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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Correa could be on his way out. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Editor's note: Ken Rosenthal updated his column on Tuesday afternoon.

It has not been the best of times to be a star athlete in Houston. In the last year, Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins were solid off for a warm bucket of spit. George Springer won't be back. James Harden and Russell Westbrook rumors are rampant. J.J. Watt might be moving on as well.

Now, reports are the Astros are listening to offers for Carlos Correa.

Predictably, Astros fans are livid. And if it's true, they should be concerned about the bigger picture.

Trading Correa makes sense - if you have no plans on keeping him after next season, as was clearly the case with Springer. If the Astros can get a haul and replenish the farm system, it would be the right move, especially considering Correa's injury history.

But in the long run, it does not bode well for the direction of the team. All recent indications are that the Astros are going cheap.

They would still be a competitive team without Correa, but it would be yet another indication their World Series window has closed. Alex Bregman could slide over to shortstop, but who would play third? And they only have one starting outfielder on the roster as it is. Putting together a competitive lineup around Bregman, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez would still be possible, but if the Astros aren't going to spend money, that could be problematic.

The writing was probably on the wall when the team hired James Click as GM from the notoriously frugal Tampa Bay organization. The good news is the Rays have been successful. But this is a new direction for a team that was not afraid to spend big money to make runs at the World Series.

If they lose Correa, they lose a team leader, one of the few players who embraced the villain role in the wake of the cheating controversy and was not afraid to speak out. But he has never lived up to his MVP potential, has battled injuries and will command big dollars on the open market. He is still young enough to become that kind of player, and someone will gamble big money that he will.

Sadly, if this rumor is true, it won't be the Astros.

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