Like so many other members of the Rockets, including guys like Jeremy Lin, Greg Smith and Patrick Beverley, Parsons was pretty much an afterthought when he entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2011.
There were plenty of reasons to skim over Parsons. In four seasons at Florida, the 6'9" forward shot just 33.7 percent from behind the arc and 61.1 percent from the line. He had athleticism and good size, but he lacked polish and was maybe viewed as a bit of a "tweener," which had been the kiss of death for many prospects before he came along.
But Rockets general manager Daryl Morey knew he was exploiting the market when he drafted Parsons. Four-year college players are typically valued lower than their younger counterparts are, and there was clearly a lack of intrigue with Parsons going into draft day. The mystery was gone. Most teams thought he was what he was.
Morey viewed Parsons differently, obviously, and the confidence in his vision never wavered. Before he ever even played in an NBA game, Morey had the foresight to lock Parsons up to a four-year deal worth just $3.6 million. It was a risk, sure, but it was a very small one that could pay big dividends.
Fast-forward a little more than two years, and here we are. Parsons is making less than a million dollars this season, but he's posting a PER of 17.2, shooting 38.2 percent from behind the arc and averaging over 17 points a game. He's unquestionably one of the best values in the league, if not the best.
That value, though, won't last forever. Parsons has a team option on the last year of his deal, which means it's completely up to Houston what to do with it. While that would seem like an easy decision, it's not that simple.
If Houston declines Parsons' team option this offseason, he'll become a restricted free agent. That means Houston will be able to match any offer sheet Parsons signs, regardless of size or length. That's a big deal.
But if the Rockets decide to accept one more year of Parsons at the price of $964,750, they'll forfeit the rights to match any deal in free agency, as he'll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014-15 season when his contract concludes.
While the decision ultimately belongs to the Rockets and Morey, Parsons and his agent, Dan Fegan, can certainly play hardball. If the Rockets don't decline the team offer and pay Parsons something closer to what he clearly deserves, they can threaten to go elsewhere next year and never look back.
It hasn't come to that yet, at least publicly. Here's what Parsons told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle earlier this year:
“My contract is four years,” Parsons said. “I love being in Houston. I love playing with the Rockets. I think we have a chance to be really good. I don’t worry about that. That’s why I hired Dan Fegan. I think he’s the best in the game. I know he’ll do what he thinks is best for my career.
“It (the contract) doesn’t bother me. I chose my contract. Although I was confident in myself after my college career, I was still drafted in the second round. Rather than a one-year deal, I picked a four-year deal. It’s a little frustrating seeing all these guys, but what I’m making right now is still a lot of money to me.”
This is a tricky situation for the Rockets, and it's only complicated by the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
Both Lin and Asik are scheduled to be paid $15 million next year in actual salary, even though their cap number will remain at $8.3 million.
That could be awfully problematic from ownership's standpoint. If the Rockets decide to decline Parsons' team option, it seems likely he'll demand a contract in restricted free agency somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million a year. With Dwight Howard and James Harden already on max contracts, and Lin and Asik's inflated deals, the Rockets could end up paying more than $75 million to just five players.
Asik, who very clearly wants out of Houston so he can start somewhere, would be the most obvious candidate to be dealt, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.
If the Rockets can shed Asik's salary without bringing back any future commitments, moving Jeremy Lin (one of Parsons' best friends on the team) in a similar deal might make sense, as Houston could then attract a legitimate third star in free agency. That would require the Rockets to accept the team option on Parsons, though, which definitely accepts the possibility of losing him for nothing the following year.
Is it worth losing the right to match a very good young player for the shot at another star or the savings under the luxury tax?
Or can Houston count on winning championships with a locked-up core of Harden, Howard and Parsons without much financial flexibility?
With the right surrounding cast, it's easy to believe Parsons could be the third-best player on a championship team. He's versatile, he thrives in an up-tempo system and he stretches the floor with his three-point shooting ability. He's the ideal fit in Houston right now.
But with a big payday looming either this offseason or next, we'll find out just how much of Parsons' value to Houston is attached to his contract.
Make no mistake: this is a real crossroads for the Rockets. The last two offseasons have been plenty eventful, obviously, but the decision on Parsons will tell us an awful lot about the direction of the franchise going forward.
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