Staying the Course
72 hours in: Analyzing the Rockets' free agency
When you open free agency with the hopes of landing a landing star free agent like Jimmy Butler, it can be pretty deflating when you have to quickly pivot to a more conventional offseason. It doesn't necessarily mean that your efforts were unwarranted or that you can't still have a good offseason, but having to re-sell your fans on a summer where you are essentially running back the same nucleus can be extremely difficult.
On Houston's failed Jimmy Butler pursuit….
Saying that Rockets fans got their hopes up for a trio of James Harden, Jimmy Butler, and Chris Paul would be an understatement. In defense of the Rockets, the team has never been one to prioritize fan sentiment over it's ultimate goal: winning a championship. Everything Houston has done since Daryl Morey was hired on as general manager in 2007 has been about trying to maximize market inefficiencies to get an advantage over their chief rivals in order to win a title. Whether it's their play style, their shot selection, their relentless pursuit of stars, or their prudent cap management, Houston's front office has generally put public perception on the back burner as it does not pertain to their ultimate goal of hanging another banner in Toyota Center.
Does Houston care about optics? Of course they do. Morey would not do fifteen radio and television interviews a year if he didn't. Optics also matter when you're pursuing free agents or making hires. These are the primary optics that matter to Houston. You can criticize it or even be upset about it, but it's kind of hard to argue that being the most popular has ever won anyone a championship before.
So, should Houston have kept their pursuit of Butler a little quieter? Perhaps, but it's kind of irrelevant. The Rockets did not sacrifice any assets, lose out on any quality free agents, or handicap themselves in any way because of their efforts. Did the public nature of their pursuit unnecessarily get fanbase hopes up? Of course, but the only obligations a front office has to their fans is to be professional and put a winning product out on the floor.
There's a solid argument to be made that Houston may have to smooth some relationships over (Clint Capela particularly) due to how public their trade negotiations got towards the tail end of the chase. However, Houston does not play regular season basketball for another four months - they have plenty of time to resolve any bitter feelings with their starting center. NBA players are generally more professional and understanding of the business than they are given credit for.
Grading the signings Houston made
Gerald Green - 1 year, $2.6 million
The hometown native has been a constant presence for the Rockets over the past two seasons. He's provided quality floor spacing, a stable locker room presence, and a decent fail-safe for guard and wing injuries. At the minimum, it's hard to be upset at the prospect of Houston bringing him back.
Danuel House - 3 years, $11.1 million
One of the toughest questions going into this free agency this summer was assessing the value of Danuel House. The Rockets signed House from their single-affiliation NBA G League partner, Rio Grande Valley, in late November because the team was starved of wing-depth. House quickly became a major contributor, often logging over twenty minutes a night before becoming a starter in late December after Chris Paul injured his hamstring. The Rockets had to waive House in early December so they could sign Gary Clark, another G League standout that had snuck into the rotiation, to a multi-year deal.
House then returned to the team a few days later on a two-way contract. He would continue to start for Houston until his NBA days expired and he was forced to return to the G League. It would be another 25 games until House returned to the team. By then, Eric Gordon had permanently replaced House in the starting unit and the Rockets chose not to reverse course. House provided good minutes as a reserve wing that could defend multiple positions while providing the Rockets with athleticism they didn't have before. However, as Houston moved closer and closer to the playoffs, House's role in the rotation began to decrease. Against the Warriors in the playoffs, House was functionally cut out of the rotation after Game 1.
According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, the Rockets discussed House possibly returning to the starting unit, which is a major positive development for Houston. Gordon did a decent job holding to fort down for Houston, but the Rockets have not had a starting small forward with significant size and athleticism to defend multiple positions since House left the team in January. Securing a young wing for multiple years on a relatively cheap contract is a significant plus for Houston. At the very least, House is a strong depth piece for the team.
Austin Rivers - 2 years, $4.3 million
Getting Rivers to agree to a two-year, veteran's minimum contract is a bargain. Rivers' reportedly turned down multiple offers that would have played him more than double the contract he signed, but chose to return to Houston on a discount. He'd become an important rotation player for the Rockets, particularly when Chris Paul went down last season with a hamstring injury. Rivers is a good on-ball defender, decent three-point shooter, and good penetrator coming off the bench for Houston.
Rivers had said communicated several times over the past few months that he wanted to return to Houston. "I told my agent, 'This is the team I got to go to'," Rivers said back in January when he signed with the team. "Everything they emphasize are the things I like to do. I know I've found a home."
This deal may end up being one of the steals of the summer.
As a whole….
The Rockets have done a fine job working with their limitations to bring some of their main contributors back. It may not be as sexy as landing a big name free agent or signing lauded fresh faces, but Houston has never been a team that's signed someone new just for the sake of signing someone new. They've kept a lot of their resources dry and it hasn't quite become clear if they will hard cap themselves in an effort to use the full mid-level exception or bi-annual exception.
For now, it's safe to assume they've dipped into their taxpayer mid-level exception by signing Danuel House to a three-year deal and they have around $2.2 million remaining to sign a player to a multi-year deal and the bird rights to free agent swingman Iman Shumpert. If the Rockets choose to hard cap themselves and opt for the full mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception, they would likely not retain Shumpert as they would be too close to the apron.
The internal calculus Houston has to make now is whether or not whoever they can sign for their full mid-level exception and bi-annual would be worth losing the rights Shumpert. Houston could also pocket the rest of their exceptions (whichever ones they may be) and save it for mid-season signings.
Around 90% of Houston's theoretical playoff rotation has been filled out with Harden, Paul, Capela, Tucker, House, Gordon, Rivers, and Green all under contract for next season. With veteran big man Nene opting out of his deal, there is a hole the Rockets need to plug at backup center and it'll be fascinating to see how the Rockets choose to go about doing that. They also may want another strong and long perimeter defender to round out their rotation. They could use either:
- Their taxpayer mid-level and their minimums, avoiding a possible hard cap
- Use the rest of the full mid-level ($5.7 million), exposing themselves to the hard cap
With plenty of time remaining, it'll be interesting to see which path Houston chooses to go down.