Big issue 1: The Rockets are coming off a season in which they made a major addition with Chris Paul joining presumptive MVP James Harden, tacked on three other new rotation players, won a league-high 65 games and took the eventual-champion Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals. Oh, and they had third-quarter leads in both Games 6 and 7, even as they were playing without Paul, who was injured.
The upshot there is that this does not appear to be a roster in need of an overhaul. Houston was the de facto runner-up to the Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy this year, even if there was no trip to the Finals.
Yet the speculation around Houston is that the Rockets could do something enormous this summer, with no less than a pursuit of LeBron James on the docket. James might be tempted to pack up from Cleveland and head to Houston because the Rockets have a ready-made contender, one that includes close friend Chris Paul, former Olympic teammate Harden and former Olympic assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. If his goal is to win, going to Houston should be James’ first choice.
James-to-Houston sounds fun in theory, but the mechanics of making it happen aren’t so much fun, even if James did want to finish up his career in eastern Texas — and there’s no real indication he wants that.
The Rockets could, as they did with Paul, persuade James to opt in to the final year of his contract and then make a trade with Cleveland. But Houston emptied its cupboard of young players in the Paul deal, does not own its draft pick this year and will be picking so low in the first round for the foreseeable future that they hardly have anything to offer a rebuilding team like the Cavs.
Do you suppose Cleveland would take back a package of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and a couple of future picks in the Nos. 28-30 range for James? How about PJ Tucker, Gordon, Nene and end-of-bench fodder? Right. Of course not.
The Rockets could try to involve third or even fourth teams with cap space to take on the contracts of Gordon and Anderson, but there would be no incentive for those teams to participate in a deal that would create a new Rockets “Super Team.”
Houston just does not have the assets to get a deal like this done, and the same likely goes for a potential pursuit of Thunder forward Paul George. In the unlikely event that the Rockets could unload enough contracts to make a trade possible, the team would be left to plaster gaping holes in the roster with veteran minimum players.
That’s a price worth paying for James, of course, but this year’s successes suggest that nothing so drastic is necessary to make the Rockets a challenger to the Warriors again. They already are a challenger, and with stronger second-half showings in the conference finals, the Rockets might be NBA champs now.
Big issue 2: When Paul agreed to opt into the final year of his contract last summer, he forfeited his opportunity to land a $150 million contract in order to facilitate a trade to Houston. He did so with the understanding the Rockets would then reward him with a big new contract this summer. But how big?
Paul wants the max, which is only natural. That will be worth $200 million over five years, which is an awful lot to pay a guy who is 33 and coming off an injury-pocked year — Paul would be making $47 million at age 37. Besides, Paul is the president of the players association, and it would not be a good look among future free agents if the Rockets appeared to be shortchanging him.
Paul has few options. If he sought other offers, he would find there is not much of a market for him among the shallow pool of contenders with salary-cap room. He could get a four-year deal worth $150 million or so elsewhere, but who’s ready to give him that now?
Still, the Rockets appear bound to pay Paul. It will be a tough pill to swallow, and finding some way to lessen the cap hit — incentive clauses to protect against injuries for example — would be ideal. But Paul has given no indication he’s willing to take a hometown discount.
Free-agent outlook: The Rockets need depth, and they’ll have to figure out how to maintain the roster they had last year (without a James/George acquisition, that is) and still add a piece that can give the bench a boost. That’s not going to be easy.
The first order of business will be locking down center Clint Capela, who had a breakout year with 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and a league-high 65.2 percent shooting. He also boosted his free-throw shooting to 56.0 percent. That’s not great, but considering he’d shot 37.9 percent two years ago, it’ll do.
Capela is a restricted free agent, and can get offers from other teams, which can be matched by the Rockets. Unless there is a legitimate shot at James or George, the Rockets will surely bring Capela back, likely on a four-year deal worth around $90-100 million.
Next up is Trevor Ariza, who has been with Houston for the last four seasons and has been, in that time, serviceable offensively (12.2 points, 35.7 percent 3-point shooting) and very good defensively. Ariza might be able to land a mid-level contract elsewhere ($8.8 million), but the Rockets have his Bird rights and are able to pay him more despite being capped-out.
There aren’t a lot of other choices for Houston at small forward should Ariza sign elsewhere. The team might have to slightly overpay to keep him.
Luc Mbah a Moute is the next free-agent role player the Rockets will have to consider. He’s a good defensive player who has developed into an above-average 3-point shooter, and was a bargain at $2 million last year. The Rockets have to hope he’s willing to remain a bargain.
The Rockets will be well into the luxury tax, and seeking players willing to sign for a veteran minimum deal after that. Plucking the likes of Jeff Green or David West is possible, and though Wilson Chandler might be a stretch given how little money Houston can offer, if he can’t find a home in the first wave of free agency, a one-year stint with a potential champ would be good for him.
The young folks: Capela is 24, which makes him, by far, the youngest rotation player the Rockets have — next up is Harden, who will be 29 in August. The Rockets don’t have their draft pick this year and thus, essentially, have no young folks.
Their prospects are mostly in the frontcourt. Houston has 7-foot forward Isaiah Hartenstein, who spent all of last season with Rio Grande of the G-League after the Rockets took him in the second round. He averaged 9.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in 18.7 minutes with the Vipers last year, and is working on developing a 3-point shot.
There’s also 2016 second-rounder Zhou Qi, who is 22 and still not quite ready for the NBA. Maybe the young guy with the best shot at getting playing time is center Chinanu Onuaku, whose game resembles Capela’s. He averaged 10.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in 25.6 minutes with Rio Grande, and showed an ability to play with force inside.
Wait till next year: Rockets fans can tamp down expectations for landing James or George and instead focus on how general manager Daryl Morey can find a way to manipulate an upgrade for a team that will be in the tax and virtually depleted of young assets.
But the good news is that the Rockets do not require a major upgrade to get themselves back to a showdown with the Warriors. They got that far this year, after all, and if they can stay healthy and build on the experience of having played together an entire season, they’ll be in the same position next year.
They were within a few possessions of taking down Golden State this year. That should be enough for them next year, too.