The Houston Rockets are in the final leg of what has been a very disappointing season. If it were to conclude today, last year’s Western Conference finalists would be watching the playoffs at home. As such, they will need to take some time and evaluate who they have worth keeping and who should walk.
They could do a roster reboot this offseason, as they potentially have eight free agents: Dwight Howard, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Michael Beasley and Andrew Goudelock.
Based on salary information at Spotrac, if general manager Daryl Morey were to simply let everyone walk away, the Rockets would be bound to $38 million in guaranteed salaries.
Throw in cap holds, and it would add roughly another $3-4 million, depending on where they draft, if they draft at all. Should they make the playoffs, according to RealGM, they would relinquish their pick to the Denver Nuggets as a result of the Ty Lawson trade last summer.
They can rebuild around the talents of James Harden by bringing in better fits, because some potential free agents aren't worth keeping.
Should Not Consider
There are certain players who shouldn't be retained because they are either too old or too bad at actually playing basketball.
Corey Brewer's contract is non-guaranteed for 2016-17 but guaranteed for 2017-18. So, if Houston decides to keep him around this year, it has to keep him around for two. He is slated to make $15.2 million over both seasons.
Brewer is shooting 38.8 percent from the field while averaging 12.9 points, 2.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. His player efficiency rating (PER) is 10.8. What about any of that suggests that he’s worth keeping around for another two years?
The Rockets traded spare parts (Maarty Leunen) to the Los Angeles Clippers for Josh Smith on Jan. 22. His field-goal percentage back in Space City is 31.5 percent and 22.3 percent from three. His PER is 6.0.
Houston caught lightning in a bottle with Brewer and Smith last season. That lightning escaped. It’s time to let the undynamic duo follow suit.
The only players the same age as or older than Jason Terry (38) to log over 1,000 minutes this year are Paul Pierce (38), Manu Ginobili (38) and Tim Duncan (39). That’s right—even Kobe Bryant (37) is younger than the Jet. If you rebuild, you don’t do it with guys who played in the 1990s. Add in the fact that Mark Berman of Fox 26 in Houston (h/t SI.com) reported Terry is interviewing for the head coaching job at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and it probably doesn't matter anyway.
Goudelock hasn’t been bad. But he hasn’t played enough to indicate he’s not. Of all the players in this section, it would be forgivable to bring him in on a non-guaranteed deal during training camp to see what he can do. Twenty-one minutes is just too little to judge on, but if he doesn’t come back, it won’t hurt too much.
Beasley has played arguably the best basketball of his NBA career since the Rockets signed him from China on March 4. He’s averaging 14.6 points per game and 25.6 per 36 minutes. His effective field-goal percentage is 53.3. And he’s been solid on the glass, snatching 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. His PER is 22.3.
That kind of performance, even in a small sample size, merits consideration for bringing him back. Beasley was the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, taken by the Miami Heat. But his career has been a bust to this point, and that’s why he was playing in China.
However, maturity, not talent, was always the problem, and the way he’s played in Houston is as telling as how well he’s played. He has more patience and a wiser shot selection. Morey spoke with Zach Lowe of ESPN on his podcast shortly after the signing (h/t Danny Emerman of The Dream Shake for the transcript):
Michael has turned his life around. Obviously, he has to prove it on the court, but this guy deserves a chance.
The intel is very good on Michael. Two years ago, I think before Miami signed him, our players on our team wanted to get Michael Beasley. He's obviously an extremely talented guy. He's well-known among the top players in the league because he was a guy they went against.
We did not bring him in at the time, didn't pursue him because frankly our intel was not good. Our intel is the opposite now. We have great sources in China. Obviously, our history with Chinese basketball has given us an edge there we believe.
Beasley has earned the chance to come back next year and fight for a job.
The Rockets have two other power forwards who will be restricted free agents: Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. As such, they can match any offers the two receive. Jones has a PER of 13.6. Motiejunas’ is 10.9. Neither has been able to do a very good job of staying healthy.
The Rox also have another power forward in Montrezl Harrell, who has shown promise. And they have their first-round pick from last year, Sam Dekker, who hasn’t had much time with the mother ship because of injury.
That’s a lot of competition for one position. It’s hard to justify keeping both, and it's not hard to let both walk if the price gets too high, particularly when other options might be both better and cheaper.
Let them test the market, and if the price is right, match an offer. If not, let them go.
The most interesting decision will be Dwight Howard, who has a player option he is expected to exercise (meaning he will opt out). One must consider the length and cost of the contract.
Sam Amick of USA Today reported in February that the Rockets still considered him as a part of their core:
According to a person with knowledge of the Rockets’ strategy, they still see Howard as a vital part of their core, want to re-sign him and have no plans of trading him before the Feb. 18 deadline. Specifically, the person refuted a recent New York Daily News report indicating there were Howard trade talks with the Rockets and Boston Celtics. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.
But Howard is allegedly seeking a max deal according to the same article. And based on what he’s done with the Rockets so far, he just isn’t worth one. Furthermore, it’s hard to see him proving he’s worth more as he gets older.
He’s only 30 years old, but he’s 30 going on 35. He’s been plagued by injuries the last few years, missing 63 of 322 games during his three seasons in Clutch City—almost 20 percent of the Rockets’ schedule.
On top of that, his 18.9 PER this year is the lowest since his rookie season, his formerly all-world defense is not what it once was, his defensive real plus-minus places him 25th among centers, according to ESPN.com, and, based on Seth Partnow’s rim-protection numbers, only 13 big men have a worse “Points Saved/36” at the rim than Howard’s minus-0.81.
Finally, the blossoming Clint Capela has shown he can be a starting 5 in the NBA. Howard’s continued presence could hinder the young Swede’s development.
The Rockets should consider keeping Howard around, but they should use appropriate discretion in doing so. Ponying up excess cash or giving him a long-term guaranteed deal would be too easy to regret down the road. With this, and really with all their decisions, Morey and the Rockets need to consider who they want not just next year but also the following few after that. Rather than looking at quick fixes and Band-Aids, they need to establish a foundation.
All stats obtained from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted and are current through March 31.