The Houston Rockets are the reigning two-time offseason champions.
Having acquired Dwight Howard and James Harden in the last two summers, only the Miami Heat’s Big Three coup in 2010 can compare to the recent run of success general manager Daryl Morey and the Rockets have had in drawing superstars to town.
But the pursuit of game-changers is far from over. LeBron James has opted out of the final year of his deal in Miami and is looking to test the market. Carmelo Anthony is taking meetings, too. The Rockets are in the hunt for both stars, despite their tight salary-cap situation.
Houston eased its burden and freed up some space with its recent trade of Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans for a protected 2015 first-round draft pick. If it lands in the Nos. 4-19 range, the Rockets get the pick; otherwise, it’s the Pelicans’ to keep.
The potential to grab another youngster in the lottery next summer is appealing, but make no mistake: This move was a presage to bigger things. A deal to ship out Jeremy Lin is reportedly already lined up, and Francisco Garcia has already opted out of his $1,316,809 player option for next year, according to Andrew Melnick of FanSided.com. Houston is clearing as much of the deck as it can.
If the Rockets also move Donatas Motiejunas—certainly an achievable task, as the 23-year-old big man has real upside—they’ll have about $20 million in cap space to work with. Exactly how they can use that number to both re-sign Chandler Parsons (now a restricted free agent) and land Anthony or James is a bit of a mystery at this point.
Owner Leslie Alexander’s willingness to pay the luxury tax would obviously go a long way. Alexander has stated he’d pony up before, as recently as last summer. “I have enough money, but I don’t have enough championships,” he told Jonathen Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “If you’re not in it to win championships, you shouldn’t be in it.”
That’s great stuff for fans to hear, but Alexander has to actually pull the trigger for it to matter. James and Anthony may be okay leaving a little money on the table (especially in Texas, where there’s no income tax), but they would likely still demand eight figures. And Parsons is due for a big pay day—he’s been on one of the most cost-effective contracts in the league for three seasons now.
The cold reality at foot is that Parsons, a staple for the team over those three years, is expendable. If LeBron or Melo become available but Parsons doesn't fit into the picture economically, Morey and company won't lose too much sleep choosing one of the two superstars over him.
All of these financial details, of course, keep us away from the basketball issues at hand. Chasing King James explains itself—the best player in basketball is worth whatever asset you’ve got. But Anthony is a more curious fit. Here’s what ESPN’s Amin Elhassan had to say when asked how the pairing of Melo and the Rockets would work:
In a vacuum, well. I think he'd benefit from the spread offense and the up-tempo, as well as playing alongside Dwight, who can cover a lot of the deficiencies. But when context enters the frame: the Rockets defensive struggles, the fact that Harden is a sieve on the perimeter, the desire to hold the ball, the tenuous hold McHale has on his job....just don't think adding Melo would represent the smartest investment for Houston.
Indeed, while Anthony is an undeniable talent, his skill set is a bit of a redundancy for a team that has droves of firepower but lacks perimeter stoppers and effective floor communicators. While Melo may help the team’s frequently stagnant fourth-quarter offense with his half-court shot creation, he wouldn’t answer any of the other huge question marks (James, it goes almost without saying, would).
This is why recent rumors about Melo coming to the Rockets in a sign-and-trade that would send Harden to the New York Knicks have resonated (per Jason McIntyre of thebiglead.com). But it’s hard to believe Morey would prefer Anthony over Harden, who’s six years younger and has a meaningful rhythm in Houston. If Anthony comes, it will probably be as The Beard’s teammate.
And what if neither Anthony nor James comes to town? This is a likelihood fans should be ready to face, however miraculous Morey has been in recent years. The path to either star is simply too fraught for the acquisition of either to be a certainty.
The Rockets have other options. Glue guys like Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza could help shore up their wing defense, and former Rocket Kyle Lowry has also been a rumored secondary target, according to Jason Patt of sbnation.com. While James represents the zenith of a successful offseason and Melo is a strange but compelling fit, the best course for Houston may be in smaller tweaks.
The clock is almost done ticking for the Rockets and the rest of the NBA. July 1 signals the beginning of free agency, and in short time we’ll see whether another face-lift is coming in Houston, or just some extra help from role players. What do you want?