The Houston Rockets have upwards of $20 million in cap space this offseason (via hoopshype.com), and general manager Daryl Morey will certainly spend nearly all of that money in an effort to improve an already promising core of players.
Should Morey reach his spending limit, however, he can take advantage of the mid-level exception (MLE) to sign a player even if he's over the salary cap.
The MLE allows teams over the salary cap to spend a specified amount of money on a free agent, and that specified number changes from season to season. For a full description of the MLE, click here.
This season, teams qualifying for the MLE have the opportunity to spend $5,150,000 on a free agent (via hoopsrumors.com).
Teams that qualify for the MLE would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to go above the salary cap and sign more talent. Finding players for under $5 million isn't always easy, but the diamonds in the rough often show themselves early on during the regular season.
The Rockets, like every team, could make great use of the MLE. There are definitely some intriguing options out there for them.
Matt Barnes is the most intriguing—and, dare I say, likely best available—candidate for the MLE amongst NBA teams. Take into account his salary from last season (just under $900K, via hoopshype.com) and his great production off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers, and you've got yourself an ideal option.
Barnes will certainly be in line for a raise given his numbers from last season. He dropped a career-high 10.3 points per game in his age-32 season. His 4.6 boards per contest in 25.7 minutes were a nice addition to his game, as was his 34.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
The Rockets happen to be in the market for a reserve small forward behind Chandler Parsons, as Francisco Garcia is expected to have his team option rejected and there are no guarantees regarding Carlos Delfino's option either.
Monetarily, going after Barnes in favor of Garcia and Delfino is the much better option.
Barnes also plays strong defense, something Houston lacks in nearly every capacity. He blocked 0.8 shots and recorded 1.0 steals per game for the Clips in 2012-13, showcasing how his length and athleticism make him one of the better reserve defenders in the NBA.
If the Rockets want cheap defense under the basket when Omer Asik hits the bench, then they should look no further than 11-year veteran Samuel Dalembert.
He blocked 1.1 shots per game as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season and has averaged 1.8 blocks for his career. The guy can simply block shots—period.
Houston lacked defense under the basket when Asik needed a rest last season. Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Tim Olbrecht did not provide enough tenacity under the basket to play passable defense. Dalembert is long and knows how to use his body, making him an ideal candidate for this role.
Better yet, he'll likely be in the market for a salary under $5 million. He made $6.7 million with the Bucks (via hoopshype.com), but he may be hard-pressed to find that money again. He only averaged 6.7 points in just under 17 minutes per game, so he isn't worth much more than the MLE.
Even if it takes all $5 million to sign Dalembert, Morey shouldn't pass on him if other options don't fall into place. Dalembert is a quality reserve center who would play well in a system where opponents attack the basket and he has the opportunity to pull down offensive boards.
Asik has yet to miss a game over the course of his career, but Dalembert's starting experience from his days with the Philadelphia 76ers help his case even more.
Not many teams are in the market for an aging center, so Houston shouldn't have a hard time fending off the competition. In all honesty, Houston shouldn't even be all that concerned about his age. For the role he would be asked to play, defense is all the Rockets should care about.
O'Neal certainly fits the bill as a defensive-minded reserve center. He blocked 1.4 shots in 18.7 minutes per game last season in Phoenix, making it the 13th straight season in which he's blocked at least 1.3 shots per contest.
He even brought in 5.3 rebounds per game, showcasing the fact that he still has something left in the tank. O'Neal is a great fit to play behind Asik, as his defense mirrors that of last season's breakout star.
What makes O'Neal even more appealing is the fact that he can play power forward in a pinch. A power forward for most of his career, O'Neal saw most of his better days in the NBA while playing the 4.
Offensively, O'Neal isn't anything special at this point in his career. He can still get the job done, however, evidenced by his 48.2 percent shooting with the Suns. With that in mind, O'Neal is worth the MLE for the Rockets.
Who would you rather see in Houston next season?
Defense should be the main goal of the Rockets this offseason, and there are plenty of players that can step in and provide some spark in that area. Barnes, Dalembert and O'Neal are all above-average defenders who qualify for the MLE and could make an impact on a young Rockets team.
Although there will be other general managers out there interested in these players, Morey may be faced with the difficult option of choosing one out of the three (and many other NBA free agents). I could make a case for all three if I were the GM of a team but, thankfully, I'd rather leave the decision of choosing one up to Morey.