And the Houston Rockets may be winning.
When James decided to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, he created a stir. Popular and informed opinions always had him exploring free agency, simultaneously testing the market and Pat Riley's roster-regulating acuity. Actually opting out merely confirmed what was expected.
But his presumed decision was still a bombshell-bearing moment. Reaching free agency didn't foretell his departure from Miami, but it made everything too real, similar to how it was four years ago.
This is actually happening. LeBron James is a free agent. He is fair game. The offseason is going to be poetically psychotic. Ridiculously rousing. Furiously fantastic.
Summer has been all those things early on thanks to intense speculation, rampant rumors and, now, the ever-active Rockets.
General manager Daryl Morey negotiated the first of Houston's multiple salary dumps, agreeing to send Omer Asik's expiring contract to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a 2015 first-round pick, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Pick to HOU has Lowry-style reverse protections, per source. NOP keeps if in top 2/3 of lottery, and if it's 20-plus. In b/w, goes to HOU— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 26, 2014
The trade itself isn't yet official. But it will be.
The collective bargaining agreement's infamous "Stepien Rule" prohibits teams from trading their first-round picks in consecutive seasons, and the Pelicans shipped their 2014 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers as compensation for Jrue Holiday last year.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck notes, certain financial implications come into play too:
Should have noted: Asik-to-Pelicans can't become official until July 10, because of cap considerations.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) June 26, 2014
After the required waiting period, boom. It's done. Asik will be a member of the Pelicans, and the Rockets will have cap space.
Very little cap space, to be sure. But enough for us to gain insight into their offseason plans:
For the Rockets, this is Step 1 in clearing the cap space to chase LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony in free agency.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 26, 2014
If there's a blank expression washing over your face, you haven't been following the constantly churning rumor mill that closely. Beck brought word that the Rockets were planing an "all-out push" for James before this deal.
Much like James' decision to opt out, the Rockets' latest activity reaffirmed what we've known all along. More importantly, it reminded us of what they're capable of doing.
Dumping Asik alone doesn't give them enough cap room to sign James outright. It's the first of numerous moves they'll have to make.
Jeremy Lin will be the next to go if the Rockets believe James is prepared to leave Miami.
Rockets can be more patient finding a Jeremy Lin deal, wait for a free agent to commit. Moving Asik now was statement they can get max room.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 26, 2014
Moving him figures to be a tad more complicated. He's entering the last year of his poison-pill contract, like Asik. While his cap hit falls under $8.4 million, he's owed somewhere around $15 million in actual salary. He also plays at an incredibly deep point guard position, diminishing his trade value considerably and limiting the Rockets' options.
Think they care? Not at all. They're up for the challenge, according to Sam Amick of USA Today:
Addendum on Rox free agency front:I'm told they have moves teed up for necessary Asik/Lin trades but want to keep them if can't get LBJ/Melo— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) June 20, 2014
Sources later told ESPN.com's Chris Broussard (subscription required) that the Golden State Warriors would be among the teams prepared to take Lin off Houston's hands. Once that happens, once Lin's deal is pawned off on another team, it's all systems go.
From NBA.com's Fran Blinebury:
According to our own John Schuhmann, the trade gives the Rockets $7.9 million of cap space, with non-guaranteed deals for Josh Powell and Omri Casspi and partially guaranteed Robert Covington on the books. If they waive those players and don’t pick up the team option on Troy Daniels, they’re at $9.8 million. If they dump Lin on someone, they’re at $17.7 million. That assumes that Francisco Garcia opts out, they keep Patrick Beverley at his $915,000, and Chandler Parsons is at his $2.875 million qualifying offer until they sign everybody else.
This, admittedly, is where things get murky.
Before the Asik deal, the Rockets' all-inclusive cap-commitment total checked in at $65,947,315 after factoring in Chandler Parsons' increased cap hold ($2,875,130).
If we remove the salaries of Asik and Lin ($8,374,646 apiece), Josh Powell ($1,310,286), Omri Casspi ($1,063,384), Francisco Garcia ($1,316,809), and Robert Covington and Troy Daniels ($816,482 each), they're left with $43,874,580 devoted to seven players—James Harden, Dwight Howard, Isaiah Canaan, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Parsons.
Houston also owns the No. 25 pick. Reggie Bullock of the Los Angeles Clippers—the 25th overall pick in 2013—earned $1,149,000 this past season, so we'll roll with that figure for the Rockets' selection, which brings their bottom line to $45,023,580 split between eight players.
As SB Nation's Mike Prada points out, teams are charged a minimum cap hold worth roughly $500,000 for every roster spot below the league-imposed minimum of 12. (It increases to 13 during the regular season.) The Rockets would have three of those counting against their ledger, as we're assuming James would represent player No. 12.
Add that $1.5 million to the Rockets' total, and they're at $46,523,580, putting them $16,676,420 below the projected $63.2 million salary cap.
Creating more room requires additional finagling. It could include finding new homes for Jones, Canaan, Motiejunas and/or Parsons.
Manufacturing max cap space isn't a certainty. It may not even be possible. Whatever the Rockets do, James will have to accept some sort of pay cut—especially if they wish to keep Parsons. Let's be clear on that.
But think about what the Rockets will have done. Their offer to James may not pay him top dollar, but the opportunity they've forged is second to none.
A New Powerhouse
Harden, Howard and James are the best players at their respective positions. If the Rockets are able to keep Parsons through all this, you're looking at the best starting five in the NBA.
It doesn't matter if Beverley, Canaan, Morey, you yourself or a stuffed giraffe is playing point guard. That quartet instantly becomes the most dangerous in basketball.
Even then, even if the Heat were to sign Carmelo Anthony against all odds, their core isn't better. It's upgraded, but it's old—older than what the Rockets have to offer.
Plus, what if the Rockets are prepared to switch it up by bringing in James' buddy Anthony? Broussard says it's a route they're exploring:
A lot has been made about the possibility of James teaming up with Anthony, and few teams in the league have a better chance of pulling that off than Houston. ...
In any event, assuming the Rockets obtain the cap room to sign James or Anthony, the next step would be to give up star guard James Harden in a sign-and-trade for whichever superstar (James or Anthony) they don't sign as a free agent. Faced with the prospect of losing their superstars, both New York and Miami would be open to accepting Harden in a sign-and-trade.
Crazy? Perhaps. But if someone told you the Rockets would be positioned to make any sort of run at James one year ago, you probably would have said the same thing.
Any way you dissect this scenario, the result doesn't change. Offering James the chance to play with Parsons, Howard and Harden or Anthony beats whatever vision the Heat would be selling him.
Nothing the Rockets do can promise them James. That's why they're waiting to deal Lin. No sense parting ways with a player they need unless it's for James.
Trading Asik was different; it was twofold. He became expendable the moment Howard arrived. His tenure in Houston was always destined to end like this. He netted the Rockets a future first-rounder, something of value to them moving forward.
The message Houston sent in the process was ancillary, a perk of doing what they would always do. Now, the NBA and the Heat know just how big of a threat they are.
Which team is biggest threat to steal LeBron from Miami?
"Dwight choosing here sort of represents the sea change in Houston, sort of proving that we're a Tier One destination for free agents," Morey told Amick. "And obviously, we're going out there again and saying let's get one of these top guys again."
As in James is a free agent again.
As in the Rockets are in position to do the unthinkable—like they did with Harden in 2012 and Howard in 2013—again.
As in the Heat, who have the inside track on re-signing James, have company.
Legitimately dangerous, free-agent-stealing, superteam-seeking company.
Salary information via ShamSports.