After hitting home runs in the offseason of 2012 with James Harden and 2013 with Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets went for a third. But, after attempting to nab either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, they struck out and then seemingly quit.
There were other high-caliber—albeit restricted—free agents available, such as Eric Bledsoe of the Phoenix Suns and Greg Monroe of the Detroit Pistons. So why didn’t the Rockets keep gunning for a big name rather than lower their bar and fill up their roster with smaller names?
The Rockets gave up a lot to come up empty, too. Starting small forward and restricted free agent Chandler Parsons is gone. So is point guard Jeremy Lin, who was dealt along with a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, you can go seek but there is no Omer Asik. He was involved in a three-team trade that landed a restricted 2015 first-round pick (Nos. 1-3 and 20-30) from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Some would argue that all Houston has to show for this year is Trevor Ariza and change. Did genius and general manager Daryl Morey have an outbreak of stupid? Or, is there a method to his madness?
Considering how Morey plans, it’s probably not a singular reason, but several.
Didn’t Want to Get Shut Out
First, there’s one unavoidable fact: Bledsoe and Monroe were both restricted free agents. Morey, who was going through the decision of whether to match an offer on Parsons, knew very well how hard it is to let a young player walk.
Making a max offer to a restricted free agent binds your hands. There is the danger of a team letting the full three days elapse and then matching. That means 72 hours of other teams signing players. The Rockets had already missed on Plan A (Anthony) and Plan B (Bosh) and waited for 11 days to know both plans had failed.
Very little happened in free agency prior to LeBron James announcing he was going to Cleveland, but as soon as he did, the floodgates opened.
Free agents were getting snatched up willy-nilly. The best way to turn a disappointing offseason into a disastrous one would have been making a bid on a player, seeing him get matched and ending up with even less than they did.
Another reason is that Morey and the Rockets believe in the young players they get. According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, “I think it's pretty unlikely that guys younger than 25 (Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley) aren't going to get better in their second full season in the NBA as starters."
After allowing Parsons to walk, the Rockets had to choose between making a play for the best player available and filling a position where they had a huge hole.
Bledsoe is a better point guard than Patrick Beverley, and Greg Monroe is a better option at power forward than Terrence Jones. However, both Beverley and Jones are decent and they are capable and improving.
That beats what they had at small forward, which is no one. Signing Bledsoe or Monroe would have meant resorting to whoever was left at the mid-level or biannual exception at the 3, and, frankly, there wasn’t anyone.
Going the Ariza route meant they filled the biggest position of weakness, and were able to fill in the bench besides.
Change Can Be Good
Morey might also argue that calling the offseason haul “Ariza and change” is selling the group short.
First, Ariza is one of the better three-and-D players in the league. Some worry that his .407 three-point shooting last season was an aberration, as he is .325 for his career prior to this year.
However, he shot .303 in 2010-11, .333 in 2011-12 and .363 in 2012-13, so the improvement seems to be more the result of his developing a three over time than an outlier.
Ariza is also superior defensively to Parsons. Last year, the Rockets were three points worse on defense when Parsons was on the court, per NBA.com/STATS. They were fourth in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating. They need more help on the less glamorous end of the court more than they need more scoring.
They don’t need to start from scratch, either. Beverley was named Second Team NBA All-Defense last year, and Dwight Howard is a three-time winner of Defensive Player of the Year.
Adding Ariza gives the Rockets a starting five with three elite defenders. It’s much easier for three players to help two than for two to help three. It tips the balance.
And the whole package isn’t going to match the San Antonio Spurs, but it’s young and Morey has a history of finding and developing young talent.
Ariza was acquired, along with Alonzo Gee and Scotty Hopson, via a three-team sign-and-trade. The rest of the “change” consists of Ish Smith (point guard), Joey Dorsey (forward/center) and Jeff Adrien (power forward). Houston also re-signed its own postseason hero and D-League addition from last season, Troy Daniels.
According to Feigen, Morey thinks the group, overall, gives the Rockets a better defensive presence:
Last year was Dwight's first year with us. I think you get a better feel for what this team's strengths and weaknesses are. Last year, we were very potent offensively, but we felt we needed more balance. We have championships aspirations. To do that, you have to be effective on both ends. From our head coach down, we felt we got to get more defense, rebound better, tougher, more physical, more competitive and deeper. All our additions, starting with Trevor, there's a definite emphasis on rebounding and defense.
More to Come?
Morey also pointed out the Rockets might not be done, yet:
On top of that, we still have our mid-level (exception). And even if we don't sign someone like that now, very often there's players that come free during the season where if you were to have the advantage of having a mid-level you can add them. We have the trade exception, which can add someone up to $8.4 million (in salary).
It’s an interesting and “Morey-esque” concept in that it’s outside the box. If there aren’t many players left who are worthy of the mid-level exception, hang on to it and use it midseason. Teams frequently waive players around the trade deadline, but all they can offer is the minimum. The Rockets would have an edge on the competition in that they could offer slightly more.
Alternatively, they could trade the New Orleans pick to a tanking team midway for an expiring contract and absorb the cost with their trade exception at some point. Arron Afflalo anyone?
They realistically could add two role players (or more, if they split up the MLE) before the season’s end.
I don’t think Morey gave up. I’m willing to bet he had a spreadsheet that didn’t just go to Plan C, it went to Plan ZZ. When Bosh chose Miami, he just checked it off and went to the next option, which happened to be Ariza. It’s evident he had a plan, and he’s proven he’s a smart basketball man. It’s just a matter of letting things play out. Just because you don’t know what he’s doing doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
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