But how about acquiring both of them?
Believe it or not, it is indeed possible for GM Daryl Morey to grab both the league's best center and point guard during the offseason. It would just require a lot of player movement and creative thinking. According to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, this is a goal of the organization:
Howard has generated by far the most attention as a Rockets free-agent target, but the team plans a similar and simultaneous pursuit of Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, a person with knowledge of the Rockets’ thinking said. According to another individual familiar with the team’s plans, “they are targets No. 1 and 1A.”
Before delving into the nitty-gritty, there are a few baseline numbers that must be brought to light. The first two come courtesy of NBA salary-cap guru Larry Coon:
If the league's salary cap is set at $58.5 million and the luxury-tax threshold at $71.6 million, that pushes the apron to $75.6 million. By definition, this upper limit is set $4 million above the tax threshold.
The other two relevant numbers are $18.7 million and $20.5 million, the respective amounts that Chris Paul and Dwight Howard will be making during the 2013-14 season when they inevitably sign for max contracts.
So, with those figures firmly in mind, let's figure out how the Rockets can create the next superteam.
Step 1: Assess what they have right now
Going into the 2013 offseason, the Rockets have a full 15-man roster on the books for $54,843,158.
James Harden is the clear star of this team, and he's making a team-high $13,668,750 during the 2013-14 campaign. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik share the second-highest salaries on the team, each representing an $8,374,646 cap hit.
Being on the books for nearly $55 million before even signing a single free agent might seem fairly prohibitive when it comes to landing one or more marquee players, but the Rockets' situation is a little strange. They have a few team options to play with, and many of their players are working with non-guaranteed contracts.
This, in turn, brings us to the first true step of the offseason portion of this process, as Houston has likely already completed Step 1.
Step 2: Waive all non-guaranteed contracts and decline all team options
Francisco Garcia, Aaron Brooks and Tim Ohlbrecht all have club options on their contracts, so Houston can decide not to bring back any of them.
Losing Garcia and his $6.4 million isn't too painful because he would be massively overpaid otherwise. Neither is cutting Tim Ohlbrecht—who has only played for the team's D-League affiliate—and shedding $788,872 from the books. Getting rid of Aaron Brooks, who is set to make $2.5 million, is the toughest of the three, but it's still worth doing if the Rockets can upgrade at point guard.
James Anderson ($916,099), Patrick Beverly ($788,872) and Carlos Delfino ($3 million) all have non-guaranteed contracts, so the team can wipe their salaries off the books as well. Even though Beverly was fairly impressive during the postseason, he, like Brooks, is obviously no CP3.
All of these moves push the team's financial burdens down to $40,449,315. Sounds a bit more manageable than $54,843,158, right?
Unfortunately for Houston, it's still not even enough to acquire either Paul or Howard, much less both of them, without a sign-and-trade.
Step 3: Trade Thomas Robinson
Toward the end of May, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Rockets were willing to trade Thomas Robinson to free up some cap space for Dwight Howard. That still hasn't changed, especially if Morey wants to go after both Howard and Paul.
Robinson's salary for the 2013-14 season is $3,526,440, and Houston can't afford to take on any salary in return. The Rockets would be left trading him for a draft pick to depress the team salary.
While giving up a player of Robinson's caliber—let's not write him off as a bust quite yet—for a draft pick is painful, it's necessary. This move would drop the team's salary payouts to $36,922,875.
We're getting closer, but we're still not quite there yet. The 2013-14 season introduces a new provision in the collective bargaining agreement, one that prevents a team from going over the apron in a sign-and-trade deal.
If the Rockets signed Paul for $18.7 million, they would be up to $55,622,875. To stay beneath the apron while adding Howard's $20.5 million to the books, Houston would need to trade away $522,875 in a sign-and-trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. That wouldn't be a problem, except that it overlooks one more factor.
Another CBA provision states that after completing a sign-and-trade, the team receiving the player can't go over the apron at any point during the season. Normally, teams can just continue adding on players for minimum and non-guaranteed contracts, regardless of the apron, but this changes after a sign-and-trade.
In our blueprint, the Rockets only have 10 players on the roster at the moment. They can't sign five more unless they trade away another significant contract, so we're still left needing to cut more salary.
Step 4: Trade Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik
Assuming that Houston is able to acquire both Paul and Howard, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik both become expendable. That's fortunate for Morey, since both players will represent an $8,374,646 cap hit for the 2013-14 season.
To free up the necessary space for completing a sign-and-trade and then filling up the roster while staying below the apron, trading one of them is necessary. Morey would have to work with a team that has plenty of cap space—the Charlotte Bobcats for example—and trade either Lin or Asik for nothing more than a draft pick or two. This was the case with Robinson in the previous step.
Once Lin or Asik is off the books, the team is down to $28,548,229.
If the Rockets signed either Howard or Paul and completed a sign-and-trade for the other, getting rid of the two (or more) newly acquired draft picks, they would be up to $67,748,229. That actually leaves them with a bit of space to fill up the 15-man roster.
While a sign-and-trade for one of the two superstars is necessary, there aren't many options for the Rockets. At this point, the Rockets have nine players under contract: Paul, Howard, Lin/Asik, James Harden, Royce White, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith.
Obviously, Paul and Howard aren't going anywhere but Houston in a sign-and-trade scenario. Harden, Parsons and Motiejunas are similarly untouchable, while Smith and Jones are bordering on that distinction.
The Rockets could send White to either L.A. team in the deal, but that would also leave them needing to sign one more cheaper option in Step 5. It's more likely that they simply give up the two (or more) draft picks that were acquired in Steps 3 and 4 in exchange for Robinson and Lin/Asik.
That's the scenario we're working with going forward, so continue assuming that Houston has nine players under contract going into the final step.
Step 5: Fill up roster with non-guaranteed contracts
To get to 15 players, the Rockets would be left handing out non-guaranteed contracts. Here's how those salaries break down, courtesy of Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ:
|Years of Experience||Salary|
To stay under the apron, the Rockets have $7,851,771 to spend on six players, so they would be working with an average of $1,308,628.50 for each of their non-guaranteed contracts. Essentially, they can target any player in the league willing to accept a non-guaranteed contract, except for the true veterans who have already spent at least 10 years in the league.
Houston also has the No. 34 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, so they would have one more cheap player on the books.
I'm not going to speculate as to who the Rockets will target here, but it certainly is possible to find a cheap draft pick and five non-guaranteed players to fill out the roster.
Assuming the Rockets follow all of these steps, they would be working with the following depth chart (also assuming they choose to keep Asik over Lin because he is the more valuable player):
- Point guard: Chris Paul
- Shooting guard: James Harden
- Small forward: Chandler Parsons, Royce White
- Power forward: Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Greg Smith
- Center: Dwight Howard, Omer Asik (could also start at power forward)
The rest of the roster would be comprised of the non-guaranteed players and the lone draft selection, but that's a pretty terrific start.
When you hear that the Rockets want to sign both Paul and Howard, don't be too shocked. It would require a great deal of creative maneuvering, but it's certainly a possibility. And if we know Morey, we know that he's usually willing to go through even more steps than this.
Could Houston be the site of the NBA's next superteam?
All NBA salary cap information via Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.