Moving all your chips into the middle of the table when you already know your opponent is holding pocket aces is usually the wrong move, but that’s exactly what general manager Daryl Morey did with his Houston Rockets team last summer in acquiring Chris Paul for a host of role players and rebuilding his team around Paul and incumbent superstar James Harden. While there were some fit questions between the two ball-dominant lead guards, Morey bet that they could make it work, designing the rest of his team around beating those pocket aces, the Golden State Warriors. Were it not for an ill-timed Paul injury or historically bad shooting from the three-point line in Game 7, Morey’s vision might have been successful. The Rockets were the best team throughout the regular season and, depending on who you ask, may have outplayed the Warriors in that series, despite not moving on to the NBA Finals.
A year later, there might be another opt-in-and-trade acquisition on the horizon for the Rockets, who have been heavily linked to LeBron James. James has a player option for 2018-19 which most expect him to decline in order to become a free agent, but opting in would allow Cleveland to trade him to Houston, the same way Paul opted in and was traded from the Clippers this time last year. However, Paul was acquired using a host of role players on decent contracts; after gutting their team for him last year, it’s not clear how the Rockets would do so again. Most trades that work within the league’s rules begin with Ryan Anderson, who is a decidedly negative contract and wouldn’t interest the Cavaliers in the least, especially given their luxury tax obligations if they were to make the trade. That creates the need for a third team to take on Anderson, which will be no easy task to find and would likely require at least two first-round picks from Houston to make it worthwhile.
Houston can move for James without using Anderson, as Kevin Pelton detailed for ESPN recently. It would require essentially gutting the remainder of their team to do so, but makes more sense as a package for the Cavaliers to take back. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are positive assets on their respective contracts and could be re-flipped by Cleveland for future value to kickstart their rebuild. Zhou Qi didn’t show much during his rookie year but is signed up to the “Hinkie Special” of multiple non-guaranteed years and a team option on the end of it, so the Cavaliers could get a look at him for very little money. The remainder of the trade is just salary flotsam, but Cleveland could do worse than taking on the six Pelton mentions for James, who may be leaving anyway for no compensation.
Still, the odds of Houston nabbing James are relatively small—it would require Cleveland (and possibly at least one more team) to cooperate with their needs and James to pick Houston as his landing spot—but any team that can possibly get in on the James sweepstakes has to be willing to move heaven and earth to get it done.
Assuming the Rockets take a tamer path this offseason, they’ll still have plenty to navigate. Paul is technically a free agent but there is very little doubt he’ll re-sign after their special 2017-18 season. Since he was traded to Houston rather than signed a free agent, his full Bird rights are intact, allowing Houston to give him a full five-year max totaling $205.0 million. In a particularly adept piece of negotiating by Paul and James (the President and First Vice President of the NBPA), the Over-36 Rule was changed to Over-38, giving Paul the opportunity to re-sign for a five-year max at age 33 with no repercussions. James falls in the same camp, though if he were to opt in to his contract for next season, he would then be too old to receive the five-year max in 2019.
Paul’s return won’t quite push Houston into the tax, but they have another pair of important incumbent free agents who need new contracts: Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza. Capela is a restricted free agent at the end of his rookie-scale contract and might get a max or near-max from a team with cap space. Phoenix was rumored to have been interested in Capela at that price, but those talks have died down since the lottery results were revealed—the Suns are likely going to take their franchise center in DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick in next week’s draft. Other than Phoenix, teams like Chicago or Dallas could put in a max offer for Capela, forcing the Rockets to pony up or lose their third-best player for much of last season.
Bringing back Capela and Paul on their respective maxes puts Houston deep into the tax, to the tune of more than $175 million in salary and tax paid out to a roster of just nine players. New owner Tilman Fertita has made it clear that he’s willing to spend for a championship contender, which the Rockets surely are, but even he has to have a breaking point. Ariza may be the victim in this case, though he’d have absolutely no trouble landing a job with another team if Houston decides to move on from him. A little like Capela, it’s likely that Ariza will have to go out on the market and find a better deal for himself before bringing it back to Houston, though he’s under no obligation to do so as an unrestricted free agent.
Limited to just the $5.3 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, Houston won’t have much flexibility to add new pieces to the roster. Their free agency targets look very similar to Golden State’s list from yesterday’s installment in this series, with the added roster flexibility of being able to go after a wing or big man if needed. As with Golden State, Joe Harris would be the top of my list if I were Houston, though he may price himself out of their range. Additionally, a few names to add to Houston’s potential shopping list include Nerlens Noel, Kevon Looney, and Jerami Grant, who would all give them varying degrees of defensive punch and could play Capela’s role off the bench for the Rockets.
It’s not often we can say that a team will be competitive for the NBA Finals whether or not they are able to trade for the best player in the league, but that’s exactly where the Rockets are—acquiring James would put them over the top as clearly the league’s most talented team, but after this year’s performance, a couple of small additions on the fringes would keep them right on the tail of the Warriors as the class of the league. Whether Paul’s five-year max ages poorly or not shouldn’t matter; they’re paying over the long haul to get as much value up front as possible and if it ends in a title, as it almost did this season, then it’ll all be worthwhile.