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NBA Offseason Reviews: Houston Rockets

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By Matt Flynn | Staff Writer

We continue our coverage of the NBA offseason by grading each team’s moves and also looking forward to their 2018-19 season. Click on my author page at the bottom for my other related articles. This one is 6th in a series of all 30 teams.

The Houston Rockets were a win away from the NBA Finals, and their loss to the Warriors was arguably attributable to missing starting Point Guard Chris Paul during Game 7. They really needed to spend their offseason not getting any worse, but maintaining the style of play the allowed them to compete with the Warriors. They made some moves which bolstered their malleable defense that switches on pick and roles, and they’re still going to take a ton of threes, but they also lost some of last year’s team members that could have a larger impact than the stats indicate.

Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors

Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals (Getty Images)

Here’s how they line up this year so far with cap hits in millions:

PG – Chris Paul (35.7); Michael Carter-Williams (1.8);

SG – James Harden (30.4); Eric Gordon (13.5); Gerald Green (1.5)

SF – P.J. Tucker (8.0); James Ennis (1.6); Vincent Edwards (0.8)*

PF – Carmelo Anthony (1.5); Ryan Anderson (20.4); Isaiah Hartenstein (0.8)

C – Clint Capela (15.3); Nenê Hilario (3.7); Zhou Qi (1.8)*

The Rockets also have camp invites out to NCAA tournament star from Houston, G-Rob Gray, former first round pick, F- Brunco Caboclo, as well as F-Gary Clark. They could fill the rest of their roster by those guys and guaranteeing Edwards and Qi, or they could add someone for the minimum. They’re in a financial crunch, however, as they currently sit with around $136 million in salaries, which would put them $14 million over the tax. Every minimum contract adds to the tax payment multiplier, so they could be looking at a $30 million luxury tax bill.

Also, by way of background, veteran players get different minimums depending on experience, but the league reimburses the team for whatever they spend over 1.5 million, because the league doesn’t want veteran minimum players getting less of an opportunity than younger minimum players because of a salary discrepancy. So, although the Rockets are only paying Carmelo 1.5 million this year, his minimum contract is actually about 2.4 million.

In terms of additional house-keeping moving forward, they retain the draft rights for USC Guard De’Anthony Melton, who they drafted in the second round with the 46th overall pick. It’s possible that he could either make the roster this season or fill one of their two way spots, but I expect him to be present in camp one way or another. They do have their own first rounder, but no second rounders for the 2019 draft. That first rounder could potentially be valuable in trying to move off of Ryan Anderson’s salary, as he’s owed almost 42 million over the next two seasons.

The rumor has been primarily using Melton and maybe a future first to get off of Anderson’s money, which would be the primary luxury tax saver. We’ll see if they’re able to swing a deal with a team like Sacramento, one of the few teams who still have cap space remaining.

Most of the roster will return next year, and after the Paul and Capela extensions, they won’t be players for 2019 cap space. The only players who face unrestricted free agency are actually the current players who they signed to one-year minimums this offseason. The Rockets also have not used the majority of their mini mid-level exception as a team over the luxury tax because that 5 million dollar contract they could offer is not tax exempt.

Even if they could get a quality player on this year’s buyout market for around the mini mid-level, they would still have to pay that with the tax multiplier, and they already are staring at almost a $30 million luxury tax bill. They would likely need to find a way to get off of Anderson’s contract before that becomes a possibility. This roster appears to be pretty set on what we’ll see for opening day.

These players are additions from last year’s roster:

G – Michael Carter-Williams (free agent, signed from CHA)

F – James Ennis (free agent, signed from DET)

F – Carmelo Anthony (free agent, signed from OKC/ATL)

F – Isaiah Hartenstein (roster addition on draft rights from 2017 second round pick)

G/F – Vincent Edwards (draft, second round pick from Purdue after trade with UTA)

These players are no longer with the team:

F – Trevor Ariza (free agent, signed with PHX)

F – Luc Mbah a Moute (free agent, signed with LAC)

F/C – Tarik Black (free agent, unclaimed)

G/F – Joe Johnson (free agent, unclaimed)

G – Aaron Jackson (free agent, unclaimed)

C – Chinanu Onuaku (trade with Dallas, later waived)

They started their offseason by waiving G-Aaron Jackson and then going into the draft without a first round pick and only one second round pick. They took the aforementioned Melton with the second rounder, and then bought a pick from Utah, giving them cash for Vincent Edwards, who they signed to a contract. They also used a small part of their mini-mid level to bring over Isaiah Hartenstein, who they had drafted last year in the second round and had played in their G-League system.

These young guys work to replace the spots held by the likes of Joe Johnson, Tarik Black, and also Chinanu Onuaku.

Onuaku was part of an odd trade I mentioned in my Dallas article, where Houston traded Onuaku, some cash, and a protected 2020 second rounder for a 2020 second rounder and the rights to a 2008 second round pick Houston previously owned years ago. It’s a slight cost save for Houston, and a slight chance at a pick upgrade for Dallas. Every cost-saving move has to work for Houston because it helps them avoid the tax multiplier on that amount of money. Onuaku was due 1.5 million this year.

Their largest moves were moves made from within, re-signing two of their best players. They gave Chris Paul 4 years for 160 million, which is the 35% max for him. He’s coming off of a great season to be sure, where he made the pairing with James Harden work due to the constant increased efficiency of his three-point shooting and ability to share ball-handling duties. His counting stats were good, 19 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals, as well as posting an absurd 24.4 PER for a small guard and a per 100 possession average where he impacted the floor positively both defensively and offensively.

That kind of production, as well as his veteran savvy are worth the max money. My issue with the contract is the 4 year length, the complete lack of protection for the Rockets in terms of non-guarantees in the future, and the refusal for Paul to acknowledge that he may be a different player in four years. The last few seasons of his career have been defined less by his amazing production, but more by his inconvenient injury history. Paul’s injury was a huge factor in the end of the conference finals, and I’m not convinced that he will hold up over a four year contractual period. If he’s healthy, he’s worth every penny because he becomes one of the best players in the NBA. The question is just that, if he’ll be healthy.

They also used bird rights and immense leverage to bring Clint Capela back for a totally reasonable contract, locking him up for a five year period for only 90 million. That contract is a complete steal, getting a player as versatile as Capela for less than 20 million per year. This is a player who is arguably the most efficient offensive center in the league, who has the athleticism to switch on defense and protect the paint with a nice block rate, and consistently average a double-double in points and rebounds.

He’s the type of player the advanced metrics really like, and I can see why, sitting as one of the top 10 rebounders in the league with both offensive and defensive rebound rate, and also being among the tops in the league in defensive win shares. He’s a truly positive impact player who will only continue to grow offensively. The contract they had him sign is totally reasonable, and is a huge positive for the future outlook of this team.

They also resigned Gerald Green for the minimum after having a nice season as a key reserve for them last season. He will again compete for minutes in the main rotation, despite being a slightly below average defender. His points per game average can be valuable, which is why they brought him back, so it will be up to him to fill the minutes not delegated to a back-up point guard but where they need another body.

Despite my love of the Capela re-signing and tentative approval of the Paul re-signing depending on health, it may be the minimum contracts they gave free agents which could swing the pendulum for this team. No one can expect a team with tax concerns like the Rockets to pay 5 million per year for Luc Mbah a Moute or 15 million to Trevor Ariza. Ariza was a huge help on this team last season, hitting a good percentage of his threes (37%), consistently posting a good steal percentage, and having a positive impact at the defensive end of the floor.

Guys like Ariza, and also Mbah a Moute (over a steal per game and a +1.5 DBPM) fit the Rockets mold as being malleable defensive bodies who can guard multiple positions, and also have a decent amount of reliability on spot-up shooting so that Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon, and Capela can successfully work a mixture of pick-and-roll and isolation offense. Ariza’s 15 million contract with Phoenix shows his value. Losing those guys means they have to replace them.

They made two huge signings to continue their defensive strategy. The first is getting a backup Point Guard in Michael Carter-Williams who can presumably guard multiple positions due to his length. He may take some minutes away from Gerald Green, but his defensive abilities make him worth taking a flier on. His defensive metrics are great, but his shooting metrics are among the worst in the league. If Carter-Williams can learn to be an intelligent player, he could make a positive impact as a rotation player. His signing as a backup makes sense at the minimum for his defensive fit.

If Carter-Williams doesn’t work out, this team will roll with Gordon and Gerald Green in the backup backcourt roles, just as they did last year. It makes sense because any minutes played with Paul off the floor can be staggered with Harden moving over to Point Guard. This is a potential high-upside move.

The second big signing is replacing Mbah a Moute with James Ennis from Detroit, a player who sets up as an average defender with versatility and an average offensive player with shooting upside due to improvement over the seasons. Once Ariza and Mbah a Moute left, James Ennis was probably the best wing who could come in and fit their vision. If Ennis and P.J. Tucker can play productive minutes at the forward defensively, the Rockets can attempt to fill the hole left by Ariza’s departure.

The final contract they agreed to was to acquire Carmelo Anthony as an unrestricted free agent for his veteran’s minimum after he was bought out of his contract by Atlanta. This will be the key move of the Rockets’ offseason to determine whether they are still a title contender. The hope is that Melo can replace Ariza’s 3-point shooting after disappointing in OKC with only 36% on threes. If Anthony can get that number up to like 38%, he can replace Ariza’s successful floor-stretching and also provide an additional person who could create their own shot in the half-court offense, if necessary. OKC brought in Anthony to help with floor spacing, so is Houston. OKC brought in Anthony to be an additional shot-creator, so did Houston.

The hope is that he’ll be a better fit with Chris Paul than he was with Russell Westbrook and that Anthony can at least be mediocre on defense, rather than terrible. If he doesn’t constantly hurt the Rockets defensively, the Rockets hope he can provide a net positive value for them, especially if you mix his minutes with Ennis, Tucker, or playing small ball with Paul, Gordon, and Harden all on the floor at the same time. I’m not sure he’s the perfect basketball fit for Houston due to his consistent failure to mold his game to being an offensive shooting specialist, but he has enough offensive upside that I understand why the Rockets are bringing him in.

I just can’t support replacing Ariza with this scatter-shot group of guys, and I can’t support paying Paul a four year max with his injury history. Replacing some of the dead roster spots with young guys and attempting to mitigate the damages with Ennis, Anthony, and MCW makes somewhat sense in theory, but we’ll have to wait and see. I predict they got a little worse this offseason, but I can’t lower their score all the way down. No team with tax concerns can shell out $20 million for Ariza and Mbah a Moute, so some of the change-over is totally understandable.

I’d give their offseason a C+

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About Matt Flynn (11 Articles)
Matt is a third-year law student at Rutgers Law School and graduate of The College of New Jersey, where he formerly served as a radio talk show host and engineer for the Trenton Thunder. He currently works as a paralegal for a Trenton, New Jersey law firm and has committed to a clerkship with the New Jersey Appellate Division for the 2019-2020 term. When not pursuing law, he tends to his two greatest intellectual loves, film and the NBA. You can catch his movie reviews and related material on his personal blog ‘Blended Opinion’ and his NBA ramblings and salary cap expertise at ‘The Capital Sports Report.’

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