NBA Free-Agency Roundup: Are Rockets the Biggest FA Losers in the West?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 10, 2018

NBA Free-Agency Roundup: Are Rockets the Biggest FA Losers in the West?

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    We're getting into the dog days of NBA free agency, but deals that'll shape the 2018-19 season are still getting done.

    Case in point: The Houston Rockets lost another critical piece of their small-ball, switch-heavy scheme. Luc Mbah a Moute followed Trevor Ariza out the door. A club that was purpose-built to beat the Golden State Warriors last year must now scramble to address a gaping hole on the wing.

    Elsewhere, the Sacramento Kings are staying busy. This time, they're thinking about throwing money at Marcus Smart. If he were to leave the Boston Celtics, another contender would be short a key rotation piece.

    The biggest names are largely settled, but we've still got plenty of free-agent movement to dissect.

The Rockets Are Slipping

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    The Houston Rockets' increasingly disappointing offseason underscores the importance of seizing the moment.

    Just over a month ago, Houston had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes—up three games to two and heading to Oakland for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets had two cracks at eliminating the eventual champs, probably should have advanced...and didn't.

    Houston missed its moment. And now the greatest challenger the Dubs (Kevin Durant version) have ever faced is receding into the rearview. 

    This might feel overdramatic; we're only talking about Houston losing Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Los Angeles Clippers, per a report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Neither player is a star, and the Rockets were significantly better against the Warriors in the playoffs when those two were on the bench.

    Still, at a time when the entire league is scouring the landscape for rangy defensive aces who can also hit a three, the Rockets just lost two of them.

    Ignore the small conference finals sample suggesting Houston doesn't need its top two wing defenders. Length and versatility keyed a switching Rockets scheme that stifled most opponents, contributing to a No. 6 defensive rating during the regular season. Mbah a Moute could credibly guard five positions. Ariza handled four. Both were integral to an approach designed specifically to disrupt Golden State's attack, and it's worth wondering whether the Rockets will even try to employ the same strategy now that their most useful defenders are gone.

    Chris Paul is due for decline entering his age-33 season, and physical breakdowns are now the expectation for his playoff trips. James Harden may very well reprise his MVP efforts, but what if he's suddenly tasked with expending effort on both ends? Chances are his offense will take a hit if he can no longer pass off assignments via switches and/or hide while others do the real heavy lifting on D.

    What if Clint Capela—currently getting hosed by bad timing, leaguewide empty pockets and the general inequity of restricted free agency—isn't the happiest camper if he returns next year on his qualifying offer or a below-market deal from the Rockets, who haven't even had to consider matching an offer sheet yet?

    Carmelo Anthony, a reported target of the Rockets, simply cannot see the floor in meaningful minutes against Golden State. The Oklahoma City Thunder were 2.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense without Melo last year, and he ranked 72nd among 82 power forwards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Twenty-four players took at least 1,168 shots last year; Anthony's effective field-goal percentage ranked 24th in that group.

    He will not help.

    In the absence of Ariza and Mbah a Moute, Houston will have to either play objectively worse wings or cull a rotation that was already painfully thin. Is Ryan Anderson going to see high-leverage minutes? Gerald Green?

    As bad as that sounds, it beats the alternative of leaning even more on Paul and Harden, who didn't hold up last year under the strenuous demands of a playoff rotation trimmed to seven players by the time the Rockets met Golden State.

    Houston may still be the second-best team in the West, but it has lost critical pieces while the Warriors have retained their entire core and pocketed a playoff wild card in DeMarcus Cousins. This is lamentable on several levels, but the fact that money seems to be the driving force behind Houston's personnel losses only makes it a bigger bummer.

    Because as the Warriors plunge deep into the tax ($40 million and counting), adding Cousins and re-upping with Kevin Durant, Houston is operating more carefully. How else to explain its failure to beat one-year offers for Ariza and Mbah a Moute?

    Houston owner Tilman Fertitta said in February he'd pay the tax to field a championship contender. To his credit, he green-lit a new deal for Paul and will have to shell out more for Capela. But Ariza and Mbah a Moute are gone because the Rockets chose not to spend what it would have cost to keep them.

    Ironically, the Rockets are going to pay a heavy price for their thrift. They've fallen off the Warriors' level and back into the clump of nonthreatening pseudo-contenders.

The Kings Are Being Less Ridiculous

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    The Sacramento Kings are determined to get something done in free agency, and they've now turned their attention to Marcus Smart, according to A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

    Smart is restricted, which means the Boston Celtics can match any offer sheet he signs. But with Smart reportedly upset by Boston's canny approach, perhaps there's a window here for the Kings to proffer a number the Celtics would balk at.

    It'd be nice if Sacramento would use its cap space to add bad money with a draft asset attached, but it didn't do that last summer, and it's foolish to expect it now. It seems Sacramento is incapable of purposely accepting short-term pain for a long-term benefit.

    Good thing that's not how you run a successful rebuild...

    On the bright side, the Kings lucked out when the Chicago Bulls called their absurd bet on Zach LaVine. So at least they won't be stuck paying a low-efficiency, no-defense fringe-rotation player like a star. Bullet dodged there.

    Rodney Hood is also a potential target, according to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

    Smart is a phenomenal defender, passable playmaker and verified winner. He'd make the Kings (or anyone) better.

    So...progress?

San Antonio Makes a Decision

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    Kyle Anderson is a better player than Davis Bertans.

    Anderson graded out as elite on defense last season, and he's the type of intuitive, high I.Q., system-type players who tend to do well in San Antonio. Bertans is a useful outside shooter (37.3 percent from deep last year) who periodically yams on suckers. He's been a low-minute contributor in both of his NBA seasons.

    But when you factor in compensation, the San Antonio Spurs chose wisely when they let Anderson join the Grizzlies on a four-year, $37 million deal. Bertans might be a tad overpaid on a four-year, $20 million pact he'll sign with the Spurs, according to Sportando, but the upside is clear.

    Bertans is 6'10", athletic and quietly feisty. His stroke looks smooth, and at 25, he's still capable of getting better in an expanded role. Anderson's almost incomprehensibly limited athleticism would seem to indicate he won't age well.

    The Spurs' offseason success or failure still depends on what happens with Kawhi Leonard. But letting Anderson walk in favor of Bertans feels like a minor win. 

    Sadly, we'll never see this Anderson-Bertans connection again. Just as well. It was too beautiful for this ugly world.

Klay Thompson's Dunking Partner Is Gone

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    When Zaza Pachulia agreed to a one-year, $2.4 million deal with the Detroit Pistons, as reported by Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, it ended an era.

    The dunk contest between Pachulia and Klay Thompson is over.

    There was something endearing about Pachulia, a ground-bound center, and Thompson, an All-Star scoring dynamo who only averages a dozen dunks per season, collectively acknowledging their own limitations in a competition.

    The Warriors will be fine without Pachulia; he'd fallen out of the rotation by the end of the 2017-18 regular season as the Dubs sought more vertical spacing and defensive switchability at the position. But it's still a minor tragedy that we won't get overblown bench reactions on the rare occasions one or the other dunks anymore.

    Unless Thompson finds a new challenger.

    Quinn Cook, anyone?

Brook to the Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks added some spacing to an offense that got a little cramped last year by signing Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3.4 million contract, according to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

    Lopez became a high-volume three-point shooter in 2016-17 with the Brooklyn Nets and brought his new dimension to the Los Angeles Lakers last year, when he hit 34.5 percent of his treys. Among centers, only Karl-Anthony Towns made more than Lopez's 112 triples.

    As has been the case for virtually every post-LeBron James transaction this summer, Lopez's departure is bad for the Lakers. A team that added Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson—unreliable shooters both—just lost its most valuable spacer.

    Lopez isn't a star, but he should create room for Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee—room James could have used in Los Angeles.