Everything that Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, did this offseason was leading up to the moment in which he added another star to a collection that already included James Harden and Dwight Howard.
That's really not an exaggeration.
From the outset, Morey made it quite clear that he was trying to shed as much money from the payroll as possible without losing any of the core pieces. Omer Asik was sent off to the New Orleans Pelicans (verbally, as the actual three-team deal took weeks to become a reality and eventually included Omri Casspi as well), bringing back only the promise of a first-round pick in 2015. The team decided not to pick up Chandler Parsons' team option, instead making him a restricted free agent.
This would end up being a rather key decision.
Eventually, Jeremy Lin was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Once more, no current salaries were brought back in return, as everything was geared around clearing up as much cap space as possible. Even the draft followed that philosophy.
Rather than take an immediate contributor, the Rockets elected to select Clint Capela at No. 25, giving them an opportunity to treat him as a draft-and-stash player. After all, setting him on an international roster means he wouldn't show up on the books for the 2014-15 season.
The team is now working on signing Capela for this go-round, but only because the cost-cutting plan didn't come to fruition.
So, what was the point?
Morey saw an opportunity to add a player like Chris Bosh (who ended up being the ultimate target), doing so while still maintaining the ability to keep Parsons. After the small forward agreed to a three-year, $46 million offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks, Houston had 72 hours to sign Bosh before it was forced into using Bird rights to retain Parsons and go over the cap.
Obviously, that didn't pan out.
Bosh spurned the Rockets, turning down a chance to play with what would've been the league's best starting five so that he could take a featured role with the Miami Heat while remaining in a city he'd truly grown to love. And once that happened, Morey made the controversial decision to cut ties with Parsons as well, but only after signing Trevor Ariza.
Now, the present looks less promising, but there's a silver lining we'll get to later.
Trevor Ariza Fits Nicely
Comparing Ariza to Parsons is an interesting endeavor.
In a vacuum, the latter is a superior player, given his offensive versatility and youth. Not only is he capable of creating looks for himself, facilitating for others and exploding during any given game, but he's also four years younger than his small forward counterpart.
Of course, basketball isn't played in a vacuum. That would make for a rather miserable experience, both for the players and the fans.
On the Rockets, Ariza actually fits in better than Parsons.
With Harden controlling the ball from the 2-guard slot in the lineup and D12 dominating in the paint, the Rockets really only need two things from their small forward—excellent defense and the ability to stretch the court with three-point shooting. Sure, everything extra that Parsons brought to the table was nice and beneficial, but Houston upgraded in the two most important areas.
First, let's compare their shooting from the 2013-14 season:
|3PA per Game||3P%|
There's no doubt who the superior marksman was last year, but context is important too. Ariza was one of the best at hitting corner threes, thriving for the Washington Wizards because John Wall proved so adept at finding him in his sweet spot.
Those shots won't be as easy to come by in Houston, though he'll also have the luxury of playing next to two offensive stalwarts who draw more than their fair share of defensive attention. Harden is a great distributor for a shooting guard, and D12 will help compress defenses with his paint presence.
Even if the three-point shooting regresses a bit (which is likely, given his career numbers), he still has that defense to fall back on:
|SG PER against||SF PER against||PF PER against||Defensive Rating||Impact on Team DRtg||Defensive Win Shares|
|Trevor Ariza||12.1||15.6||12.1||104||3.4 points better||3.7|
|Chandler Parsons||17.9||14.6||18.1||108||2.5 points worse||2.5|
82games.com and Basketball-Reference.com
Parsons could—and should—develop into a plus defender, but his lack of commitment on that end often held him back.
"Parsons has better defensive tools than [James] Harden, but suffers from the same lack of concentration, particularly off the ball," wrote Mike Prada for SB Nation during the season that ground to a halt for the Rockets only a short while ago, even if it already feels like so much has changed.
The same can't be said about Ariza, a man who's realized that defense is his bread and butter.
"Ariza is coming off his best (of 10) NBA season, and unlike his move from the Lakers to the Rockets in 2009 when he was trying to expand his game on a rebuilding team, he has become even more adept in his role defending small forwards and working off star players," explained the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen right after the signing was confirmed.
He should fit in right away, ideally using his veteran leadership to change the defensive mentality of a team that allowed way too many opponents to post gaudy totals against them. As a quick anecdote, here's a fantastic story from Tuesday afternoon's summer league game between Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers.
During the NBA TV broadcast, Grant Hill jokingly asked Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, a guest in the sideline booth, if he could be added to the roster, but he admitted that he wouldn't run back on defense.
"Half our guys don't run back anyway," McHale quipped.
That's the exact mentality that needs to change, and it's where Ariza may well have the biggest impact. However, even if he's an upgrade over Parsons, the net result of this offseason was still a step backward.
The Backward Part
The Rockets haven't yet been able to replace Lin, Asik and Casspi, nor have they made any other improvements to mitigate the impact of the lost depth on their roster.
In the Western Conference, you aren't going to win without depth, barring an absolutely unbelievable starting five. The Rockets may have two superstars, but there are questionable pieces at two positions as well.
Terrence Jones is still developing, and Patrick Beverley is too limited on the offensive end of the court. They're both solid starters, but they prevent the Rockets from falling into that latter category, one occupied by teams like the Portland Trail Blazers.
So, do they have the necessary depth?
The following players make up the complete collection of backups in Houston: Jeff Adrien, Isaiah Canaan, Clint Capela, Robert Covington, Troy Daniels, Joey Dorsey, Alonzo Gee, Alessandro Gentile, Nick Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Powell.
How many of those players would even make the active roster for a deep team like the San Antonio Spurs or Denver Nuggets? It's possible that only Gee, Johnson and Motiejunas fall into that category, though some players have untapped upside that will help in future years.
The Rockets may wrest away the pole position in the "worst bench" competition from the Indiana Pacers and Rip City, barring any late veteran additions that can make significant impacts.
Not only did missing out on Bosh prevent the Rockets from building an elite starting five, even if Ariza is a better fit than Parsons, but the entire sequence kept Houston from securing any sort of depth. In fact, it gave up the few quality players it did have coming off the pine, all in chasing Bosh unsuccessfully.
How far back could this take the Rockets in 2014-15? Possibly out of the playoffs, but let's look at the situation in a bit more detail than an unsupported opinion statement.
Houston did finish with the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, but it was only six games ahead of the Phoenix Suns, who ended the year with a lottery pick.
At this point in the offseason, it looks as though the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors are absolute locks for the postseason. That leaves two spots for the Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Nuggets, healthy New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves (who drop out as soon as Kevin Love is traded).
Let's not pretend that the playoffs are a guarantee anymore.
Great Contingency Plan Moving Forward
Morey knows what he's doing. He's not losing sight of the forest so that he can focus on the trees, even if that's earned him unnecessary criticism this offseason.
You have to look at the big picture, just as Morey did, as relayed by CBS Houston, while appearing on In The Loop with Nick & Lopez :
I think Chandler is a great player, getting better. Really really good player, no doubt. But the question is actually: is Harden Howard Parson, is that three a better championship odds than Harden, Howard and the team we can put together with a guaranteed lottery pick trade exceptions mid-level young team improving and continuing to be flexible? That was the very tough decision before us. But I can tell you this, in our opinion it was not close.
We are in a better [place] to win a championship by not matching it, once Bosh goes away than by not matching it.
He's not wrong.
Yes, the team is going to be worse in the present, but sometimes regressions are necessary in order to make bigger advancements. The Rockets simply decided that their ceiling with Parsons on the roster fell short of competing for a title, and they elected to act accordingly.
It's all about money.
Ariza's $32M deal has declining scale: $8.6M, $8.2M, $7.8M, $7.4M, source tells Yahoo. Flexibility for summer '16. @sam_amick reported deal.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 12, 2014
With that salary on the books rather than Parsons' deal, which averages out at over $15 million per year, the Rockets have far more flexibility going forward. They can add another substantial piece.
In 2015, the free-agency class is going to be even stronger than it was this offseason, Plus, the cap is only going to continue rising, potentially skyrocketing in 2016 as a result of the upcoming TV deal the NBA is set to enjoy.
Based on data from ShamSports.com, Houston can get rid of the non-guaranteed deals and decline all options—save the one applying to Jones—and still be on the books for only $48,802,332. Basically, the Rockets will have enough cap room for a max player if the cap rises enough, and they'll only fall slightly short if that's not the case.
Then, they can still use Bird rights to re-sign Beverley, creating an even more stacked squad than was possible by retaining Parsons.
And things are even better in 2016.
"You can't knock them for always trying to get better. [Houston general manager] Daryl Morey is very aggressive, is a genius, a great GM and I have nothing but respect for those guys. And they are looking to make their team better," explained Parsons to ESPN Dallas' Bryan Gutierrez.
Will this offseason end up working out for the Rockets?
Bear with the Rockets.
Things didn't go according to the primary plan during the 2014 offseason, and this season isn't going to be as successful as the 2013-14 campaign, playoff loss and all accounted for. However, there's still plenty of reason for optimism in Houston.
You just have to know how to look for it.