Rockets miss out on key free agents, but keep an eye on the trade market

Daryl Morey usually has something up his sleeve in the trade market. Rockets.com

Lebron James is a Laker now. Paul George is returning to Oklahoma City. Once again another free agency period where Houston’s front office has asserted aggressiveness in acquiring a superstar, and once again the Rockets have nothing to speak of (Chris Paul and James Harden were both acquired via trades, and Houston’s most productive free agent in recent memory would be Eric Gordon). Instead of lamenting another failed attempt at luring big name free agents to Houston, however, Rockets fans should be more worried about how their team plans to recover from their in-house losses if they plan to remain a Western Conference threat next season.

So far the Rockets managed to resignPaul and fan favorite guard Gerald Green. Clint Capela remains a restricted free agent, but it’s widely assumed that Houston will match any offer made. Their core therefore remains mostly intact, with the exception of forward Trevor Ariza.

Ariza made the surprising decision to to leave Houston and sign with the Phoenix Suns this weekend, leaving a gaping hole in the Rockets starting small forward position. While his departure is nowhere near the magnitude that Paul of Capela’s absence would create, Houston fans shouldn’t sleep on what Ariza brought as a starter to a Rockets team that won a franchise record 65 games last season.

Ariza’s durability will certainly be missed. Since the 2014-2015 season, Ariza missed a total of 18 contests out of 328 in his latest stint as a Rocket, averaging over 33 minutes per game each season. That level of reliability is tough to find in an 82-game season.

Aside from his durability, Ariza was most well known as a clamp down defender that could shoot a reliable 3-pointer. He suited Houston’s system well by shutting down his assignment defensively and setting himself up in the corner for kick out 3-pointers. He didn’t quite light up the scoreboard, but a veteran defensive specialist with range will never be short on suitors during free agency. This time, it came at Houston’s expense.

Should Houston have made a more concerted effort to lock up Ariza? The answer is simply no. It was assumed after their Western Conference Finals exit that Ariza would be willing to take a pay cut to help assemble a superteam. Word got out soon after that Ariza would be looking for a max contract, however, and that was quite simply not an option the Rockets could logically consider.

The question now centers on General Manager Daryl Morey’s remedy to the situation. Reserve forward Luc Mbah a Moute looks to be the most logical heir to the starting rotation spot, but he remains a free agent and Houston would not be able to bring him back at the bargain they sign him at last season. Doing so would deplete the Rockets bench depth, a key factor in their success last season.

Where Houston falls short in free agency, however, they excel in their trade savvy. As a result, this looks to be the most likely route the Rockets. Rumors are already circulating regarding Houston’s interest in Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, a very capable replacement. Expect more of the same in the coming days.

Without Ariza, the Rockets remain among the elite teams in the Western Conference, if not the entire league. It will be interesting however to see who eventually is tabbed as Houston’s starting small forward in just a few short months.


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