NBA Free Agency Roundup: Rockets Facing $100 Million Question with Clint Capela

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 12, 2018

NBA Free Agency Roundup: Rockets Facing $100 Million Question with Clint Capela

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    The Houston Rockets are tightening their purse strings in the second week of NBA free agency, which is producing mixed results.

    On the one hand, they added James Ennis on a two-year deal, according to Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, patiently waiting out the market and landing a three-and-D wing to offset the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. On the other, they're playing a dangerous game with restricted free agent Clint Capela, who remains unsigned and may be inching closer to signing his qualifying offer as the parties remain far apart on contract terms.

    Spending big isn't an issue for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who might soon lock up their franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns—a year after foolishly dumping heaps of cash on Andrew Wiggins.

    Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony and Jeremy Lin are linked again for the first time since Linsanity, and Isaiah Thomas still needs a home.

    Never a dull moment.

Paradox: Saving Money Can Be Costly

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    It should come as no surprise that the Houston Rockets, a team committed to the cold math of basketball, are making a percentage play with Clint Capela.

    The 24-year-old restricted free agent remains unsigned, and according to ESPN.com's Tim McMahon, Capela and the Rockets have been as much as $40 million apart in their negotiations. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle relayed one rejected offer, noting Capela turned down a five-year, $85 million deal.

    If we invoke comparisons, Capela is right to hold out for at least $100 million. Steven Adams, then 23, inked a four-year, $100 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the 2016-17 season started. He got that money after putting up 8.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Andre Drummond signed his own five-year, $127 million contract just a month before his 23rd birthday in 2016.

    The way NBA basketball is played today, Capela is likely more valuable than both Adams and Drummond.

    At 24, Capela is coming off a season in which he averaged 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while leading the league in field-goal percentage. His defensive versatility—you won't find many bigs better equipped to defend guards on switches and protect the rim—made him an integral component to Houston's sixth-ranked defense. When factoring in how Capela fits into (and perhaps enables) Houston's scheme, he's worth even more to the Rockets than he would be to the rest of the market.

    But the market is the problem.

    Few teams have the available cap space to make Capela a significant offer, and because the Rockets have matching rights on any deal he signs, they have no urgency to fork over a hefty contract preemptively.

    This is rotten timing for Capela, and Houston is exploiting it.

    There's a downside, though. Capela could grow frustrated, perhaps so much so that he'd give less than full effort upon signing a lowball deal with Houston. Just as worrisome from the Rockets' perspective, he could cut off negotiations entirely and sign a one-year qualifying offer that would enable him to hit unrestricted free agency in the cash-rich summer of 2019.

    It'd be shocking if fewer than a half-dozen teams approached Capela with max offers a year from now.

    Houston's leverage is considerable but hardly boundless. Mess around too much, and the Rockets could alienate an elite young center—one of the only conventional bigs capable of staying on the floor against the Golden State Warriors.

    Houston can credibly cite the math and defend an offense that bricked 27 straight threes in a closeout playoff game. Those triples it missed in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State were statistically favorable propositions. The math said they were good shots.

    Similarly, playing Capela's free agency this way is objectively smart. It's good process. The economics are sound: Don't pay more than you have to.

    This is different, though. There's a human side to consider, and it's beginning to seem like the Rockets aren't appreciating it enough.

    At this point, if Capela scraps sentiment and adopts Houston's calculating approach, his best move might be sticking it to the Rockets by accepting the qualifying offer and collecting $100-plus million from someone else next summer.

The Timberwolves Are Spending Again...Wisely This Time

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    There is no defending the five-year, $148 million extension Andrew Wiggins signed last October. It was a hasty overpay made even less sensible by owner Glen Taylor's quaint justification: Taylor looked Wiggins in the eye and got assurances that the underwhelming former top overall pick would commit to becoming a better player after signing a massive deal.

    You've been disappointing for three years, but now that you're rich beyond your wildest dreams, you'll try really hard, right? Great! Pay that man!

    Wiggins wound up taking a step backward this past season, registering career lows in true shooting percentage, free-throw rate and assist percentage. Wiggins' scoring average of 17.7 points per game was his lowest since 2014-15, when he was a rookie. For the fourth straight year, he graded out as a negative overall contributor, posting a VORP of minus-0.4 on the season.

    That's all a sad preamble to the issue at hand: Unlike Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns is actually worth the fat extension he may soon sign with the Wolves.

    According to Michael Scotto and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, Towns and the Wolves are discussing the possibility.

    Towns has his flaws. He remains a suspect (but improving) defender who struggled to perform in his first playoff action this past spring, averaging 15.2 points on 46.7 percent shooting in a five-game first-round loss to the Rockets. Towns caught heat for disappearing when his team needed him most.

    Put the playoff flop aside.

    In thehistory of the NBA, two players have totaled at least 5,300 points and 2,800 rebounds while posting an effective field-goal percentage north of 57 percent in their first three seasons. One is Towns; the other is Shaquille O'Neal. And if you want to further distinguish Towns' early-career excellence, throw in 251 made threes.

    Those are no-questions-asked generational-superstar numbers. You don't need to look into Towns' eyes to understand he's worth a max deal.

Melo Back to New York!

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    Sporting News' Mitch Lawrence reported Wednesday that the Oklahoma City Thunder's attempts to move Carmelo Anthony could involve a return to New York.

    It'd be Brooklyn this time, though, and Anthony wouldn't be heading there for the long haul. If the rumored Anthony-for-Jeremy Lin swap took place, the Nets would almost certainly buy Anthony out in short order, allowing him to choose a new destination for the 2018-19 season.

    The Thunder must part ways with Melo, a star in decline who'd cost them upwards of $100 million in salary and tax payments. From Brooklyn's perspective, this would be a shrewd move. The Thunder would attach draft assets to Anthony's dead-money deal, effectively allowing the Nets to buy picks with their cap room. Smart teams that aren't prioritizing short-term contention should always explore using their space this way. 

    In this hypothetical, Brooklyn would buy Anthony out, pocket the draft considerations and move on. The only cost is Lin, who'd be tough to rely on after a patellar tendon rupture limited him to 25 minutes this past season. Lin is due $12.5 million on the last year of his current deal, and that would still sting the Thunder financially, though not nearly as much as Anthony's salary would. That's assuming OKC wouldn't explore a buyout with the 29-year-old guard.

    Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls or Atlanta Hawks should be trying to nose their way into this conversation. Why not see if there's value in being Anthony's stopover destination?

Will Someone Please Sign Isaiah Thomas?

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    We have reached the point in free agency where we have to pay attention to Instagram comments.

    Sad as that is for the newsgathering community and our culture at large, at least it signals we're almost done with the busiest part of the NBA's offseason.

    The comment in question came from Isaiah Thomas, who remains without a team and is struggling to spark interest from even the most point guard-deficient clubs. According to Joshua Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Magic had interest but never reached the negotiation stage with Thomas.

    Thomas ran into NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, snapped a photo and then commented on the post: "Tell Boston I'll come back for a year LOL... Good to see you. Miss my Boston fam!"

    Thomas isn't a fit for the Celtics, who still need to figure out how they'll keep Marcus Smart. That'd be true even if not for the unceremonious way Boston dumped Thomas after he played through a hip injury and personal tragedy in the 2017 playoffs.

    If Thomas is forgiving enough to move past that, he's a bigger man than most.

    Once expecting a Brinks truck's worth of cash on his next deal, Thomas is almost certainly headed for a minimum contract now. It won't come from the Celtics, but the Philadelphia 76ers might want to consider him as Markelle Fultz insurance. The Magic should also revisit the possibility of signing him...unless they're sure Jerian Grant is the answer.

    (Narrator: Jerian Grant is not the answer.)

The Rockets' Backup Plans Are Good

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    The Rockets got themselves one of the best three-and-D options left on the market in James Ennis, who agreed to a two-year deal with the team Wednesday.

    This doesn't force a re-evaluation of how much they'll miss Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Their departures are still borderline catastrophic for a Rockets team that built its defensive identity on switchable wings. But perhaps we can ease off Houston for its decision not to overpay role-fillers, even when those roles seemed so important.

    There's a parallel here to the Rockets' unwillingness to match the poison-pill offer sheet Chandler Parsons signed with the Dallas Mavericks in 2014. Parsons wasn't a star, and Houston refused to pay him like one, even if it meant losing him for nothing.

    The Rockets replaced Parsons with Ariza then, and it seems as though they're doing something similar now by slotting Ennis into a key role.

    Ennis projects as a starter, and he's a decent facsimile of the guys Houston let go. A career 35.9 percent shooter from deep, Ennis can guard several positions and gets most of his offense on the catch. B/R's Dan Favale noted that his standstill game will play well in Houston's attack, as Ennis took over 63 percent of his shots without a dribble last season.

    "Obviously, losing Trevor and losing Luc, it's going to hurt," head coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN.com's Tim McMahon. "You don't replace that, but we'll figure it out. ... There's different ways to go. We're going to be good. Like Chris is saying, we're going to run it back at Golden State. We'll see. We'll be ready."

    It's likely wrong to say this is how the Rockets wanted free agency to play out all along, but it's still fair to trust general manager Daryl Morey and his contingency plans. They've worked out well in the past.