NAVIGATING THE OFFSEASON
2020 Houston Rockets offseason preview
At no point in James Harden's tenure in Houston have the Rockets had more questions heading into an offseason than this year. Coming off a short second-round series elimination against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets already had deep issues they needed to resolve. The problems then got compounded when head coach Mike D'Antoni parted ways with the team at the beginning of the offseason and general manager Daryl Morey followed suit not long after. This is a dark time for the franchise and there's really no sugarcoating it.
To make matters worse, the rest of the NBA isn't going to sit around and wait for the Rockets to catch up. All the usual suspects will contend for the title again next year along with some new ones. Brooklyn and Dallas are two obvious teams that are ripe to step into the conversation in their respective conferences. Philadelphia will be looking to bounce back from their chaotic season. The Clippers are also looking to re-tool after their second-round elimination.
If Houston wants to maximize the final years of James Harden's prime, they have to absolutely nail an offseason like this. It's going to take a series of difficult steps though and that's what we're going to talk about today.
Assessing where you're at
Before the Rockets do anything, they have to accept where they are as a franchise, decide where they want to be, and find a way to get there. Wallowing in self-pity isn't productive, so if there's even a hint of regret about any of the moves Houston's made to get them to this point, that has to go out the window. Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Mike D'Antoni, and Daryl Morey aren't returning to the organization. Eric Gordon's extension isn't going to magically come off the books.
You can't go into a time machine and reverse any of these decisions. The Rockets made some of them and they have to own them. New Rockets GM Rafael Stone has some pretty big questions to answer. The first one is whether Houston still wants to contend for a title next season.
Only the Rockets can decide whether they want to go nuclear, trade James Harden, and rebuild. However, as a word of caution, consider how difficult it is to rebuild in the NBA. The whole point of "blowing it up" is to put yourself in a position where you could draft or trade for a player of Harden's caliber and usually, that player isn't as talented. Houston already has that player in-hand in the middle of his prime.
The prospect of rebuilding and getting out of this cycle of disappointing playoff exits may seem appealing on its face, but it's painful and often unfruitful. This is Houston's decision, but considering how rare these contention windows are, let's assume they ride it out with this core. Also, owner Tilman Fertitta has already indicated that the Rockets do not intend to blow it up.
The Rockets have no cap space, few draft capital to trade, and their roster is aging. How does a team like that improve?
Hiring the right coach
When your last head coach was Mike D'Antoni, it's really hard to upgrade. It's not impossible and the Rockets can try, but the best case scenario likely involves hiring someone in D'Antoni's tier. If you can manage to not get worse at head coach, you're in a good spot.
It appears the finalists for Houston's vacancy are former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy, current Rockets assistant coach John Lucas, and Dallas assistant coach Stephen Silas. All three have their own unique cases for the job, but at the end of the day, the Rockets have to decide which coach can best position them to contend with the best teams in the Western Conference.
There also has to be a continuity of thinking from D'Antoni, meaning a buy-in to Houston's micro-ball approach. People may not like micro-ball, but it's clearly the best way for Houston to play on both sides of the floor. On offense it gives them floor spacing around James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And on defense, it allows them to switch everything. The next coach may make some tweaks to the offense or defense, but he has to be comfortable with the fundamentals of the roster.
It will also be interesting to see how the staff shakes out, but coaches like Brett Gunnings and Matt Brase will probably be back in some form.
Who do you want to keep?
Before we get into who Houston should target, let's be clear about something: They're not trading Russell Westbrook. It's going to be a popular parlor game for Rockets fans, but the reality is his contract combined with Houston's lack of assets makes this a non-starter. Even if the Rockets had assets to package with Westbrook, the likelihood that they'd get a package that makes it worth it is small
From there, the best value contracts on the roster are probably P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Tucker and Covington aren't as "untouchable" as James Harden by any means, but their defensive versatility and floor spacing make them awesome fits into micro-ball. It'll be very difficult for Houston to stomach their losses, so it's probably safe to lock them into next year's team as well.
(Of note: Tucker has been very open about wanting an extension this offseason and he may get his wish. However, it may not be prudent of Houston to add several years on Tucker's deal considering he's already 35 years old.)
So Houston's probably starting with a core of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, and Robert Covington going into next season. For all the doom and gloom surrounding this team, that's a pretty strong starting point. Regardless of what they do at head coach or what happens in free agency, Houston should be a very good team next season.
However, the Rockets know better than anyone that there's a difference between being a very good team and a team good enough to win a championship. With James Harden going into his age 31 season, the bar will be elevating into that Lakers tier of teams. Improving around the edges is difficult, but it can be done.
Eric Gordon is probably the biggest wild card on Houston's roster right now. Gordon dealt with significant knee injuries that kept him in and out of the lineup, so it's possible he just wasn't given the runway to catch rhythm. However, his market value has tanked from where it was a year prior. Gordon was the perfect contract Houston would like to have to explore the trade market with this offseason, but now the extension he signed has negative value. Houston may still shop him around because their other high-priced players are too valuable to move, but the cons probably outweigh the pros considering what they have to attach to any deal.
It's also hard to see Ben McLemore going anywhere considering his contract is dirt cheap. He may not be anything to write home about defensively, but he's a strong enough shooter that it doesn't matter. McLemore perfectly fits that Gerald Green plug-and-play role Houston's had coming off the bench for the past few years. I wouldn't count on Houston waiving him.
Danuel House is tricky, because if you asked anyone before the bubble whether Houston would want to move on from him, they would think you're crazy. However, the actions that got him suspended from Orlando are the kind of things that get you cut or traded. An optimized House provides value for Houston on both ends of the floor, but it'll really depend on if he has any relationships to smooth over on the team. For what it's worth, House has decent value on the trade market so Houston shouldn't have any trouble dealing him if it comes to that.
Because of how he looked as a small-ball five for Houston, Jeff Green may out-price the Rockets and that may not necessarily be the worst thing. Green can provide value at the four and five position offensively, but the Rockets are missing so much there defensively. Green simply can't provide that for them, even when he's playing at his best. If Houston can get him back for cheap, of course it's worth doing. However, Green isn't the kind of player worth digging too deep into your exceptions for when there may be better options out there.
David Nwaba may prove to be the shrewdest signing the Rockets made last season. Nwaba is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury for Brooklyn, but the Rockets were able to sign him to a bargain two-year deal in the period without basketball before the bubble. The 27-year-old is 6'5" with an impressive seven-foot wingspan and can defend multiple positions, a valuable trait for Houston considering they like to switch everything. Although it was only 20 games, Nwaba was shooting a career-high 42.9% from three-point range prior to the Achilles injury. For his career, he's about a 34.4% shooter from deep and the Rockets will give him a green light to launch them next season.
Like McLemore, Nwaba's deal is so cheap, it's a no-brainer to keep him. He was also signed with the knowledge that he was not going to be available for the 2019-20 season. Nwaba could soak up the minutes Austin Rivers was getting if Rivers ultimately chooses to walk in free agency.
Rivers has been a nice luxury for Houston off the bench these past couple of years, but his utility is best shown when there's an injury in the guard rotation. As an off-ball player, he leaves room to be desired compared to better fitting options. Rivers has expressed confidence that he could be more than his current role on another team publicly before, so it makes sense if he wants to opt out and explore his options. He'd also probably earn more than Houston can give.
As far as rotation players go, we've covered the key names in contention for playing time next year.
What are the Rockets missing?
It was mentioned above, but those Jeff Green minutes you could be losing off the bench need to be given to stronger defenders. Even though the Rockets are intentionally giving up rebounds for forced turnovers by playing micro-ball, 29th in rebounding percentage isn't going to cut it. The Rockets need to climb from 15th to 10th in defensive rating to really elevate them up a tier and size is the easiest way to do it.
It will be interesting to see if Houston targets at least one rim-running big man off the bench to play in the non-Westbrook minutes (when James Harden is on the floor), but a versatile forward who can also shoot threes and play center off the bench would shore up their roster defensively a good bit.
What tools do the Rockets have?
So, the quality of players the Rockets add to their roster in free agency will depend on the kind of financial commitment they're getting from ownership. If there's ever going to be a "put up or shut up" moment for owner Tilman Fertitta, it's this offseason. Fertitta has publicly said for years that he is willing to spend into the luxury tax to build a contender, but the Rockets have yet to do that in his three years of ownership. This offseason, there's really no way around it: If the Rockets want to compete with the best teams, they have to spend into the luxury tax.
The excuse given for not paying the luxury tax before was fear of the repeater tax, but the Rockets have a very clear window now to compete and spend hard for two more years before ducking the tax repeater tax if they choose to. As of this moment, Houston will fall under the tax line in 2022-23 even if Harden and Westbrook opt into the last years of their contract. The Rockets will also own their own draft picks in 2022 and 2023, so they also maintain the flexibility to rebuild in two years if they choose to do so.
For the purposes of this offseason, $9.2 million and $3.6 million are the numbers to keep in mind. That's the value of Houston's non-taxpayer mid-level exception and bi-annual exception respectively. If the Rockets want to show how committed they are to winning, they spend every cent of those exceptions. Teams are always anxious about hard-capping themselves to spend the full mid-level, but there are a couple of players in this free agent class good enough to make it worth it for Houston.
If they don't have luck with any of those players, they should be spending every penny of their taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.7 million) on a solid veteran instead of going bargain shopping with just minimum contracts to fill up the roster.
It's important to keep in mind that this will be an unusually competitive marketplace. Unlike years past, there are more than a few teams that view themselves as title contenders and will be vying for the same free agents. This is compounded by the fact that there aren't star players available to suck up a large percentage of the money available. Every good team wants strong role players and will be using their mid-level exception to acquire them.
How the Rockets operate as a team this summer will tell us a lot about owner Tilman Fertitta, GM Rafael Stone, and how attractive of a destination Houston still is. It's going to be fascinating.