The Houston Rockets, jackpot prize winners of the last two summers, were primed to reprise the role this offseason.
After seeing their 54-win campaign collapse in an opening-round playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston's need for more size, more shooting and more defense became glaringly apparent. Fortunately, the Rockets looked ready to kill all three birds with a single stone: perennial All-Star big man Chris Bosh.
The 30-year-old, along with the rest of the hoops world, was waiting for the NBA's biggest domino to drop. That domino—Bosh's old championship running mate LeBron James—finally fell on Friday, reversing his route from 2010 and taking his talents from South Beach back to his home state of Ohio, as reported in an as-told-to essay per Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins:
While Cleveland Cavaliers fans celebrated the announcement, so too did those of the Rockets. After all, sources had recently told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Chris Broussard that if James left the Heat, then Bosh would be headed to Houston.
NBA.com's David Aldridge had heard otherwise, but the Rockets still acted like a third superstar to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard was on the way. Houston had previously agreed to send center Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans, then dealt point guard Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported, cost-cutting moves to help Houston approach Bosh's price range.
The stars were aligning. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's master plan looked ready to come to fruition.
Or so it seemed, anyway.
Bosh did, in fact, move quickly after James' decision—by not moving at all. Instead of joining forces with Houston's apparent ready-made contender, the versatile big man opted to re-sign with the Heat on a five-year maximum contract, as reported by Wojnarowski:
Chris Bosh is finalizing an agreement to return to Miami on a five-year, $118M deal, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 11, 2014
And just like that, Houston's big-game hunt was finished.
Tough blow for Rockets, who were set up perfectly to sign one max star. They targeted LeBron, Melo, Bosh and Dirk.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) July 11, 2014
A summer that started with so much promise has now become one of damage control.
Bosh is off the table. Lin is gone. Asik's departure is imminent. And promising swingman Chandler Parsons could be the next to go.
After posting career highs in points (16.6), rebounds (5.5), assists (4.0) and player efficiency rating (15.9), via Basketball-Reference.com, the 25-year-old signed a three-year, $46 million offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks. That agreement was delivered to the Rockets on Thursday, per Wojnarowski, meaning Houston will have to decide whether to match it by Sunday night.
A source told ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon that the Rockets had planned on matching it after signing Bosh, but now Houston's intention "is uncertain" since Bosh is not coming.
With more than $36 million owed to Harden and Howard for at least the next two seasons—Howard has a $23.3 million player option for 2016-17, via ShamSports.com—the Rockets could be hesitant to lock up that kind of money in Parsons. The former second-round pick does a lot of things well, but closing Houston's defensive holes is not one of them.
The Rockets had the worst defensive rating in the postseason (111.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, via NBA.com), so they will need to address that area at some point. Keeping Parsons around does not preclude them from doing so, but it limits their avenues to impact additions.
As Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle explained, the Rockets would have limited resources to attract free agents:
If the Rockets match Parsons' offer sheet, staying over the salary cap, they would keep their starting lineup and the young prospects on the bench, would have a mid-level exception (worth $5.3 million the first season), the bi-annual exception (worth $2.1 million), a trade exception (worth $8.37 million) from the Lin deal and the Pelicans first-round pick in the next season it falls between the 10th and 20th picks of the draft.
Houston would be forced to search through the bargain bin, which might not even exist in this market.
With the salary cap up to an all-time high, and the demand (teams with money) far outweighing the supply (top-shelf talent), it's a great time to be a free agent. With players like Jodie Meeks (three years, $19.5 million), Avery Bradley (four years, $32 million) and Jordan Hill (two years, $18 million) collecting major coin, the definition of value is changing.
All things considered, Parsons is worth the investment this summer. However, he may not be worth it for the Rockets. Not with the amount of attention this roster now needs.
One Western Conference exec said Bosh "pump faked" the Rockets. He wondered if they still would've made the Jeremy Lin trade.— Jason Lieser (@PBPjasonlieser) July 11, 2014
There are other options besides Parsons, several of which the Rockets have explored.
Who should play small forward for the Rockets next season?
While none of the three will likely collect the same money as Parsons, they would still come at a premium. Pierce should be the cheapest of the bunch, but at 36 years old, he needs to find a team built to win now.
Had the Rockets landed Bosh, they could have been that club.
"If you’re trying to draw a picture of the kind of player they need to blend right in pretty seamlessly in Houston, you’d come away with a likeness of Bosh," a scout told Blinebury. "He’s a stretch 4 that can make those 3-point shots that Houston loves."
With Bosh out of the mix, Houston now faces an uphill battle to forge ahead in the Western Conference standings. That will not change regardless of how the Rockets fill their small forward spot.
The San Antonio Spurs returned all key members of their championship team. The Los Angeles Clippers (Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar), Portland Trail Blazers (Chris Kaman, Steve Blake), Dallas Mavericks (Tyson Chandler), Golden State Warriors (Shaun Livingston) and Memphis Grizzlies (Vince Carter) all added pieces to their puzzles.
The West was a minefield last season and could be more perilous in 2014-15.
Howard, Harden and Parsons should be enough to keep the Rockets in the playoff picture, but a depleted supporting cast could make it hard to progress. Houston could fill more voids by letting Parsons walk, but its Big Three will then be reduced to a two-man act that has not yet hit the same note.
There are far worse problems than attempting to build around Howard and Harden, but Houston's forecast is cloudy, despite earlier predictions calling for nothing but sunny skies.
Free-agent targets can be as unpredictable as the weather. The Rockets played their cards right with Bosh; they just caught a bad break in the end.
That's what can happen when gambling in the free-agent market. Considering how well they have fared before, though, don't expect them to walk away from the table any time soon.