Daryl Morey has put the NBA on tilt yet again.
Parsons has been playing on one of the most lopsided contracts in the league, making just a shade under $1 million per season. There had been plenty of speculation before about adjusting his income scale before the deal was up. As Morey said in a Twitter Q&A: “He’s going to make a lot of money on his next contract. We don’t know how much. But we’re committed to keeping him.”
We could’ve seen this coming. But instead of looking at the move for the subtle spin that it was, league followers went nuts with speculation. All of a sudden, it was presumed that Morey had already lined up a chain reaction of salary finagling and trade bait to bring Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love to town.
We’ve been burned by Morey before. When he traded for James Harden, no one really knew he was available. When he signed Dwight Howard, it was a shock to the throngs who believed Howard couldn’t be lured away from the glamour of Hollywood and playing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
What’s really going on with Parsons and his team is hard to see for the time being. But the logic of Occam’s razor tells us that rather than being a presage to another explosive superstar swing, this development is about avoiding the three-year wingman’s unrestricted free agency.
The Rockets might lose Parsons this summer or next, but by making him a restricted free agent now, they get to control the terms of his move and at least get something in return for him. If another team offers Parsons a contract bigger than what Houston has in mind, they can still match the sheet and flip him in a trade.
And despite suggestions that the Rockets are deep in the hunt for another megastar, the word coming from the team is that they’re more interested in improving internally than externally. Here’s what James Harden had to say to CSN Houston’s Adam Wexler in a recent phone call:
I think we have a lot already, a couple of smaller moves would be good for us. I don't know if necessarily the big move would help us out a lot, we have a lot of good things in our locker room, a lot of young guys that want to get better and want to work. Maybe a couple of small moves and we'll be right here we want to be.
But, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe puts it, “The Rockets are the NBA’s new bogeyman.” He goes on:
They are what the Lakers were just two years ago — the dread rival other teams assume, with an eye roll and a shrug, will somehow pull off the heist of another star. Fans, media, and even a few front-office executives from other teams overstate Houston’s cap flexibility and collection of trade assets.
The Rockets aren’t in a good place to make big moves. They’re currently committed to enough salary next season to put them over the salary-cap limit and into the luxury tax, and they’ll have to move Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin’s unsavory contracts to bring in anyone major. The "poison pill" provisions for both are set to kick in soon, doubling their 2014-15 salaries.
Both deals are set to expire after next season, but players on contracts soon to run out are less valuable in trades now than they have been in recent years. There’s less need to use such assets as bridges out of the old CBA. Most of the league has already adjusted to the NBA's new financial realities by now.
Perhaps more importantly, far fewer teams are trying to tank next season like they were this past one. The 2015 NBA draft class has nowhere near the promise of 2014’s, and all the clubs who've bottomed out seem to be eager to invest fully in their cores and start progressing next season. Unloading patsy contracts is not as easy as it once was.
Arguably, being in a bit of a corner in their ostensible star pursuit is for the best. One has to wonder how many times the Rockets are going to reshuffle their deck before they hunker down and embrace some continuity. If there's anything we can learn for this season's two remaining teams—the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs—it's that year-to-year roster consistency is incredibly valuable.
The Heat's Big Three coup of 2011 featured an underappreciated wrinkle: They got LeBron James and Chris Bosh at the same time. Since then, they've only made small tweaks to their team; the fact that the Heat's major three stars have had so much time getting used to playing together can't be overstated. The Rockets, by contrast, would be looking to throw mega-men into a microwave.
And anyway, Houston's greatest flaw this past year was surely not a lack of talent. Rather, the Rockets simply looked awkward together at times. As a young team trying balance immense skill with sky-high expectations and a novel offensive style, their all-important chemistry is a work in progress. Another year together and they'll likely be true threats to come out of the Western Conference.
By all reasonable metrics, the Rockets are only in the mix for some small changes this summer—and this is a good thing. But we’ve come to expect just about anything from Morey, and it won’t be easy for Rockets fans—and the rest of the league—to breathe easy until he definitively plays his hand and this potentially momentous offseason is over.
If Morey outdoes himself yet again with another colossal acquisition, though, we'll have to wait even longer to see how his moves pan out.