The Houston Rockets are set to engage in their biggest free-agent season since acquiring Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013. With his impending departure and the massive cap boost, general manager Daryl Morey will have a ton of money to spend, setting the course for Space City’s future.
According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, Houston will have somewhere between $38 million and $44 million on hand. (It’s hard to get more specific than that because there are a variety of options at his disposal.)
That’s a lot of money, but it's not as much as it once was with the cap climbing from $70 million to an estimated $92 million. This means two things are also true:
- Everyone else has a bunch of money to spend.
- Contract values go up. For example, last year, a max contract for a player coming off his rookie deal started at $15.3 million. This year, it starts at $21.3 million, according to The Vertical’s Bobby Marks.
Still, $44 million is enough to squeeze in two good players. If you wiggle in the right trades, you could even wedge in two max contracts at the 25 percent level.
The Rockets have a star in James Harden. Small forward Trevor Ariza and point guard Patrick Beverley are quality starters who can make their presences felt on both ends and who play well with Harden. Clint Capela is an up-and-coming center—perhaps even a star at some point in the future.
Now Houston is shopping for that piece—or pieces—that will vault it back into title contention. Let's explore who they are realistically focusing on. That being said, players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who are technically "free agents" but have not been Houston targets, were excluded.
James Harden and the Leadership Conundrum
Before exploring the Rockets' free-agency options, it’s important to look at the intricacies of finding help for James Harden. Some have a misconception that a team’s best player must also be the leader. One man does sometimes claim both roles; Dirk Nowitzki did so with the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-11. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Draymond Green is as much the backbone of the Golden State Warriors as Stephen Curry. The previous champs, the San Antonio Spurs, had Tim Duncan as their general, though he stopped being their best player a long time ago. Even the Miami Heat, who won the two championships prior, had LeBron James as their top star, yet Dwyane Wade appeared to be the psychological leader of the team.
Harden is an extraordinary basketball player and a generational offensive talent. Since coming to the Rockets four seasons ago, his lowest true shooting percentage in any season is 59.8 percent. He’s boasted a usage of at least 27 percent and an assist rate of at least 25 percent while averaging 25 points per game every season in Houston.
Harden is the best player on the team because he’s one of the best offensive talents in the league and arguably among the top scoring and passing threats in history. However, he’s not the guy who’s going to rally the troops. That’s not his disposition, and asking him to be “that guy” doesn’t work.
In acquiring a top-tier free agent, the challenge is finding a guy who can be a leader in the locker room while making an on-court impact without undermining Harden’s influence on the offensive end. It also needs to be someone who can stabilize the defense—and preferably not someone whose position overlaps one of the three returning starters, meaning he should be a power forward or center.
Al Horford is the best-case scenario for the Houston Rockets, and the Rockets seem aware of that. Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported in May: “A person familiar with the organization told Sporting News that landing Hawks star Al Horford is the Rockets' top-line goal in free agency.”
You may have heard the phrase, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” That has a bit of a negative connotation. It’s supposed to be, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
That’s the perfect way to describe Horford.
He can put the ball on the floor (99 unassisted field goals this year, according to NBA.com) and score inside (62.7 field-goal percentage within 10 feet) or from deep (35.1 percent behind the arc). Over the last three seasons, he is the only player to average over 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks per 100 possessions while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Additionally, he posted a 2.07 defensive real plus/minus this year, per ESPN.com.
He positively impacts every facet of the game without dominating the ball. (His usage percentage this year was just 20.6). In fact, if there’s a criticism of him, it’s that he could be a bit more aggressive in the clutch. If he’s supposed to be the offensive leader of the team, that matters, but playing off Harden and giving him an outlet, he’d be ideal.
And he has the quiet, unassuming leadership that Houston needs. Zach Lowe wrote about his nickname last year for the now-defunct Grantland:
“You cannot put a price tag on his basketball IQ,” [Horford’s college coach Billy)] Donovan says, “and on how he creates chemistry.” The team nicknamed Horford “The Godfather,” because he knew what everyone was doing and thinking, and how to provide just the right quiet advice.
He is still “The Godfather” in Atlanta. “He’s so calming,” [Hawks coach Mike] Budenholzer says. “I wish I could say that about myself. I draw on him during moments when I’m not poised. He’ll say something calming to me, and to the team.”
The beauty of adding Horford is he would fill almost every need because of who he is and the things he does.
I wrote before, “Luol Deng is 31, but he has been an absolute revelation as a stretch 4. According to Nylon Calculus, which tracks player production by position, Deng had a 62.7 true shooting percentage while playing power forward.”
Deng is also one of the most versatile defenders in the league. He can guard the 2, 3 or 4 comfortably and even spent some time at center in the playoffs, according to Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:
Even though his stats weren’t very impressive through the first four games against Toronto, his teammates and coaches said Deng was giving the Heat “whatever it took” to win. That included shutting down Raptors leading scorer DeMar DeRozan through the first four games of the series (DeRozan broke out for 34 points on 11-of-22 shooting Wednesday) to playing center for the final 10 minutes of regulation and overtime in Game 4 in an undersized, undermanned Heat lineup.
“I’m just playing what I’m given and doing what I can do out there,” said Deng, who entering Game 5 on Wednesday had taken as many shots (31) in the Raptors series as he had points in the Heat’s first playoff game.
That attitude and his play at the 4 would make him a steal for the Rockets. And his leadership, while not forceful, is powerful and dominant. He is happy to be the “spine” of a team, not the face of it.
He's just one of the best people in the league, as Michael Wallace covered in detail for ESPN.com when former Hawks general manager Danny Ferry's controversial comments were publicly aired.
Whether it’s coming up huge in big moments in a game or keeping the team together in tough times, Deng has always been one of the most consistently reliable players and respected leaders in the league, regardless of which team he’s been on.
The Next Tier
Hassan Whiteside is a dominant interior force who has the potential to mature into a DeAndre Jordan-like center. They were the only two last season to average over three blocks per 100 possessions and shoot over 60 percent on at least 500 attempts, making them the league's two most impactful players at the rim.
But can he mature? It may feel like Whiteside is a young player since he only broke out last season, but in reality, he’s going to be 27 years old next season.
He’s had issues acting like it, according to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. Last season, he did show signs of progress. And if Houston brought over both Deng and Whiteside, that might provide some stability. But there’s a big caution flag there.
Memphis Grizzlies free agent Mike Conley is a point guard version of Horford in that he does everything well. But he doesn’t quite meet the qualifications we’re looking for. He’d be replicating Beverley and taking the ball out of Harden’s hands more.
The takeaway from the Ty Lawson disaster last year is that the Rockets need a second option who can create but doesn’t have to create to be effective. Conley might do that a bit better than Beverley, but it's not enough to justify a max contract—and not when there are still bigger holes to fill.
New Orleans Pelicans power forward Ryan Anderson is a sensational shooter and not a bad backup plan, but adding him to a suspect defense is like trying to use hydrochloric acid to repair the holes in a rusty bucket.
Swingman Nicolas Batum is worth pursuing, but the Charlotte Hornets will do everything in their power to hold onto him: "Nic is a huge piece. He is our No. 1 offseason priority," said Hornets general manager Rich Cho, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. It’s doubtful he leaves, and if he does, the Rockets run into the problem of a redundant starter. Although it’s possible Ariza could slide to a stretch 4.
Besides Conley, none of these options seem to represent the leadership that Deng and Horford do. And while Conley has never had any issues demanding the ball or being the face of the team, having to share both might wear on Harden, who allegedly had conflicts with Howard, according to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.
If the Rockets land Horford, they'd still have about $10 million left, but they'd probably be best off using that to retain forwards Donatas Motiejunas or Terrence Jones, their own restricted free agents. There just aren't many players available for that amount of money. Perhaps Jared Dudley, a career 39.9 percent three-point-shooting stretch 4 would be worth considering, but it would be hard for Houston to upgrade over what it has.
The Rockets' best bet is to go at Horford with everything they have. And if that doesn’t pan out, make Deng a safe second choice and hope that’s enough to bring on Whiteside, too.