The pursuit was well documented. The risks were calculated. And the prize was worth it.
This past summer, Morey and the Rockets went all-in on Dwight Howard—dumping Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola and allowing Goran Dragic to defect to the Phoenix Suns—just to have the opportunity to acquire him.
Obviously, that plan didn’t work out, but after the sudden and surprising trade that brought James Harden to the Rockets, things are looking up for the franchise.
With Harden and Jeremy Lin now in the fold, the Rockets have become one of the NBA’s most talked about teams. More importantly, Houston will be one of the NBA’s premier free-agent destinations in years to come.
Lin came into this season with high expectations, considering what he accomplished last season as a member of the New York Knicks. And though his 11.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game are a far cry from last season’s stretch of Linsanity, those numbers are very respectable for a starting point guard in today’s NBA.
Harden, the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, was the talk of the league when he scored 82 points in his first two games as a Rocket. We knew those performances wouldn’t last, but it stands to reason that Harden has established himself as a primary scorer.
Together, Lin and Harden give the Rockets an exciting backcourt that they can build around. When combined with the rest of what the team has to offer, it won’t be too long before we hear whispers that some of the NBA’s free agents have eyes for “H-Town.”
As for the other assets the Rockets have to lure free agents?
Center Omer Asik—the least heralded of the Rockets acquisitions this summer—has made a rather smooth transition from being a seventh man on the Chicago Bulls to being an everyday starter in the middle.
Through the Rockets first seven games this season, Asik’s 13.0 rebounds per game rank him as the league’s third best boarder behind the Memphis Grizzlies' Zach Randolph (14.5) and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao (13.7).
Asik has also shown a better than advertised ability to score the ball, averaging 9.9 points per game on the season and 13.3 points per game over the Rockets' last four.
Combined with Lin and Harden, Asik gives the Rockets a solid foundation to build on. Now, the Rockets are only one legitimate scoring threat away from becoming of the better teams in the Western Conference.
Prospective free agents will notice that, and those that believe they can fill that void will want to hop on board.
But as much as free agent want to find themselves in good situations, they want to get paid, too. So while being a premier free-agent destination is a good thing, it means nothing without prudent cap management.
That’s why Rockets fans should feel confident with where their team is right now. Down the road, Morey will have money to spend—and plenty of it.
This season, the Rockets have about $54 million committed in salaries, but over the next two seasons, they have just about $40 million committed. Between now and then, the Rockets will have to make important decisions on whether or not to pay their youngsters—Marcus Morris, Royce White, Terrence Jones, Donatas Montiejunas and Chandler Parsons.
If the Rockets manage their cap situation well by retaining a select few from that bunch, they can create enough salary cap space to make a run at a maximum salaried free agent. The Rockets would then be able to add that maximum-salaried free agent to the core of Lin, Harden and Asik.
It’s a little known fact that’s overlooked and unreported, but because the Rockets were under the cap last summer when they signed both Lin and Asik to three-year deals worth about $25 million, they were able to equally distribute the money owed to each player over the years of the contracts.
In other words, Lin and Asik will each count as $8.3 million against the Rockets cap for this season and each of the following two. So, when Harden’s maximum salaried deal kicks in next season, the trio will earn a total of about $30 million.
The final year of Lin and Asik’s deals will see Harden’s salary get bumped up to about $14.7 million, so even then, the trio will earn only a combined $31 million.
This season’s salary cap is about $58 million, and it’s likely to increase three to five percent over each of the next two seasons. So, in short, the Rockets are in a very good place with regard to the cap situation.
In the meantime, other free-agent hot spots—Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Chicago—already have long money tied up in other expensive players. So in July 2013, when the likes of Josh Smith and Al Jefferson are unrestricted free agents, or in July 2014, when Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Pau Gasol may be looking for new homes, Houston should be at the top of their lists.
Aside from getting paid, players want to be able to trust the men making the decisions, and the Rockets management has a fairly good track record. Morey, its general manager, has been on the job since 2007 and is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the NBA’s modern statistical revolution.
Even without a superstar, Morey has managed to put together teams that are always competitive in the NBA’s tough Western Conference. Under Morey’s watch, the Rockets have won about 57 percent of their games, going 230-171.
Although the Rockets have finished ninth in the conference for each of the past three seasons, their franchise is one with a winning record and stable management.
With three exciting young players in Lin, Harden and Asik, an abundance of young talent, cap space, a general manager with a good reputation and a lack of competition from other big markets, the Rockets will be in a very good spot in future offseasons.
While the Rockets have cooled off since their blistering start, the team's prospects are more about the long-term. Over the course of the next few years, free agents will come to see that Houston is one of the more promising situations that the NBA has to offer.
It’s only a matter of time.