The Houston Rockets may have tipped their hand a little in free agency, but that doesn't mean this offseason will go exactly as we expect it to.
Since being eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Houston's focus seems to be to land a third star to team with the talented tandem of Dwight Howard and James Harden. That's why we've seen the Rockets linked to every big name from Kevin Love to Carmelo Anthony.
Still, you can never put it past someone as crafty as general manager Daryl Morey to have a Plan B in place in case things take an unexpected turn.
To that point, here are a few surprises the Rockets could have in store for us all this summer. Before we proceed, it's important to remember that each of these potential moves should be taken into consideration individually.
Let Chandler Parsons Walk
When they opted to decline the option on rising star Chandler Parsons, the Rockets gave themselves a little leverage in their attempt to retain one of the best young players on the roster. However, the price tag for that upper hand is going to be pretty expensive.
Since Parsons is a restricted free agent with Bird rights, Houston can go over the salary cap to match any offer for the 25-year-old small forward. In theory, the team could get under the cap to sign someone like Anthony or Love, then re-sign Parsons.
The problem here is that a player of Parsons' talent is likely to fetch some serious offers from teams with an abundance of cap space. You think the Utah Jazz wouldn't like Parsons as an upgrade over fellow restricted free agent Gordon Hayward? How about the Boston Celtics adding Parsons to pair with All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo?
A contract that will pay the former Florida Gator somewhere between $10 million and $12 million annually seems like a fair bet.
Now, let's say Houston is able to convince 'Melo to leave the bright lights of the Big Apple and come to H-Town. That means next season the team will be paying $21.4 million for Howard, $14.7 million for Harden, between $18 million and $20 million for Anthony, and $10 million to $12 million for Parsons.
Four players. Between $64 million and $68 million in salary combined.
If we've learned anything from the Brooklyn Nets over the last two seasons, it's that an expensive starting rotation doesn't guarantee a championship. The San Antonio Spurs just won the NBA title with a payroll ($63.1 million) less than the money Houston would dole out for its proposed fearsome foursome.
They did it by relying on intangibles like great coaching and team chemistry. They also had some good fortune in the draft over the years.
So, what's the alternative to paying $10 million to $12 million for a fourth option? You let him walk.
The Rockets would have a hard enough time trying to allocate touches between Howard, Harden and Anthony. When you add Parsons to the mix, that's a lot of mouths to feed on the offensive end. That could be problematic for head coach Kevin McHale.
There are obvious advantages to having a Howard/Harden/Anthony/Parsons grouping. Offensively, they would be tough to stop (although, defensively, they would have their weaknesses). Still, just because Houston has the power to make it happen doesn't mean it should.
The Rockets should go after their third superstar in free agency and, if they strike out, use Parsons as a fallback option. The idea of putting four high-priced scorers on the floor together just isn't worth the damage it will do to the franchise financially and in terms of chemistry.
Trade Up in the Draft
The Houston Rockets will dangle as many of their trade assets as they can in order to bring in another star. According to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, the team is confident it can find a suitor for the expensive contracts of center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin:
According to an individual familiar with the Rockets’ plans, they are confident they would be able to move Lin and Asik’s contracts because unlike their failed efforts to trade Asik last season, they would be looking to clear cap room, rather than bring back rotation players with similar contracts.
Since the Rockets are merely looking to dump Asik and Lin for financial reasons, any trade will likely involve cheaper contracts or (more likely) draft picks. While Asik and Lin have their strengths (playmaking for Lin, defense for Asik), the picks Houston would get in return would be more valuable than the players themselves.
The problem is trading Asik or Lin for picks alone will be a tough sell. Both are owed close to $15 million apiece for next season (each with a cap hit of around $8.4 million). That's a little pricey for a couple of role players with some glaring flaws (turnovers, consistency for Lin, offense for Asik).
There would have to be a little bit of a sweetener involved to convince a team to bite. What if Houston uses Asik or Lin along with the No. 25 overall pick to move up a few spots in the draft? It would give the Rockets a better prospect to trade down the road as well as rid themselves of a couple bad contracts.
For instance, let's look at the Phoenix Suns. They were just a couple games from making the playoffs last season. They have three picks (No. 14, No. 18, No. 27) in the first round. They also have some cap space.
What if Houston offered Asik and No. 25 for No. 18? Would the Suns bite? They'd be getting a fine defensive big man (albeit an expensive one) for the price of moving down seven spots.
What about the Boston Celtics? They could use a big man who could protect the rim. Would Asik and No. 25 for the No. 17 pick (Boston's second in the first round) be worthwhile?
If the Rockets can pull off either of those deals, they are suddenly looking at guys such as Duke's Rodney Hood and Michigan State's Adreian Payne instead of UCLA's Jordan Adams and Michigan's Glenn Robinson III.
That would give the team a much better bargaining chip to play with in future trades. Plus, by ridding themselves of Asik and/or Lin, the Rockets will have more money to spend in free agency.
Pass on Third Superstar
The Rockets' desire to land another superstar this summer is no secret. However, when you take a deeper look, there won't be as many options to choose from as you might think.
Four years ago, I met with Mark (Cuban) on July 2nd. I don’t like the period of not knowing what’s going on. I don’t like the unknown. Mark and I will hopefully find a good deal for both parties.
The article even goes on to say that Nowitzki "laughed" at the Rockets' reported interest in him.
"The quote was more that they’re going for every guy that’s out there,” he said. “And that, I guess, includes me. But I doubt I’ll be out there long."
Then, there's Minnesota's Love, who has expressed a desire to be traded. The team has already admitted it lacks the assets to pull off a trade for Love. So, you can count him out as well.
What about the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh? Well, here's what he told Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post: "Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to go anywhere. I like it here. It’s Miami. Everybody wants to come here."
Cross him off the list, too.
That leaves us with Bosh's teammate LeBron James and aforementioned New York Knicks forward Anthony.
Now, it makes a ton of sense for the Rockets to do whatever it takes to get King James to build his throne room in Houston. He's a four-time MVP, a two-time NBA champion and the league's best player. His presence gives the team a huge boost on both ends of the court.
The question becomes: Does Houston have enough to pry James away from South Beach?
He already has a formula in place that has proven to work (albeit not this season). He's teamed with one of the savviest minds in basketball in Pat Riley. Plus, Miami will always be a preferred destination for free agents as long as LeBron continues to rest his head there.
Could LeBron leave Miami this summer? Sure, but it's unlikely. Think about what it does to his legacy. If critics were out for blood after he left Cleveland in 2010, imagine what they will say if James reforms himself as a mercenary who boards the most attractive ship and then departs as it sinks.
He'd go from the "next Michael Jordan" to the "new Deion Sanders."
That brings us to 'Melo. Barring a surprise entrant into the fray, the battle for Anthony's services will likely come down to Houston, New York and Chicago.
The Knicks have the money, Phil Jackson and not much else. If the 30-year-old Syracuse standout's key goal is to join a contender, staying in Madison Square Garden wouldn't be the right idea.
Next, there are the Bulls. On paper, it's the best situation for Anthony. They have a former MVP in Derrick Rose. They have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah. Also, there's plenty of young talent, including forward Taj Gibson and guard Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls need offense, and Anthony is one of the best pure scorers in basketball. It's a marriage that makes almost too much sense.
Lastly, there are the Rockets. Like Chicago, they have two superstars as well in Harden and Howard. They have the prospect of bringing back another potential star in Parsons. They also have an aggressive GM in Morey, who will strive to keep Houston in title contention.
The Knicks and Bulls have the advantage of playing in the weaker Eastern Conference. The Bulls have the best coach of the three in Tom Thibodeau. Those are two advantages that will be tough to overcome for the Rockets.
That's not to say Houston doesn't have a shot at landing 'Melo. A package that includes Asik, Lin, Parsons and/or Terrence Jones could be enticing to the Knicks, if they are willing to admit defeat and opt for a sign-and-trade.
Still, if the Rockets can't land Anthony or James, there isn't much the team can do to fulfill its quest for a third star. Toronto Raptors point guard and pending free agent Kyle Lowry didn't get along with McHale during his first stint in Houston. It's doubtful much would change if he opted to return.
However, missing out on a third star wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Houston. As enticing as it is to bring in someone like Anthony, it doesn't address the Rockets' biggest need: defense.
The team had a hard enough time containing opposing offenses with Harden and Parsons. Now you add Anthony (not exactly the greatest of defenders) to the mix?
The better alternative is to re-sign Parsons. Then, they should build around the core with solid perimeter defenders like Washington Wizards forward Trevor Ariza or Oklahoma City Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha.
It won't be flashy, but it would make the most sense.