangements to return to Golden State on a far richer deal (three years, $48 million), Houston moved in to lock in a suitable alternative for part of the mid-level exception. What we don’t yet know is whether the Rockets will give Tucker their actual mid-level; as was noted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, Houston could preserve that exception spot for another signing if it were able to engage the Raptors on a sign-and-trade for a collection of unguaranteed contracts. The flexibility to add another Tucker-sized contract (or a collection of smaller ones into that space) would serve to fill out Houston’s lean bench. 

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No matter how clever Houston gets with machinations like this, either signing Tucker at a mid-level rate or acquiring him via sign-and-trade subjects the Rockets to the hard cap. This has its own ripple effects. Houston’s reported trade talks for Iman Shumpert have predictably stalled since Tucker’s agreement, in part because the Rockets now have a reserve defender under contract but also because Shumpert's contract could wind up being a tight fit. Excluding Houston’s host of players on non-guaranteed deals, the Rockets have $108 million committed between 10 players. That leaves at least three roster spots left for a team that cannot exceed $125.3 million in total salary and, practically speaking, would probably prefer some buffer. Shumpert’s $10.4 million would be an undue luxury.

Adding Tucker is also an attempt to address a more pressing need. No matter how the Rockets fill out their roster, Paul and Harden will be big-minute essentials and Gordon a regular behind them. Players like Ryan Anderson, on the other hand, aren’t quite so universal. There will be matchups where Anderson’s shaky defense becomes such an issue that it becomes untenable. Tucker is a natural alternative – a physical, versatile defender who can compete with forwards of all kinds. Tucker isn’t a lockdown defender at this stage (and surely won’t be getting any quicker as this deal takes him through his 36th birthday, though its last season is only partially guaranteed), but no one enjoys lining up against him. He doggedly fights through full possessions and has the strength to knock opponents off their spot, even if some stars can still drive around him or shoot over the top. Beyond his individual matchup, it might also help the Rockets – a team that could use a jolt at times last season—to have another ass-kicker in the mix.

Houston can’t count on Tucker to do anything especially dynamic on offense, though that shouldn’t matter much as the ball is best left with Paul and Harden anyway. Tucker’s offensive role wouldn’t be so different from Anderson’s, even if one is among the best long-range shooters in the league at his position and the other is the kind of shooter opponents still dare to beat them.

Those opportunities should only come more often, no matter if Tucker fills in behind Anderson at power forward or Trevor Ariza at small forward. Any team with Paul and Harden will leave opponents scrambling for answers. Tucker—an average three-point shooter who doesn’t get far when he puts the ball on the floor – is a sensible release point. Many nights will be a test to see if Tucker can sink enough of his open shoots to win defenses over. On some occasions he will fall short, though that might matter only against the absolute best teams in the conference. The Rockets are robust enough to absorb a tax on their offense and still produce at historic levels.

Grade: B-

Nene - Three years, $11 million deal

The first attempt at this deal was complicated by what’s called the “over-38 rule”—a clarification in the collective bargaining agreement designed to protect against loading contracts for potentially retiring players. Any seasons under contract beyond a player’s 38th birthday change the way the entire contract works in terms of its salary cap accounting. The final season of an initial four-year, $15 million agreement between Nene and the Rockets qualified. 

Here, Houston has rectified the issue by trimming a year—one that would coincide with Nene’s age-38 season—off the deal. Given Nene’s birthday (Sept 13), the distinction came down to a matter of weeks. The rest of the mechanics involved remain the same. The Rockets will re-up Nene using another salary cap quirk (the non-Bird exception), leaving the full mid-level exception intact. If anything, the team gets off easier by committing to just three seasons instead of four. Nene is a tremendous player when available, but suffers from injuries so often that his playing time has to be very carefully moderated. Four years from now, Nene might not be playing basketball at all. 

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In that light, the over-38 rule appears to have worked exactly as it was designed to. Houston originally offered Nene a longer deal at a smaller yearly figure so that it could make use of a particular exception, swallowing the fact that Nene might not actually play out his entire contract. Stretching out the length of the deal was the best way to make it worth Nene’s while. The catch wound up costing Nene $4 million that Houston was prepared to give him—somehow making this an even more team-friendly contract than expected. This is smart money for one of the better reserves in the league. You just don’t find veterans with Nene’s ferocity, spatial intelligence, and defensive ability at this price.

Grade: A

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