Salman Ali: Rockets opt for conservative but practical offseason

Bringing Chris Paul back was the Rockets biggest off-season move. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

If you were hoping for a summer where the Houston Rockets made a splashy move, this wasn’t it. If you thought the Rockets would throw caution to the wind and spend deep into the luxury tax to overpay key role players like Trevor Ariza, you thought wrong.

Houston went into this summer with several tough decisions to make as nearly half of their playoff rotation was up for new contracts. They faced the delicate balancing act of prioritizing core pieces like Chris Paul and Clint Capela while trying to bring other rotation pieces back for reasonable deals. The Rockets have a history of valuing star players as the highest commodities in basketball (and rightfully so) and viewing supporting players as fungible or replaceable pieces. Look no further than the summer of 2014 when the Rockets made an all-out pursuit for multi-time All Star Chris Bosh.

In the background of their pursuit, the Dallas Mavericks had agreed to a 3-year, $46 million offer sheet with Houston’s Chandler Parsons and when Chris Bosh chose to stay in Miami, the Rockets opted not to match Parsons’ offer sheet. The Rockets were able to successfully replace his production with forward Trevor Ariza. In the moment, Houston’s reluctance to overpay key role players is often met with skepticism, but general manager Daryl Morey’s track record of finding good supporting players on the margins is enough to give Houston the benefit of the doubt.

So it’s no surprise that history is repeating itself once again. The Rockets, again, placed a high value on star talent (Chris Paul in this instance) and a lower value on supporting pieces (Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute). Houston chose to give Chris Paul a 4 year, $160 million contract on July 1st and let Ariza walk for a 1 year, $15 million contract the same night. They also lost out on Mbah a Moute to the Clippers just eight days later. This has been met with puzzled reactions across the board but speaks to a principle the Rockets have lived by since the day Morey took over: “We don’t overpay for role players, especially if we don’t have to.”

Now this is by no means a hard and fast rule that the Rockets have written on a whiteboard somewhere. Rather, it’s a philosophy that they try not to stray from. That doesn’t mean they’ve never overpaid (ex: Ryan Anderson). Houston prefers their contracts to be team friendly and tradeable if need be. They rarely ever hamstrung themselves as they want to keep the roster as flexible as possible. Signing an aging Trevor Ariza to $15 million annually is a non-starter.

If you were to describe Houston’s summer in three words it would be “conservative, but prudent.”

A four year deal for 33-year old Chris Paul isn’t ideal, but the Rockets did good by avoiding a fifth year. Clint Capela for 5 years, $90 million is already good value, but making $10 million of it incentives is fantastic. Few casual fans know who he is, but if James Ennis can replace 80% or more of what Trevor Ariza provided the Rockets for his minimum deal, that’s a bargain. And if the Houston can get more from Carmelo Anthony and Michael-Carter Williams than their previous teams did, those can also be good value contracts.

Most importantly, Houston left pathways to improve their roster before playoff time on the table.

Specifically, Houston is on track to finish the offseason with most of their taxpayer mid-level exception intact and their 2019 1st round pick. Those are two very valuable pieces the Rockets can use to improve their team midseason if need be. By signing guys like Gerald Green, James Ennis, Michael-Carter Williams, and Carmelo Anthony to veteran’s minimum deals, the Rockets retained most of their taxpayer mid-level exception which they can still use at any point this season. They also have yet to trade away their 2019 1st round pick. (Of note: Houston has traded away their 1st round pick every season for the past four years).

This effectively guarantees that the Rockets aren’t done making moves and may not be done until late February. In fact, Brian Windhorst reported that Houston has been on the market to move Ryan Anderson for a few months now. He went on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if they “made a move for a defensive player or two before training camp.” Also, with their taxpayer mid-level exception in hand, they will almost assuredly try to add a significant player to help bolster their depth on the buyout market.

It makes sense the Rockets would keep their roster a work in progress considering that’s always been their mindset as an organization. Here’s a clip of Daryl Morey preaching the patience in constructing a roster for the playoffs.

Overall, it seems Houston’s plan this summer was to prioritize keeping only the most essential parts of their core, keep their cap sheet reasonable (fourth highest salary in the league), take chances on players they felt like the market undervalued, and retain flexibility to improve later on in the year. So while it seems like the Rockets took a step back for now, it may be in an effort to take two steps forward later on. Patience is a virtue.


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5 observations from the Ravens win over the Texans

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Let's be honest; the Texans were not going to beat the Ravens. Baltimore has better players, a better quarterback and a better coaching staff. (And oh, a better kicker). All of that was on display in the Ravens' 33-16 win.

The Ravens move to 2-0, while the Texans dropped to 0-2 after facing the AFC's two best teams.

The Texans will still likely contend for a playoff spot, but nothing the last two weeks indicates they are anywhere near contending in the AFC. A look at five things from the Ravens win:

1) Oh, Brien...It did not take long for Bill O'Brien's goofy coaching to rear its ugly head. Down 3-0 at their own 34 as the first quarter was running out, O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth and one. The play was predictably blown up, the Ravens quickly scored to make it 10-0, and the Texans were instantly in a hole against a superior opponent. You can't give points away against the Ravens. They might have scored anyway with a punt, but there was no stopping them with a short field.

2) Some positives on defense. Despite the score, The Texans looked much better on that side of the ball against an explosive offense. J.J. Watt had two sacks, the team had four total, and they kept Lamar Jackson from destroying them. Seven of the points were scored by the Ravens defense, and O'Brien's gaffe led to seven more. The Ravens wore them down in the fourth quarter, but they played well enough until then to keep the team in the game had the offense been better. They did not force any turnovers, however, and that was one of the differences in the game. They were also blown off the ball on a fourth and one in the fourth quarter that led to the Ravens' 30th points and could not stop the run at all in the fourth quarter. But that's what the Ravens do with a lead, and the Texans offense gave them no breaks by being unable to stay on the field.

3) The difference between real contenders...The Ravens were just so much more skilled on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they focused on taking away the run. David Johnson averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Will Fuller had as many catches as you did. The Ravens forced two turnovers on just really good football plays. The Texans don't make plays like that. They might against lesser teams, but if your goal is to compete with the best, it's just not good enough.

4) Deshaun Watson needs to be better. His numbers looked so so on the surface (25 of 36, 275 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). He was sacked four times and added 17 rushing yards on five carries. He did not make plays late when they needed one here or there to maybe get back in the game. With his big contract, it's time for Watson to stop being close to elite and take the next step. His interception was more of being fooled by Marcus Peters than throwing a bad ball, but the Texans were just 3 of 9 on third downs. Throw in the ill-advised fourth down play, and they were just 3 of 10 extending drives. Give the Ravens a lot of credit, but again, to compete with the best, you have to be better than that.

5) Now what? The Texans travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who have not been impressive in their two wins. Still, it's hard to see Houston as anything but serious underdogs. They are last in the AFC South, and have a lot of work to do. The defense showed some promise at times, but will have to continue to improve. The offense has a long way to go. They match up better with the Steelers than they do the Ravens and Chiefs, but that does not mean they can win. If you were hoping they would give you some indication they can be more than just also-rans, they failed to do that on any level against either the Chiefs or Ravens.

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