Where Will the Rockets' Flexibility Come From?

Until play resumes, The Crossover will be examining one big-picture question for every NBA team. Today we take a look at the Houston Rockets, who were 40–24 when the season was suspended.
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The Rockets had fully committed to small ball before the NBA season was suspended. James Harden and especially Russell Westbrook were unleashed with Robert Covington at center, winning seven of their first nine games playing microball before losing four of their next five. Houston has obviously not been afraid to tinker with the roster over the last four seasons, first by trading for Chris Paul, then by sending him to OKC for Westbrook. All the while, it’s still unclear if Houston is a top-tier title contender. The Rockets slot behind at least the Lakers and Clippers in the West. In the conference standings, they’re behind the Paul-led Thunder by virtue of a tiebreaker. If Daryl Morey wants to keep tweaking the roster moving forward, how is he going to do it?

The Rockets owe Harden and Westbrook over $40 million next season, and their salaries increase the following two years. Robert Covington is signed through 2022, while Eric Gordon will make nearly $20 million in 2023. Houston is already over next year’s salary cap with only six guaranteed contracts, and that’s before accounting for the loss of revenue due to the pandemic (and as the Rockets would like to forget, the China situation.) There are certainly always ways to improve at the margins. And Houston can attract players at the minimum to play with Russ and Harden. But Morey is going to be severely hamstrung trying to add impact pieces to this current roster. And that roster, as presently constructed, is a sixth seed in the West with a bunch of outgoing first-round draft picks or draft swaps over the next five years.

How Houston will work in the margins with a seemingly bare cupboard will be fascinating. Morey will obviously stop at nothing to build a title contender, but his obstacles are significant. His owner is taking a particularly unique financial hit during the pandemic. The contracts of Westbrook and Gordon would be incredibly difficult to trade without taking bad deals in return. And there’s the specter of a new CBA and a dramatically altered salary cap hanging over everything. The Rockets have boldly made themselves a part of the NBA’s arms race over the last few seasons. Even when other teams were considered heavy favorites, Houston still kept pushing toward the top. It’s in Morey’s nature to keep trying for more, but he’s quickly running out of room to add to his roster.