Rockets Poised to Make Texas-Sized Offers in NBA Free Agency to LeBron, Melo

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Rockets Poised to Make Texas-Sized Offers in NBA Free Agency to LeBron, Melo
USA Today

There is a chance, however small, that LeBron James will take his talents away from South Beach next month, reversing his infamous decision in 2010 and torpedoing the Miami Heat's self-esteemalong with their title hopes.

If it happens, executives around the league will rejoice and raise a boisterous toast to the end of the Heat and the superstar model they represent.

Rival execs might even write a few Jimmy Fallon-style thank-you notes:

Thank you, San Antonio Spurs, for making the Heat look ordinary and unworthy of the Chosen One's presence.

Thank you, Dwyane Wade's knees, for eroding prematurely.

Thank you, Father Time, for making the Heat's aging reserves appear better suited for a shuffleboard tournament than an NBA-title chase.

And thank you, 2011 NBA lockout, for producing a labor deal that made the Big Three model nearly impossible to sustain.

If James flees, presumably in search of younger, livelier teammates, it could signal the end of the NBA's Big Three era.

The Spurs have three stars, but two are nearing retirement. The Boston Celtics' Big Three broke up two years ago. No other team currently has three certified stars who are all in their prime.

Given the extreme constraints imposed by the 2011 labor deal, it will be nearly impossible for any franchise to replicate the Heat's roster-building feat of four years ago.

However, one franchise is quietly plotting to at least try to revive the Big Three model. And before you dismiss its chances of doing so, consider the fact that it's the same team that stunned the NBA in each of the last two summers.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Teammates on the 2012 Olympic squad, LeBron James and James Harden could become partners in the NBA if Houston can lure the Heat superstar this summer.

In 2012, the Houston Rockets snared James Harden in a blockbuster trade.

In 2013, the Rockets lured Dwight Howard in free agency.

Now, Rockets officials are aiming for the trifecta, with their sights set on the biggest prize of all: LeBron Raymone James.

A long shot? Perhaps. But the Rockets have defied expectations before.

League sources say that Houston is preparing to make an all-out push to land James when free agency opens on July 1, assuming James opts out, as expected. If the Rockets miss out on James, they will turn their full attention to Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh is also on the radar.

There are rumblings that James will start weighing his options this weekend. One rival executive pegged his chances of leaving Miami at 40 percent.

The competition for James' affection will be fierce, but Houston's pitch may be tough to beat.

The Rockets already have the league's best guard-center tandem (Harden-Howard), solid young role players (Chandler Parsons, who is set to become a restricted free agent, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones) and an owner (Les Alexander) who is willing to spend. Houston also has all of its first-round picks for the next couple of years as well as a knack for finding talent late in the draft.

Like Florida, Texas has no state income tax, negating Miami's advantage on that front and giving the Rockets a big selling point in their pursuit of Anthony. (A player pays about 10 percent more in taxes in New York than in Texas.)

What the Rockets don't have is salary-cap room. But they could clear about $19 million by unloading a few players, starting with Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, who are taking up a combined $16.7 million in cap space.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press/Associated Press
GM Daryl Morey has methodically built the Rockets into a Western Conference power, adding James Harden and Dwight Howard over the previous two offseasons.

However, their contracts are unique and potentially difficult to move: Asik and Lin are each due a massive $15 million balloon payment next season, although they count as $8.37 million each for cap purposes. Then again, their contracts expire in 2015, so the commitment is minimal.

Sources say the Rockets are confident they can trade both players to teams with cap room and thus take back no salary in return.

There is ample interest in Asik, an elite defensive center who could start for most teams. Lin will be tougher to move, although the Rockets could include a draft pick to pair with him as a deal sweetener.

Houston would then need to trade two minor piecesDonatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaanand waive a few players with non-guaranteed deals to create the $19 million slot. Once they sign a star, the Rockets would re-sign Parsons by using his Bird rights.

The new starting five would be James, Harden, Howard, Parsons and Beverley. That's worthy of title-contender status, even in the ultra-competitive West. Indeed, that lineup is arguably superior to the one James joined in Miami four years ago.

Harden and Howard are a younger, better version of Wade and Bosh. Parsons and Beverley are more talented than any of the Heat's current supporting cast.

Sub in Anthony instead of James, and the Rockets would still have an incredibly dynamic team that would be capable of challenging the Spurs and the Thunder.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Carmelo Anthony is expected to test the free-agency waters by opting out of the final year of his contract with the Knicks next week.

That $19 million starting salary would mark a slight pay cut for James or Anthony, but both are inevitably heading for pay cuts this summer anyway, wherever they end up.

The crowd chasing James will be thick, of course.

Cleveland can offer promising young playersincluding the No. 1 pick in this year's draftand the allure of coming home. It's the storybook ending everyone would love (except for those in Miami).

The Los Angeles Clippers can offer their own Big Three vision, with Chris Paul (a close friend of James) and Blake Griffin. But their path to cap-room relief is much more complicated than the Rockets', and it would cost them DeAndre Jordan.

The Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers will likely come calling, too. But the Lakers roster is barren, the Bulls' best player is coming off two knee surgeries, and the Mavericks' franchise starDirk Nowitzkiis 36.

The Brooklyn Nets are hopelessly capped out. The New York Knicks are cap-clogged and talent deficient.

If the Heat were just another suitor, they would have a tough time selling James based on their roster alone. Miami has no depth, no young talent in the pipeline and little payroll flexibility thanks to the massive salaries of its three stars. But they could all take a pay cut and extend the era.

Or James could flee for greener pastures once again.

The Rockets, as much as ever, will be waiting.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck

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