When news came down this afternoon of an impending four-way trade between the Rockets, Nets, Hornets, and Pacers, the news outlets were quick to praise the Hornets for keeping their superstar happy and quick to criticize the Rockets for giving up so soon on a marquee free agent signing from just this past offseason.
However, those who criticized the Rockets were in the wrong.
To an outside observer, the trade makes little sense. Why spend big money on resigning the team's core and finding a solid backup at center only to shed big money in an attempt to lower the luxury tax payments?
Upon further review, this trade makes sense on both a basketball and a monetary level, as the Rockets seemingly improved in each category.
During Daryl Morey's tenure, he has always stressed the importance of cap flexibility, the best of example of this being when he amassed many large expiring contracts last season, which he eventually parlayed into Kevin Martin, the shooting guard of the future in Houston, among other assets.
In this deal, he rid the Rockets of nearly $25 million in payroll commitments over the next four years, a crucial measure that will put the Rockets in even better shape if the new collective bargaining agreement significantly shrinks the teams' abilities to spend. And while he saved more than $10 million in salary and luxury tax payments this year alone, that money only really matters for owner Leslie Alexander.
However, the greatest gain in this deal payroll-wise was the trade exception that they created by sending Ariza to the Hornets. By using a trade exception to acquire Courtney Lee, the Rockets generated a trade exception that will allow them to add a player making up to $8 million and shore up whatever holes they have created by making this move.
Actually, if they use this exception to its fullest extent, they will end up spending about $3 million more than if they had not made any deal at all, and this deal will not be the salary dump that it appears to be.
In the league today, with so many teams under the cap or possessing trade exceptions, expiring contracts are no longer the currency for trades. Expiring contracts give financial relief at the end of the season, but trade exceptions and trading into cap space gives a team instant savings, and it has become apparent that to acquire a top level player, a trade exception is a must.
Morey must have noted this as he has always tried to acquire another star, and perhaps this is part of the next phase in his attempts to acquire another All-Star. If he can manage that, this trade will go from a good one to a great one.
On Court Impact
Nobody will argue that Courtney Lee possesses the physical skills that Trevor Ariza does. He can't run like a gazelle or jump out of the gym like Ariza, but in his own way, he is a far better fit for the Rockets team as it is constructed now.
While Ariza's improvements after the addition have been well chronicled (in fact, I even wrote about how much better he looked towards the end of the season here), his variety of skills makes him less valuable to the Rockets as Lee.
Defensively, while Ariza filled the stat sheet with lots of steals, his undisciplined lunging for the ball often left him beat and caused the defense to have to scramble to recover. With a 7' 6" center rejoining the team in Yao Ming, this annoying habit would seem to be less of an issue as having a shot blocker at the rim would help prevent easy scoring in the paint.
However, given the fact that Yao will likely be far less mobile than he as ever been after the surgery, he can hardly be counted on to be the shot blocking big man he was in the past. Instead, getting beat would just cause Yao to get into foul trouble early and often and put the other teams in the penalty.
On the other hand, while Lee is not ever going to lead the league in steals, his solid, fundamental approach to defense was what led to him earning a starting position on the 2009 Magic team that reached the NBA Finals. He funnels his man to help in smart situations, always gets a hand up in the shooters face, and is one of the league's top one-on-one defenders in the league, holding opposing players to 33.8% shooting on isolation attempts last year (according to Synergy Sports Technology).
Offensively, Lee is already light years ahead of Ariza both in terms of knowing his limits and in all-around ability. He is a perfect fit for the second unit because while he is capable of creating his own shot on occasion, he is at his best without the ball in his hands, running around screens in an almost Richard Hamilton-esque manner, an area Ariza struggled in tremendously during his first year with the Rockets.
Finally, perhaps Lee's greatest positive over Ariza will be his attitude. Throughout last season, while Ariza was not explicitly outed as a clubhouse cancer, to fans and writers alike it was clear that he had an attitude problem.
His intensity wavered if he had a poor shooting night, he berated Aaron Brooks on at least two different occasions late in games when it was not necessary, and his body language was clear when he was not getting the ball enough. Oh, and he almost punched Demar DeRozan out on a night when he was 0-9 from the field.
When it became clear that Ariza would be losing minutes this year as everybody got healthy, Daryl Morey was faced with a dilemma, either deal with Ariza and his prima donna attitude as he played less, or deal him to a team for a player that would not whine about playing time. He chose the latter, and in doing so appears to have swung a pretty good deal for a great fit of a player.