The Houston Rockets have been on the brink of a championship for a few years now. The fact that their championship window just so happened to correspond with one of the three greatest teams in NBA history has kept them from even making the NBA Finals and will certainly underrate them as an all-time great team themselves, but the Rockets of the last five years (and counting) should be in that conversation. Save for the nightmarish year with Dwight Howard in 2016, the Rockets have made the second round twice, the conference finals twice, and were a whisper away from their first championship in 2018 before an unholy amount of bad luck was dumped on their front door in the form of a continuous stream of missed shots that saw their best chance of toppling the Golden State Warriors slip away.
Earlier that season, the most important figure since James Harden became a part of the Rockets organization, when Tilman Fertitta bought the team from longtime owner Leslie Alexander. Fertitta has been a controversial figure within NBA circles since he assumed control of the team. In his first full offseason as principal shareholder, it was clear that Fertitta did not have the same philosophy as Alexander when it came to spending on the Rockets when Trevor Ariza walked to the Phoenix Suns for $15 million, an amount that would have cost Fertitta an arm and a leg in luxury tax penalties but is exactly the type of signing a contending team makes anyway in order to keep their title window open. Instead, Ariza was replaced by minimum contracts for Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, and Carmelo Anthony, none of whom were with the team by the time they made their postseason run. To his credit, Fertitta was willing to break the bank to retain Chris Paul on a max contract and the team eventually came to a deal with Clint Capela, but to say that Fertitta had done everything in his power last offseason to put his team in position to win just isn’t true.
The cost-saving continued later in the offseason and into the season, when Houston made a series of moves to get under the luxury tax threshold, from messing around with Danuel House’s service days on his Two-Way contract and making it more difficult for him to get acclimated to his teammates and the Rockets’ system to salary-dumping Ennis to Philadelphia, where he played an important part in their run to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. At the deadline, the Rockets moved Brandon Knight’s unsavory contract and a first-round pick for Iman Shumpert as the principal return, rather than using the same package to fetch a better player making slightly more money. Shumpert, as it turned out, wasn’t good enough to really help them against Golden State, but there were players available for the price they paid for him who would have been high-end rotation players in the Warriors series.
The postseason moves thus far have been more of the same. From firing most of head coach Mike D’Antoni’s staff to lowballing D’Antoni on a contract extension, the offseason is already off to an inauspicious start for the Rockets. There may be other changes to come between now and the end of the 2019 offseason, as reporting seems to indicate that one of Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and P.J. Tucker will not be back with the team next season, according to Marc Stein’s newsletter. The return for whichever of those players gets traded will help inform how much money general manager Daryl Morey will have to spend, as it seems very unlikely that Fertitta would greenlight a roster that’s over the tax threshold. Gordon is clearly the best of those three and is on a contract that expires next year and Tucker has substantial non-guarantees built into his deal for 2020-21; only Capela’s contract stretches into the long-term future, with four years and $66.2 million in base salary still left on his deal, plus another $8 million in earnable bonuses.
Spending wins championships, but it seems that Fertitta wants to see his team win before he’s willing to do the spending. Of the last 16 teams to make the NBA Finals, including the 2019 matchup between Golden State and Toronto, 11 paid the tax, with the five exceptions being the 2017 Warriors, who took advantage of the massive cap spike in 2016 to sign Kevin Durant, the 2015 Warriors, who upgraded significantly at head coach and began one of the great dynasties of the modern era, the 2013 and 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who paid Tim Duncan a grand total of $20 million over those two years, and the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, who still had Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Harden on their rookie deals. That Oklahoma City team’s unwillingness to break the bank for all of their young talent is what spurred them to move Harden to Houston and while the Rockets’ spending issues don’t pertain to young, up-and-coming superstars, the frugality is holding them back from reaching their ultimate goals in a very similar way.
Houston will make some moves around the fringes and perhaps unlock their full mid-level exception, depending on what sort of trades they make further up the roster. Being willing to move on from Capela at least makes some sense, given the financial commitment to him, his very real regression last season, and the general difficulty they have playing a traditional center against their biggest rival, but if it’s Gordon or Tucker, it had better be a very significant haul for it to make the Rockets better. Gordon’s floor spacing, slashing, and perimeter defense was an instrumental part of Houston’s success in this era, while Tucker’s ability to play small ball center, hit the offensive glass, and knock down shots at a league-best rate from the corners made him a perfect role player to surround Harden. Losing either of those guys would all but certainly make the Rockets worse, but in many ways that would be par for the course for the club under Fertitta’s ownership.