Final Pre-Free Agency Predictions for Houston Rockets

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Final Pre-Free Agency Predictions for Houston Rockets
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Could LeBron James decide to team up with James Harden in Houston?

NBA free agency is set to begin in July, and the Houston Rockets are in place to be one of the main players this year.

General manager Daryl Morey has set his sights on big-time superstars to join forces with James Harden and Dwight Howard in H-Town.

Draft day has come and gone, and it seems Morey's top priority was cap space, not player development. He's got the big picture in mind, which involves either LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony.

It's no secret that the Rockets are in pursuit of these two stars. Any team would obviously be interested, but Houston is the only one that is on the short list for each of these players. Supposedly, if neither takes the bait, the Rockets have plenty of backup plans.

Before any of this can happen, however, Houston still has some internal business to take care of.

The Rockets already shipped off Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a future protected first-round pick. The Pelicans will take on Asik's hefty contract, which is in its third and final year.

This move was the first step of several en route to striking gold in free agency.

The next big move Houston must make is getting rid of Jeremy Lin. Like Asik, Lin is in the third year of his back-loaded contract. If the Rockets can deal Lin, they would shed even more salary and have a good amount of cap space left.

According to Marcus Thompson of the San Jose Mercury News, the Golden State Warriors are reportedly interested in taking the backup point guard off Houston's hands. This may require also giving up Chandler Parsons, but not necessarily.

Either way, if the Rockets can successfully trade Lin without taking on more salary, Houston will have a ton of cap space available toward signing a third superstar. With a few more small moves, such as letting Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia and Jordan Hamilton walk—and trading away the salaries of Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan—the Rockets will have enough room to sign a star to a max deal.

If anyone can pull this off, it's Morey.

The mastermind already stole Harden from Oklahoma City and then persuaded Howard to jump the Lakers' ship and come to the Rockets. Who knows what he is capable of this summer?

Here's a look at some potential candidates who could land in Houston this offseason.

 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Plan A: LeBron James

Who wouldn't want the best player in the world? This discussion wouldn't even be happening if James' Heat weren't trounced in the NBA Finals by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.

LeBron didn't have nearly enough help from his supporting cast, and the Spurs outplayed Miami in every way possible to win their fifth championship in 15 years.

Now Miami is left with some big decisions that could drastically affect its immediate future.

LeBron has already decided to opt out of his contract using his early termination option. This could just mean that he wants to restructure his contract to help Miami bring in more talent, or he could seriously be pondering leaving South Beach to head for greener pastures.

Chris Broussard at ESPN (Insider subscription required) reported that LeBron has narrowed down his potential landing spots to a list of five teams. The Rockets are on that list—along with Miami, of course—as well as Cleveland, New York and Brooklyn.

He surprisingly left out Chicago and Los Angeles, both of which seem like plausible teams to join forces with.

People still believe that James will end up back in Miami. Pat Riley has made it his priority to do anything to make him happy, which included drafting Shabazz Napier out of UConn. The Heat traded up to get Napier, who was LeBron's favorite player in this year's draft class.

But can one rookie really affect LeBron's decision on where to play next season?

The Heat only have about half a team under contract, depending on what Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade decide to do with their early termination options. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding that roster.

Houston, on the other hand, could give James one of the best chances to immediately win championships. The Rockets have two superstars in Harden and Howard already in place. That Big Three would be better than any other Big Three in recent memory, including the one currently in Miami.

Obviously, there is more to consider than just pure basketball decisions. If LeBron only cared about winning rings, he would have already packed his bags for the Lone Star State. But there are other factors involved that could have the King winding up somewhere else—most likely Miami.

Prediction: Even though Morey and the Rockets have a strong case, LeBron will probably want to stay in Miami with Wade, Bosh and Riley. His legendary status and general popularity could take a big hit if he throws in the towel yet again and decides to run off somewhere else.

 

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Plan B: Carmelo Anthony

If LeBron isn't in the cards, Anthony is a wonderful consolation prize. After the Knicks missed out on the playoffs in a depleted Eastern Conference, it appears New York may be in a rebuilding mode that Melo wants no part of.

Per Broussard, Melo is reportedly set to visit Houston, Dallas and Chicago. There's almost no chance he will return to New York and take a pay cut for Phil Jackson. Each of these three teams has a solid argument to pitch to Anthony this summer.

The Bulls have a top-tier coach and defensive system in place, but there is one glaring question mark: Derrick Rose. Can Rose return to MVP form—or even remotely close to it? Can he play at least one entire season without getting hurt?

Dallas just traded to get big man Tyson Chandler back, who played with Melo in the Big Apple for a few seasons, and the two are apparently close friends according to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal. Yet even with Anthony, could Dallas survive in a crowded West with that roster? Dirk Nowitzki isn't getting any younger either.

Among these three teams, Houston is the brightest landing spot for Melo.

With Harden and Howard, the Rockets would have a terrific Big Three in place. Although the defense wouldn't really improve, that offense could be unstoppable with two of the best pure scorers in the world. That star-studded team would be a force to be reckoned with, even in a powerhouse-filled West.

Prediction: I think there's a good chance that the Rockets and Melo agree on a deal. Morey will be able to clear the necessary cap space and convince Anthony to hop on board, even though he was their Plan B.

 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Plan C: Both Plans A and B

Per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com, our good friend Broussard also reported that the Rockets may do a sign-and-trade with the Knicks to exchange Melo for The Beard himself.

Word on the street is that LeBron and Melo would like to play together. Very few teams have the cap space to pull that off, but the Rockets could get creative in order to make it work. If the Rockets trade Lin and make other moves to bring in LeBron, they could trade Harden for Anthony and end up getting the top two free agents in the league.

Anyone would rather have Harden instead of Melo. Harden is over five years younger and has more promise going forward. However, if that trade would help Morey get the best player in the entire world, then he'll have to pull the trigger.

Prediction: I don't think this scenario will ever approach the surface, so Houston's Beard fans can breathe easy. Harden is almost certainly not going anywhere for a long time. This is an unlikely situation that was brought up only as a hypothetical amusement, as opposed to a realistic possibility.

The Rockets will not get both James and Anthony this summer—instead they should focus on getting just one.

 

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Plan D: Some Other Possible Free Agent

If the Rockets end up striking out on Melo and LBJ, they are not in bad shape. They'll still have a great roster in place, even if they don't sign a single notable free agent. However, now that Asik has been traded purely for cap reasons, Morey will almost certainly sign someone who can have a strong impact for the Rockets.

There are several other players on Morey's radar. Next in line after LeBron and Melo would be Chris Bosh, provided he can't work things out with the Heat. Morey chased Bosh back in 2010 before he signed on with Miami to form the Big Three.

If Bosh opts back in with the Heat, as he probably will, Kyle Lowry could be next on Houston's free agent list. Lowry played for Houston for a few seasons before they traded him to Toronto. He's a top-tier point guard that can shoot the ball well and play strong defense. He would be a good fit in this lineup, and Patrick Beverley could come back off the bench once again.

Failing that, there are other—albeit less significant—possibilities. This could include Marcin Gortat, Spencer Hawes and Trevor Ariza (among others), although these seem fairly unlikely.

Bottom line: There are several options Houston could venture to improve this season. Morey and company were not thrilled with another first-round exit, and they will not stop searching until they get that third star, or at least another big-impact free agent.

Prediction: I already think the Rockets will bring in Melo, so they won't have any more cap room to bring in another guy in the Plan D category. But if they don't win Anthony's affection, any one of these guys could be a good sign.

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