It was a rather unspectacular evening, or so we thought.
Ben DuBose, Clutchfans member The Cat and host of the Locked on Rockets podcast, had organized a #RocketsTwitter viewing party for a summer league game of all things. What started as random musings over whether the Rockets were going to sign and trade Iman Shumpert or if Chris Clemons might stick in the NBA turned into a flurry of excitement and one of the most memorable Rocket get-togethers ever.
This is an oral history of the wild night when Russell Westbrook became a member of the Houston Rockets.
First, let me give you some background. I am not a fan of Russell Westbrook. I think I lean pretty heavily towards Dave Hardisty’s line of thinking. But this post is not going to be about reactions to the trade, the fit, analytics, etc. There is time for that later and there are hundreds of them by now. This post is about a night with friends.
This was my first #RocketsTwitter party Thursday night, so naturally I wasn’t sure what to expect — especially since we were watching a Summer League game. Don’t get me wrong, I can watch Summer League games, but this summer had so far been rather uninspiring, both on the transactions log and on the courts in Vegas. I fired a text to Ben to let him know I would be early (because I always am, even when I think I’ll be late.) I’m hardly a shy person, but the weird thing about a Twitter get-together is that I literally have no clue what any of these people look like. I could imagine walking into Nick’s Place, not recognizing anyone, turning around and leaving. Instead, I recognized Ben and Matt Thomas of SportsTalk790 immediately, quickly took a seat and settled in for a memorable evening.
Our first order of business was kicking around the “boring” Rockets offseason. We wondered aloud whether the Rockets were going to do anything. It wasn’t spoken, but a vision of Rocketgirl’s (@00rocketgirl) “Do Something Rockets” meme was dancing in my head.
We were off to a great start though. Meeting folks like @aprilnicole82 , @Matt_ABC13, @p2s08 and others was really cool. It was good to put faces to the ClutchFans and Twitter handles and realize you aren’t the only one crazy enough to follow every move the Rockets make. In normal conversations with normal people you sometimes have to feign ignorance about sports stuff just to avoid seeming TOO obsessed. Not with these folks. This felt right. These were MY people.
The Ironic Poll
Then we shifted to a ridiculous topic. Ben mentioned that ESPN’s Tim McMahon had reported on The Jump earlier in the day that he wouldn’t rule out Russell Westbrook to Houston yet. We all laughed. It wasn’t something to be taken seriously.
And then I did it. A moment now immortalized on SportsTalk790 (thanks to Matt Thomas) happened.
I polled the room, in an ironic way to be sure, with a leading question: “So we’re all unanimous that we don’t want Westbrook on this team, right?” It’s hard to believe now that I said those words at THAT moment, but I did. Most in the room made one of those faces that you see on reaction gifs when you aren’t sure how to express yourself:
One person did make clear she was pro-Westbrook. @Allison_Wollam was 100% on board. If there were others in the room who felt that way, they didn’t say. So credit to her. Matt Thomas had a good laugh about the situation and teased us saying that if Westbrook became a Rocket we’d all be changing our tune. I was defiant of course. I would NEVER root for Westbrook. It didn’t matter anyway, because if you’ve followed my Twitter timeline you know I thought there was no chance this was happening.
Are you kidding me?
It was minutes after that informal poll, maybe less than five. Minutes after Matt had laughed about the potential hypocrisy that we would never get to test. Minutes after we all moved on from a topic that seemed ridiculous when one of the guys at the table next to us let out a shout.
“WOJBOMB! We got him!!”
It was so coincidental that we all thought it was a joke.
To Twitter! The first thing was to make sure the account reporting this had that all important Blue Check. There are so many “Woj” imposters, surely that’s all this was. Nope! There it was, on Twitter, staring us in the face: The proof that couldn’t be denied.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, league sources tell ESPN.
To fully grasp how crazy this was, you really need to read that timestamp. 7:26PM. The watchparty was set to begin at 7:30PM at Nick’s Place. I texted Ben at 7:01PM that I was five minutes away. It was twenty minutes tops. Twenty minutes between walking into a bar/restaurant to greet people I’d previously known as random internet handles and sharing in the reactions to one of the biggest trades in Rockets history.
If the first 20 minutes were uneventful, the next 3+ hours were “lit.”
Twitter party gets crazy
So what happens at a #RocketsTwitter watch party in the moments following a shocking trade like this one? It’s as 2019 of an answer as you might guess. Live tweet reading! The rush began to find details of the trade. From somewhere at the table, someone reads out a tweet about the draft picks. Another reads a tweet about protections. Are you kidding? One tweet says we tried to do a trade that would have kept Chris Paul here WITH Westbrook? Another one reads that Paul will stay in OKC. Check that here comes Ramona Shelburne saying they’ll trade him after all! Or was it Woj? Who cares! There’s so much information coming at you that it’s impossible to keep up. Then the reaction tweets begin.
My first thought on twitter? Well, they hated us before and they’ll really hate us now.
(Side note: He’s right of course. I KNOW that Westbrook is going to steal Capela’s soul on a rebound at least once)
From then on the night was one of laughter, twitter memes and retweets, spelling out handles, arguing about efficiency and by far my favorite past time: checking your timeline for old Westbrook slander. (Note: No one deleted anything)
How did the group feel about the deal? Honestly the reaction was more “Holy crap can you believe this” for so long than any concrete “This is great!” or “This is terrible!” It’s really hard to describe the energy of a reaction like this when you are in a room full of these kind of people. My kind of people. It’s like a Clutchfans thread playing out right in front of you, a twitter feed happening at your table. Is THIS what it was like before the internet? I can’t begin to imagine.
As the night went on we moved on to other topics. There was Texans talk with Stephanie Stradley. There was blog talk with Justin Levine (@JustinLev) of @RedNinetyFour. There were tales of the celebration and debauchery that followed the Rockets second championship in 1995 and jokes about the ones too young to remember. There were discussions about beer and whether Blue Moon is a “girl’s beer” because it has an orange it. Pro wrestling in the 1990s? Oh yeah we talked about it! nWo 4 Life! Rock n Roll Express, Jim Cornette’s podcast, 83weeks with Eric Bischoff and Conrad Thompson, Paul Boesch and Houston Wrestling…we hit on it all. Did I mention There were “Russ Shots?” I’m still not exactly sure what those were. Ben had to leave us earlier than some. Something about needing to record a podcast.
The night finally ended around midnight. Ubers arrived for some and the rest piled into their cars. If they were anything like me they quickly turned to SiriusXM and listened to Frank Isola talk about the Westbrook trade. I was tired sure, but staying awake wasn’t a problem. When I got home I logged on to Clutchfans and relived it all again.
So what exactly happens at a #RocketsTwitter watch party for an uneventful summer league game when a huge trade goes down? As it turns out, life happens. Hope to see you there next time.
The Rockets pulled off a blockbuster move Thursday night by sending Chris Paul and a ton of draft pick considerations to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the long-hated Russell Westbrook. Shockingly, the Rockets gave up first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 (each top 4-protected) and pick swap rights in 2021 and 2025.
I’m in complete shock. The desire to get Westbrook. The price paid. All of it.
Before I can talk about some possible positives, let me put this out there.
I’ve never cared for Russell Westbrook. I think it started for me in 2012 when he unnecessarily spazzed out on Goran Dragic in a game in OKC. I proposed to my kids that our dog should be named “Russell Westbrook sucks” and their only objection was the name was too long.
But to be clear, my feelings on this trade have nothing to do with love and hate. There are plenty of players in my lifetime that were hated by Houston fans and went on to become beloved Rockets. Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Barkley, Chris Paul and Austin Rivers immediately come to mind. So I can promise you this — Houston, myself included, will embrace Westbrook. Once he puts on the newly-designed red and black, he’ll become part of Clutch City.
Having said that — this looks like a horrible trade, a large mistake by a Rockets organization that seemed desperate for no known reason. I’ve seen the logic in every move or trade Daryl Morey has made but not this time. Even when his machinations haven’t panned out, they were always sound decisions that balanced reward and risk. This is his worst move. The risk is enormous.
I’d rather have Chris Paul than Russell Westbrook. For some reason, people started looking at Paul only for his contract and not for the player he is. He’s aging but he’s incredibly smart, makes the right reads, can play off the ball as a shooter and defends. If the roles were reversed and the Rockets traded Westbrook for that collection of picks and Paul (with a year less on his contract than Westbrook), I’d be singing the team’s praises for finding a better fit and scooping up a haul of assets that could be flipped for more weapons this year.
If the Rockets win a championship in the next few years — and I certainly hope they do — then feel free to bring this up as a cold take and mock me to your heart’s content, but right now I want to know who put a gun to Daryl’s head. Was it Tilman, Harden or both? Trading picks in 2024 and 2026, are you serious? Those are the years that Harden and Westbrook are not under contract. Throw in a couple pick swaps for good measure? The cost here was tremendous and they willingly paid it for a player that might have been a negative value contract. Think about this — by the time the Rockets finish paying off this trade, Russ will be in Beijing or the Big3.
Yes, the Rockets got a bunch of star power and media attention with the move, but Westbrook, while incredibly athletic and explosive, is a very poor shooter… and he doesn’t know it. Imagine if Corey Brewer thought he was Steph Curry and you’ve got Russell Westbrook in a nutshell from three-point range. He has shot under 30% from deep in four of the last five seasons. Given the volume of shots he takes, he might very well be the worst shooter ever.
If he’s not a good shooter, then at least he’ll balance it out with strong defense, right? Well, the thing about that is… that’s not happening either. There’s potential for more since Westbrook is bigger, longer and a top athlete, but that has been said about him for years. He has not turned that into being a plus defender because his on-court intelligence is lacking. He has skated by for years on his elite athleticism.
It’s like the Rockets decided to zig rather than zag. They more or less pioneered the push for 3-and-D players yet some intern thought he’d be innovative by piping up in a meeting with “Hey, what if we get a guy who does neither 3 nor D?” — and they bought it. Please fire that dude immediately.
In terms of shooting, defense and hoops IQ, three key components of Rocketball, the Houston Rockets got worse today by swapping out Paul for Westbrook and I don’t think that’s debatable. Paul’s game should age much better than Westbrook’s. Once that step is gone for Russ, his game is done. The Rockets are banking almost $180 million that he won’t lose it in the next four years.
The Rockets must reinvent themselves
OK, so I’ve gotten that out of my system. There are negatives, clearly. That doesn’t mean other areas won’t improve. There are some reasons to be optimistic.
What the Rockets gained was a quicker first step and explosive ability to attack the basket. They got a better rebounder, an energizer bunny for the full 48. He is a force of nature that is brutally tough to defend and the Rockets now have two of those. You won’t ever complain about Westbrook’s lack of effort… in fact, you’ll likely wish he did less.
Having Westbrook attack the basket, where he’s incredibly efficient, adds a new wrinkle to the Rockets offense. The team also should get out and run more and that’s a good thing. Westbrook, while out of control at times, can go 94 feet in a hiccup and that’s been lacking on this Rockets team. They work too hard for their baskets in halfcourt sets. Some easy transition points should be a boost.
Furthermore, I’ll give you this — maybe, just maybe, Chris Paul’s career was about to fall off a cliff and the Rockets knew it. Paul had a rough season last year but my opinion is he will bounce back. Time will tell. In Westbrook (30 years old), the Rockets got a player four years younger.
Rebounding has been a sore spot for the Rockets and Westbrook, who famously has averaged a triple double the past three seasons, should help there, but it’s not like you add a point guard to fix those woes. He’ll help but won’t solve the dilemma.
The Rockets now have a shooting guard who should be a point guard in Harden and a point guard who should be a shooting guard (but can’t shoot) in Westbrook. I think Westbrook takes the reins because I don’t see how he plays off the ball. He should have better shooters around him than he’s had in years so there’s some promise of more there.
Can the Rockets change Westbrook and make him a more efficient player? Offensively I’m not so sure, but defensively they may find a way. The Rockets put Harden in the post more on defense to maximize his strengths as a defender. Perhaps something similar could be done with Russ.
The matchups between the Rockets and Clippers? Oh, they’re about to get legendary. Russ vs. Patrick Beverley. Russ vs. Paul George, who bailed on OKC. Bev, LouWill and Montrezl against their old squad. Austin Rivers knows where the tunnel is — there are going to be some battles between these two.
The Rockets also still have first round picks from 2020 to 2023, so they could conceivably make another move.
Let’s see what else the Rockets do. There is a chance they made this move, giving up what they did, knowing that it would attract more. But the bottom line: This is championship or bust.
You’ve gone all in and you must win, no ifs, ands or buts.
The Rockets traded future assets they had no business giving up to bring in a player that, in their mind, extends their championship window. I have faith that Daryl Morey can keep the Rockets in playoff contention even after the James Harden era, but I no longer have faith that he’ll even be here in 2024, much less 2026, under this ownership. We don’t know yet what went on behind the scenes, but fairly or unfairly, it does make owner governor Tilman Fertitta seem impatient and reactionary with this trade.
It’s mainly a strike against Harden, who now has two failed superstar experiments under his belt in Houston. It’s no secret that Harden runs the show here, just as Westbrook did in OKC. He hand-picked Paul as his teammate and now he’s done the same with Russ. If this doesn’t work, it may be time to blow the whole thing up and recover as many picks as possible.
But that’s premature. It’s up to these two MVPs to make this pairing work and they’ve earned the right to try. They’re not two-way demons like the pairs each Los Angeles team sports, but they can be unstoppable offensively. The Rockets now must overhaul their system to maximize their strengths because nothing less than hanging a banner is going to make it worth the price they paid.
This is a major change. The entire defensive staff for the Rockets has been wiped out.
While many have speculated about the future of head coach Mike D’Antoni, all signs continue to point to the head coach returning for his fourth season at the helm of the franchise, with a potential extension on the horizon. D’Antoni’s return seems all the more likely based on the fact that the Rockets have opted to retain all of the offensive coaching staff for 2019-20 at this time. So, barring an unexpected development, the Rockets will be searching for a lead assistant and a defensive staff to bring change for the coming year. Let’s take a look at some options.
Jeff Van Gundy
The former head coach of the Houston Rockets and current commentator for ESPN/ABC is a fan favorite to this day here in Houston. He is also known to be a favorite of General Manager Daryl Morey, with Van Gundy being Morey’s top choice for the head coaching gig the last time it was open (previous owner Les Alexander nixed the return). While Van Gundy has repeatedly indicated a desire to return to coaching and certainly brings the defensive bonafides you would want, it seems extremely unlikely that he would leave a high-profile job as a commentator to become an assistant coach. He’s also not the type to play the role of vulture, waiting for someone to get fired so he could slide into the job.
The former head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls seems to check all of the boxes: A strong defensive reputation, a tie to the organization having previously been an assistant here under JVG, a relationship of mutual respect with the general manager (as evidenced by his time with Morey while on sabbatical) and a great relationship with potential Rockets offseason target Jimmy Butler. However, Thibs is a head coach and likely sees himself that way. I’ll bet against him being ready to take the role of assistant at this stage and it’s not clear that the Rockets would want him even if was willing. Can he adapt his defense to the modern style of the game? Would he give you more than a one-year commitment? I’ll bet against it.
The former head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets, Hollins seems like an unlikely candidate on the surface; an old school, in your face, rough and rugged defensive coach. That is until you dig a little deeper and realize that Morey has TWICE tried to add Hollins to the Rockets coaching staff, missing out both times for different reasons. Hollins would definitely bring the type of culture change that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta seems to covet.
The current associate head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Silas would seem to be a longshot to leave Dallas in what would be a lateral move. Still, the Rockets have expressed interest in him before and he is said to be a favorite of Morey’s. He is an outgoing, vibrant personality that is well liked by players, including Steph Curry who previously endorsed him as a coaching candidate.
The associate head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers under Larry Drew, Longabardi’s claim to fame is being the defensive coordinator for Ty Lue’s Cavaliers, the last team to defeat the Warriors. Longabardi has ties to Houston having been an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy in Morey’s first year with the organization. He would later serve as an assistant under Doc Rivers, winning a championship with the Celtics. He is known for being a strong proponent of the “Strong Side” defense of JVG. He’s received a glowing endorsement from Van Gundy as a future head coach. His resume is not without blemish however, as the Cavs and Suns teams he’s coordinated for have had pretty poor defensive efforts after the championship season.
Not a name that stands out, Shrewsberry was the lead assistant for Brad Stevens and the Celtics from 2013-2018 before leaving to become the lead assistant at the University of Purdue. It’s hard to get great information on him but he was considered a big part of Stevens’ staff before returning to the college game. Shrewsberry has expressed a desire to become a college head coach and prefers the college game, but he’s been linked to the Rockets through an internet rumor. He would fit the mold as a young coach with upside and a reputation for working well with players.
Erman is the associate head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans and is said to be someone that the Rockets have long admired from a distance. Erman is considered a strong defensive coach and was one of the architects of the great Warriors defense, but it is unlikely that Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry would let him slip away to the Rockets. It’s still a name the Rockets are likely to explore.
An assistant under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, Hardy isn’t nearly as discussed as other names on the legendary coach’s staff. Hardy has worked for the Spurs since 2010 when he started as a video coordinator before being promoted to an assistant’s role in 2016. He has risen through the ranks to earn a spot on Pop’s bench and is considered a bright, up-and-coming mind on the defensive end. The Spurs continually rank high in defensive rating, employing a strategy built around not fouling. They have given the Rockets fits for years and it would make sense to raid the rival.
There are undoubtedly other coaches out there that could (and likely will) be considered. This list should give Rocket fans something to think about though over the next few days while we wait for rumors to start.
Another season of title contention. Another playoff series loss to the Golden State Warriors, one of the greatest basketball teams of all time.
After an incredibly rocky start (11-14 record), the Houston Rockets played at a top-notch level for most of the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, the hole they dug for themselves was a tad too steep to get a top-2 playoff seeding, leading to a second round matchup against the Warriors rather than the return trip to the Western Conference Finals that the Rockets – and most of their fans – had been expecting. With their season now over, GM Daryl Morey and the Rockets must look to the offseason for ways to improve their roster and keep their title contention window open.
Player Salary, Exceptions and Available Cap Room
The Houston Rockets currently have the following player salary commitments, cap holds and salary cap exceptions available for the 2019-20 season (assuming that the league’s current projection of a $109 million salary cap is accurate):
Player salary commitments:Chris Paul ($38.5 million), James Harden ($38.15 million*), Clint Capela ($14.9 million), Eric Gordon ($14.1 million), PJ Tucker ($8.35 million), Nene Hilario ($3.83 million – player option), Isaiah Hartenstein ($1.42 million, 50% guaranteed until July 15), Gary Clark ($1.42 million, partial guarantee unclear), Chris Chiozza ($1.42 million, non-guaranteed), Michael Frazier ($1.42 million, non-guaranteed), and a dead cap hit for Troy Williams ($122,741 – get used to this one being on the books). (*Harden’s starting salary under his new Designated Veteran Player Extension [DVPE] will be 35% of the actual 2019-20 salary cap figure.)
Cap holds:Iman Shumpert ($16.52 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights), Danuel House (restricted free agent; $1.88 million [assuming a qualifying offer is made] – Rockets have a right of first refusal but only hold Non-Bird rights), Gerald Green ($1.62 million – Rockets hold Early Bird rights), Austin Rivers ($1.62 million – Rockets have only Non-Bird rights), Kenneth Faried ($1.62 million – Rockets have only Non-Bird rights), Vincent Edwards (potential restricted free agent; about $1.47 million – coming off a two-way contract), and Trevon Duval (about $1.47 million – coming off a two-way contract).
Other Salary Cap Exceptions: If Houston operates over the salary cap this summer (extremely likely), the Rockets will have access to the Mid-Level Exception (MLE), either the Non-Taxpayer variety ($9.25 million, the use of which would impose a hard cap at the “apron” level – currently projected at about $138.5 million) or the Taxpayer variety ($5.71 million). Although it would also impose a hard cap at the apron level, Houston could possibly use the Bi-Annual Exception ($3.62 million), since they did not use it last summer. In the unlikely event that the Rockets use cap room this summer, they could instead have the Room Exception of $4.76 million at their disposal. Assuming they operate over the salary cap, the Rockets will have a staggering nine traded player exceptions (TPEs) left over from earlier trades, although none of them is very large (their largest TPE is $3.62 million).
Given their salary commitments, the Rockets are pretty much hopelessly over the cap and will likely be paying the luxury tax for the 2019-20 season.
Preliminary Internal Decisions
Ahead of the NBA Draft and the subsequent free agent season, Morey and his staff will need to address some internal matters.
Despite his disappointing playoff performance, Houston will probably still extend a qualifying offer to House in order to make him a restricted free agent and to give the Rockets the ability to match (some) offers from other teams. More on that below.
The Rockets can make Edwards – coming off a two-way contract – a restricted free agent by extending him another two-way contract for next year (with $50,000 guaranteed) as a qualifying offer.
It is unclear whether Houston can do the same with Duval. A two-way player must be on a team’s NBA roster for at least 15 days in order for the team to be able to extend the player a qualifying offer (and make him a restricted free agent). Odds are, Duval will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
An Extension for Gordon?
In a recent interview, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta mentioned that he would like to try to extend Gordon’s contract this summer. Gordon (set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020) was arguably the Rockets’ second best player during the playoffs, so it is clear why the Rockets would want to keep him in the fold beyond next season.
The highest starting salary Houston could offer Gordon in an extension is about $16.9 million, with a four-year extension topping out at around $76.6 million in total salary. Gordon turns 31 next season, so there is a chance he would agree to an extension if it added enough years of guaranteed salary.
If a proposed extension was in connection with an extend-and-trade scenario, however, the Rockets would be limited to offering him a starting salary of less than $14.8 million, making such a scenario less likely. Gordon is probably one of the Rockets’ most attractive trade assets right now, so it remains to be seen whether the team looks to move its talented third guard for help at another position.
Quiet Draft Night Expected
The Rockets will enter the 2019 NBA Draft without any picks, having traded away their first rounder (26th overall) to dump Brandon Knight‘s contract and having long ago dealt their second rounder (55th overall) in the totally-worth-it move to acquire Pablo Prigioni in 2015. Unlike in prior years, Houston will not have much cash available to buy draft picks, having already spent all but about $565,000 on other trades this past season.
While a trade for a draft pick is still possible, the most likely scenario has the Rockets sitting out the draft, instead looking to sign at least one of the top undrafted players, as they did with Clark last year.
If Houston somehow pulls off a big draft night trade in which more salary is acquired than is sent out, it would not likely cause them to pay any luxury tax. That would only happen if the trade involves a substantial trade bonus. Of course, a trade could be agreed to in principle, with the actual consummation of that trade not going through until following the July Moratorium.
Internal Free Agent Decisions
Houston will have some decisions to make with their own free agents heading into July, including how to prioritize which free agents to bring back.
Austin Rivers: Rivers did a good job as the Rockets’ fourth guard this season, providing some high-energy on-ball defense and some timely (albeit inconsistent) scoring off the bench. While Rivers agreed to a prorated vet minimum contract with Houston after being bought out of a large contract, he is unlikely to accept another minimum salary for next season. With only Non-Bird rights, the Rockets may need to use most or all of the Taxpayer MLE to bring him back … assuming even that is enough. The maximum salary Houston could pay Rivers next season using Non-Bird rights will be about $2.6 million. Could a two-year, $5.34 million Non-Bird deal (with a player option for Year 2) be enough to entice him to stay? Probably not.
Danuel House Jr.: House’s free agency will be one of the more interesting situations in the league to monitor. After refusing a three-year vet minimum deal from the Rockets (followed by a leverage-motivated stay in the G-League), House hopes that the flashes he showed as a key contributor for Houston during the middle part of the season will translate into a more lucrative contract this summer. Many teams may be scared off a little if House is made a restricted free agent, especially if the Rockets do not spend their MLE at the outset of free agency. However, since the Rockets only have Non-Bird rights to House, the Taxpayer MLE will likely be the most Houston could pay him, so an offer sheet in excess of that amount would be pretty much impossible to match. The maximum salary Houston could pay House next season using Non-Bird rights will be just over $2 million, with a total contract value maxing out at four years, $8.65 million. That’s better than a three-year vet minimum deal. House’s value could fluctuate wildly, as teams are in desperate need of wings with size and shooting ability. All it takes is one team to price House out of the Rockets’ range, restricted status be damned.
Kenneth Faried: After an initial burst onto the scene with the Rockets, Faried’s production tapered off, and he eventually found himself outside the playoff rotation. A capable pick-and-roll finisher and a very good rebounder, Faried never seemed to master the Rockets’ defensive schemes. Never known as a top-notch defender, Faried became virtually unplayable against the Warriors. Still, he is a capable regular season player who could fill a role in Houston next season. The most Houston could pay Faried next season using Non-Bird rights will be about $2.8 million. While Faried may look for a bigger payday elsewhere, a return to Houston on a vet minimum deal (or via Non-Bird rights) could be a possibility.
Iman Shumpert: Shumpert (to whom the Rockets have full Bird rights) could be back next season as a defensive wing off the bench without Houston having to tap into its MLE, or he could serve a different function entirely. With the trade to acquire Shumpert last February, the Rockets gave up the last significant piece of non-core salary filler (Knight) to use in trades for next season and beyond, leading many to wonder how Houston could add to its core of Harden, Paul, Capela, Gordon and Tucker going forward. Coming off a contract that paid him over $11 million last season, Shumpert could potentially serve as that missing salary filler in a major trade. He could be signed-and-traded – along with other assets – to a team that is well enough below the luxury tax threshold in exchange for a high-salaried player. While sign-and-trade deals are extremely rare under the new CBA, this remains another avenue (however unlikely) for the Rockets to upgrade their roster.
Gerald Green: Until his disappointing playoff performance, Green’s free agency was gearing up to be one of the more underrated storylines for Houston this summer. With his Early Bird rights now in tow, the Rockets were in position to potentially give Green a significant raise after he took what was probably a below-market deal to return to Houston last season for the vet minimum. However, at this point, given the Rockets’ apparent focus on adding more defense to their bench, it is unlikely that Green (who turns 34 next season) will get an offer from Houston in excess of another minimum salary contract … if he gets an offer at all. A hometown cult hero, Green has been extremely popular with Rockets fans, but it may be time to move on.
Vincent Edwards: After investing $1.5 million to purchase the draft pick used to select Edwards (billed as a jack-of-all-trades combo forward), the Rockets are probably a little disappointed in Edwards’s uninspiring performance in the G-League this past season. He was not awful, but he was not particularly good either. Still, the Rockets could possibly reward Edwards for his willingness to sign a two-way contract last season rather than taking the required tender of a non-guaranteed NBA contract. Also, as a second round pick, Edwards would count a little less for luxury tax purposes on an NBA minimum contract than a similarly situated undrafted player (such as Clark) will. Will that sliver of luxury tax savings – along with his potential as another bench forward – be enough for Edwards to find a place on the Rockets’ 15-man roster? A lot will depend on other, more important roster moves.
Trevon Duval: As noted above, Duval will probably be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It is unlikely that Duval will return on an NBA contract with any meaningful guaranteed salary. He remains a possibility to return on a two-way contract, although it seems more likely that the Rockets will explore other options for that two-way roster spot.
Sergio Llull: No Salary Cap Update by this author would be complete without another check-in on Llull’s situation. While not technically a free agent, Houston still holds his exclusive NBA rights. Rated in a recent poll of NBA general managers as the best (non-prospect) player in the world not playing in the NBA, Llull continues to be an intriguing option in the Rockets’ long-term roster building plans. Morey continues to visit Llull to gauge his interest in (eventually) coming over to the NBA. But given the dearth of meaningful salary cap exceptions, and with a strong guard rotation currently in place, it is unlikely that Llull plays for the Houston Rockets in 2019-20. It is possible that Houston could use its MLE on Llull in the event that Gordon is traded, but Rockets fans should not be holding their breath on that scenario playing out. Llull’s draft rights still have trade value, so there’s a chance he could be moved this summer. If not, 2020 may be the year we finally see Llull in a Rockets (or other NBA team) jersey.
The Jimmy Butler Gambit
Houston tried hard early in the season to trade for Jimmy Butler before resigning themselves to their fallback option of avoiding the luxury tax. Now, with Butler nearing (potential) free agency, the Rockets could be poised to make another run at him.
While it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to sign Butler outright as a free agent, the Rockets could potentially trade for him if he picks up the $19.8 million player option on his contract for 2019-20, on the condition that Philadelphia 76ers trade him to the team of his choice.
Butler would likely be leaving a considerable sum of money on the table by opting in, as his max starting salary as a free agent would be around $32.7 million. He would need some assurances from whichever team trades for him that he would be adequately compensated in 2020. Houston (allegedly) has a proven track record of doing just that with Paul.
Would a package of Gordon, Nene (assuming he picks up his own player option) and a first round pick be enough to convince the 76ers to move Butler? Facing a potential financial crunch, Philly would welcome a strong shooting guard like Gordon on a value contract. It remains to be seen, however, just how highly the 76ers value Butler as part of their future.
Fortunately, the Rockets won’t have to wait long for the Butler scenario to play out. Butler must exercise his player option by June 29, making a trade likely shortly (if not immediately) thereafter.
Outside Free Agents
Due to team salary constraints and the likely need to maximize overall flexibility, the only salary cap exception of any significance available to the Rockets this summer will probably be the Taxpayer MLE.
With an estimated maximum starting salary of $5.71 million and topping out at three years, just under $18 million, the Taxpayer MLE may not be able to compete with other offers the second-, third- or even fourth-tier free agents may get, especially since several teams expect to have significant cap room this summer. However, there may be some veterans willing to take less in order to contend for a title. Also, playing under coach Mike D’Antoni has been known to buoy a player’s stock, which could be useful heading into 2020 free agency, when most of the league will have oodles of money to spend.
Other “MLE-caliber” free agents seeking a meaningful rotation role on a title contender might be willing to sign in Houston for the vet minimum, just as Luc Mbah a Moute, James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony were drawn to the Rockets in recent years.
I will leave it to others (or at least won’t cover it here) as to which particular free agents the Rockets will pursue this summer.
The Taxman Cometh (for real this time)
Amazingly, Morey and the Rockets were able to duck the luxury tax this past season. And while it cost them some future assets, that tax avoidance strategy did not likely impact Houston, basketball-wise, this season. Meanwhile, now the earliest the Rockets would have to pay the dreaded “repeater tax” – something that Fertitta has openly said he wants to avoid – is the 2022-23 season, after Paul’s massive contract has expired.
If Houston only brings back its core guys and fills out the roster with vet minimum signings, the Rockets’ team salary should exceed the luxury tax threshold. Harden’s DVPE alone will materially increase team salary. Throw in a couple of trades that add salary (including the possible use of their TPEs) along with a Taxpayer MLE signing and re-signing Shumpert to even a modest new deal, and the tax bill will increase substantially.
But after avoiding the tax this past season, expect Fertitta to cut his first luxury tax check after next season.
After once again falling short of beating the Warriors and achieving their championship goal, the Houston Rockets must go back to the drawing board and try to find ways to further improve their roster. That improvement could come via trade, free agency, internal improvement or all of the above. The Rockets will explore all avenues to improve and to make another title run next season.
Another season, another bitter pill to swallow in the playoffs.
As James Harden said, the Rockets weren’t facing a bunch of scrubs and the Warriors proved that on Friday as they pulled out the 118-113 win at Toyota Center in Game 6, ending the series and Houston’s season.
Painful. No other way around it. Make no mistake, this will be a long summer with lots of tough questions that Daryl Morey and company will have to answer… and frankly, they don’t have much at their disposal to work with to improve the squad.
MK Bower of Field Level Media joins me at Toyota Center to help us pick up the pieces:
All things Game 6
Kevin Durant’s absence changing the Warriors
Chris Paul’s first great game of the series
Clint Capela’s disappointment – did he put himself on the trading block?
Not bad for a team that was considered dead and buried after Game 2.
The Rockets had essentially no margin of error coming back home for Games 3 and 4 and they got the job done. James Harden scored 38 points, leading a team effort in a 112-108 win over the mighty Golden State Warriors to even their best-of-seven series at 2-2.
Game 5 is Wednesday at Oracle.
MK Bower of Field Level Media joins me at Toyota Center after the Rockets made this a series again. We discuss:
How the Rockets, despite a talent gap, are evenly matched with the Warriors
Houston’s counterpunch: The four-guard lineup alongside PJ Tucker
How the Rockets can take this series
Both teams relying heavily on their starters
Harden’s outstanding control of the offense in Game 4
It was a game they had to win and the Houston Rockets got it done.
Behind Eric Gordon, James Harden and some gritty PJ Tucker play, the Houston Rockets knocked off the Golden State Warriors 126-121 in overtime of Game 3 to cut Golden State’s series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is on Monday at Toyota Center.
Podcast partner-in-crime MK Bower of Field Level Media joins me at Toyota Center after the game to discuss:
Gordon continuing to step up in the playoffs
Kevin Durant and the impact Tucker is having
Is Chris Paul having the same impact in this series?
Stephen Curry’s struggles
Draymond Green causing havoc on the lobs
The pressure on Clint Capela to make himself a valuable piece to beating the Warriors
Appreciating Harden’s greatness
The officiating controversy in Game 1 and how the media turned it against Houston
Are the Rockets legitimately getting robbed by calls and if so, why?
It wasn’t the prettiest matchup, but the Houston Rockets got it done.
James Harden scored 26 points and made the key defensive play in the final minute as the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 100-93 in Game 5 on Wednesday, advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals with a 4-1 series victory.
At Toyota Center after the Rockets closed it out, MK Bower of Field Level Media joins me to discuss:
James Harden’s strange game and first-half struggles
How Harden rebounded offensively and contributed in other ways
Eric Gordon’s impact in this series on both ends of the floor
Shutting down Donovan Mitchell
PJ Tucker’s defensive intensity
Previewing a (likely) Rockets-Warriors second-round matchup
The OKC-Portland series
How media and fans have turned on Russell Westbrook and what the Thunder should do moving forward