ROSTER BUILDING

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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Kyle Tucker had a big day at the plate on Sunday. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of the series, with one team or the other putting on a solid offensive performance in each, the Astros tried to win their fourth series in their last five by taking the rubber game on Sunday against the Blue Jays. Thanks in part to a big day from Kyle Tucker, who played a significant role in the early offense they used to power to the win, they would accomplish their mission.

Final Score: Astros 7, Blue Jays 4

Astros' Record: 18-16, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (2-1)

Losing Pitcher: Nate Pearson (0-1)

Kyle Tucker helps lead the offense to seven unanswered runs

Houston did not go easy on Nate Pearson in his 2021 debut. After a scoreless first, the Astros loaded the bases on two walks and a single, then brought the first run of the day home on an RBI walk by Michael Brantley. Another walk opened the door in the bottom of the third, and Kyle Tucker capitalized with an RBI triple to make it 2-0, followed by an RBI single by Robel Garcia to make it a three-run lead, ending Pearson's day one out into the bottom of the third.

Things didn't get easier for Toronto's pitching in the next inning, as Jose Altuve would lead off the bottom of the fourth with a solo homer. A single and a walk then set up another big hit for Kyle Tucker, a three-run dinger to make it seven unanswered runs and giving Tucker four RBI on the day.

Blue Jays pound Greinke in the fifth

After four shutout innings to start his day on the mound, working around a few hits along the way, Zack Greinke tried to cash in on his team's offense to get another win on his record. He wouldn't be able to get it done, though, as Toronto would get after him in the top of the fifth. They would score four times amongst five batters that came to the plate, with a solo homer by Rowdy Tellez, a two-RBI double by Bo Bichette, and an RBI single by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

That made it a 7-4 game, and with Greinke still not having recorded an out in the frame, Dusty Baker would lift him at 88 pitches in favor of Bryan Abreu, who would get a pop out and a double play to end the inning and keep the lead at three runs. Greinke's final line: 4.0 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 88 P.

Houston takes the series

No more runs would come on either side the rest of the way, with Kent Emanuel working around a single for a scoreless sixth, Ryne Stanek getting a 1-2-3 seventh, and Andre Scrubb doing the same in the eighth to set up Ryan Pressly for the save. Pressly would get the job done, sending the Blue Jays down in order, including two strikeouts to wrap up the win and giving Houston the series victory.

Up Next: The Astros will stay at home to continue this homestand, welcoming in the Angels for three games starting Monday at 7:10 PM Central. The opener will feature a pitching matchup of Alex Cobb (1-2, 5.48 ERA) for Los Angeles and Luis Garcia (0-3, 3.28 ERA) for Houston.

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