The Houston Rockets, at least in theory, make perfect sense as a landing spot for a third superstar.
Houston is a large market in a state with no income tax, James Harden and Dwight Howard are already in place, and the Rockets play a fun style of basketball predicated on getting up and down the floor and jacking up threes by the bundle.
It's dangerous to assume, however, that just because there may be mutual desire between big-time players and the organization that it's going to be a walk in the park.
As it stands right now, Houston has barely any cap space at all. The Rockets are currently at $56 million in guaranteed salary, with about another $4 million ready to be tacked on to that with Patrick Beverley's non-guaranteed deal, Chandler Parsons' new cap hold (if his team option is indeed declined) and Francisco Garcia's player option.
There's a decent chance that in the first day of free agency, Houston is looking at about $3 million in cap space, a far cry from what will be needed to attract a third star.
There are ways to increase the cap space, but the financial hurdles are the biggest impediment to Houston forming the next "Big Three." Let's break down what's standing in Houston's way of landing a player like Carmelo Anthony in free agency:
Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin
You've probably heard Carmelo Anthony's name attached to the Rockets, despite the lack of cap room.
Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports explains why:
Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.
The biggest contracts standing directly in the path of Anthony to Houston? Ironically, it's that of former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, who was signed to the "poison pill" contract that the Knicks refused to match.
Here's Zach Lowe at Grantland breaking down the problem with offloading Lin and Asik:
Here’s the thing: Houston has no cap space. None. People talk about the Rockets as if they are some looming free-agency Venus flytrap, but they have to take several steps to become any sort of threat.
They must trade both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to achieve meaningful cap room, and the discussion surrounding these guys has too often given the impression Houston can just offload them easily — and even in conjunction. They will each count for about $8.4 million against the cap next season, but they will earn a cool $15 million due to the balloon payments built into the funky contracts they signed with Houston two years ago.
Of the two players, finding a home for Asik should be easiest. Defensive-minded centers are always in demand, even at this price. There's a lot of value for a team near the cap to acquire Asik's Bird rights and re-sign him to a long-term deal next offseason.
Asik can protect the rim and defend the pick-and-roll, which is a good chunk of what makes the best defenses tick. Even after an understandably lackluster year, Houston should be able to dump him in a trade and receive something of value other than just the cap space fairly easily. Rockets GM Daryl Morey's asking price will have to be low, but this is doable.
Lin is a little tougher. Very few teams in the league are in need of a starting point guard, and $15 million in actual salary is a lot to pay for a player who could potentially bolt after this year. Lin is certainly a capable sixth man who can really score and pace an offense when he gets the opportunity, but Houston will almost certainly have to attach an additional asset to him in order to dump him cleanly.
Lin is a good player, but that's a hard sell for a general manager to make to an owner unless there are additional benefits. Luckily, Houston has the draft picks and enticing young players (Troy Daniels, Donatas Motiejunas) to make that happen.
It's going to be difficult, of course, for Houston to justify trading Asik and Lin for pennies on the dollar unless it directly results in a guaranteed star. The timing here is going to be critical, as one trade partner getting cold feet could completely wreck Houston's best-laid plans.
Restricted Free Agency and Chandler Parsons
If you're wondering where Parsons comes into this equation, you're not alone. You could even question whether the Rockets actually need a third star and dominant scorer with Parsons in tow, but Morey addressed that with Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated earlier in the year:
We feel very comfortable that our two top players are what we need to be a championship team," said Morey. "And we do need someone to step into that third role. We don't have our third-best player on a championship team yet, and we need one of younger guys to develop into that -- or potentially make an addition, whether it be this year or in free agency this offseason.
While Parsons could potentially be that third guy, Houston would have to bet it on now. If Parsons has his tiny team option declined, as was reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, then he'll be a restricted free agent this offseason.
What that means is Houston will guarantee the right to keep him, and hopefully add an outside star with the cleared cap space and/or trade assets before having to do that.
But there are wrenches that could easily be thrown into this plan. If Parsons were to sign an offer sheet elsewhere and have it submitted to the league office before the Rockets acquired their third star, it would blow up any cap space that was previously created. The second Parsons signs with another team, his first-year salary of that newly signed deal becomes a cap hold for Houston, meaning that until the Rockets matched or declined, that cap space would be absorbed.
Zach Lowe at Grantland recently broke down more of what the Parsons situation could mean:
Assuming Houston re-signs Parsons in July, the move also cuts into the Rockets’ potential cap space for 2015, taking them out of the max-level free-agent sweepstakes that summer. Houston with Parsons at market price can’t plausibly get more than $10 million or so in cap room a year from now.
Making Parsons a restricted free agent gives Houston control of the process. It may also depress Parsons’s market value. There are always one or two restricted free agents who sit untouched for weeks, since teams with cap room just assume the incumbent team will match any offer. What’s the point of tying up your cap space for three days for nothing?
The hope here is that Parsons won't be tempted elsewhere and won't sign any offer sheets before Houston has done their maneuvering. It seems possible there's a handshake deal in place here (since Parsons is benefiting from his tiny team option being declined), so this might not be a huge concern.
Still, it's dangerous to have the future of a franchise resting with a player who wants (and deserves) to get paid as soon as possible.
We probably shouldn't rule out that Houston's stars in place might not be as attractive to a free agent like Anthony as we tend to think. You could certainly argue that a player like Joakim Noah would be the best pull, considering he's one of the league's very best defenders and is extremely unselfish with the ball.
In comparison, James Harden would be a chore to play with. He doesn't provide much effort defensively whatsoever, and most of his offense is generated from isolation-type basketball. It would make sense if Anthony would prefer to play with someone who accentuates his talents (and gives him the ball) as opposed to the guard version of himself.
Dwight Howard is an interesting case as well. Can you trust that he won't get fed up with being the third banana offensively? Will he pout and create a toxic locker-room situation? Is he a good enough defender anymore to anchor a frontcourt with Anthony at the 4?
There are questions here, and Anthony would have to be willing to take less money and fewer shots for a chance at a title. Houston isn't a bad fit, necessarily, but it might not be exactly what Anthony really wants or needs, either.
That may be why chasing Kevin Love makes more sense, particularly because he's not a free agent and would need to be acquired via trade. While Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik aren't of much use to Minnesota, there could be some creative trades on the horizon that could ultimately route Love to Houston.
There would still be questions of sharing the ball and defense in this scenario, of course, but it might be more feasible as long as Houston can rope in another trading partner.
The main point here, however, is that Houston has a lot of legwork to do before acquiring a third superstar can become a realistic option. There are plenty of potential pitfalls, and some extremely careful planning will be necessary. If there's anyone who can pull it off, it's Daryl Morey and his staff, but supplementing Harden and Howard with another star will be far from easy.