Offseason In Review: Houston Rockets

November 24 2013 at 10:32am CDT By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Trades

  • Acquired the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou, the rights to Marko Todorovic, the Timberwolves’ 2015 second-round pick, and the Trail Blazers’ own 2017 second-round pick from the Blazers in exchange for Thomas Robinson.
  • Acquired a 2014 second-round pick (31-55 protected) from the Sixers in exchange for Royce WhiteFurkan Aldemir and cash.

Draft Picks

  • Isaiah Canaan (Round 2, 34th overall). Signed via cap space for three years, $2.33MM. Third year is 80% guaranteed.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

In the summer of 2012, the Rockets appeared adrift, ready to hit bottom after three straight ninth-place finishes in the Western Conference. GM Daryl Morey had to prove he was worthy of keeping his job, and he did so with a bang in October 2012, trading for James Harden, who blossomed into an All-NBA player. Snagging one superstar made Houston a more attractive destination for others, and the team aimed for the greatest prizes in this year’s free agent class, pursuing Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, and making a push to team Howard with former AAU teammate Josh Smith.

Luring Paul away from the Clippers was a long shot at best, and the task of either clearing enough cap space for both Howard and Smith or working a sign-and-trade with the Hawks proved too difficult. It was much easier to simply pry Howard from the Lakers, and the Rockets emerged as front runners for the center long before free agency began. Howard’s decision-making is notoriously difficult to predict, and in early July he met with the Hawks, Mavericks, Warriors and Lakers in addition to the Rockets. His choice to ultimately sign with the Rockets lifted Houston into title contention less than 12 months after the team possessed a roster that might have finished with the league’s worst record in 2012/13.

The signing prompted Morey to ask Mavs owner Mark Cuban if he’d be interested in trading Dirk Nowitzki, and while Cuban thinks Morey’s inquiry might have been more of a taunt than a serious request, it demonstrates a brazen attitude that helped the GM outfox his rivals. That daring approach extends throughout Morey’s roster-building techniques, as demonstrated by his decision to waive Aaron Brooks and decline the team option on Francisco Garcia as part of the effort to cap clear space for Howard. Brooks and Garcia were clearly players Morey still wanted, and he managed to re-sign them to minimum-salary deals, even after taking the additional step of renouncing Garcia’s Bird rights. It was a risk that paid dividends, as so many have for Morey over the past year.

Morey pulled off another escape when he appeared to have backed himself into a corner at the end of preseason. The Rockets had four rotation-caliber players without fully guaranteed deals, and just two roster spots to accommodate them. Marcus Camby‘s injury allowed the team to cut his fully guaranteed deal instead, and while it’s never ideal to pay someone a full season’s salary when he’s not on the roster, the move let the team keep three of those four capable players without full guarantees. Reggie Williams, a three-point shooter whose numbers were in decline, was the only casualty, while Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith and offseason signee Ronnie Brewer remained. Camby is hanging around the Rockets while he recovers, and the possibility remains for the veteran center to rejoin the team if a roster spot opens.

Perhaps the most dangerous move Morey made as he opened cap room for Howard was trading Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick from the 2012 draft. The Rockets snagged him at the trade deadline this past February, and though he didn’t make an outsized impact, Robinson was nonetheless impressive on the boards in limited minutes. He averaged 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes during his half season with the Rockets, a tempting number for the Trail Blazers, who poached him from the Rockets for the pittance of two second-round picks and a pair of draft-and-stash players. Robinson could develop into a force at power forward, the very position where Houston looks weakest.

Morey also cut ties with another 2012 first-rounder, sending troubled Royce White to the Sixers for a late second-round pick. Morey thought of White as a top-five talent when he drafted him, gambling that his psychological challenges wouldn’t manifest as a roadblock. The Rockets had no such luck, as White failed to appear in any regular season games for Houston while he held out for special mental health stipulations in his standard rookie contract. Morey had to attach European prospect Furkan Aldemir and cash to entice former Rockets executive and new Sixers GM Sam Hinkie into taking his own chance on White. Hinkie’s presence in Philadelphia allowed Morey the opportunity to unload one of his mistakes, but Morey’s former assistant also drove a hard bargain, demonstrating how one cog in Houston’s operation is now working against the team.

Howard is the only one of Houston’s free agent signees from this past summer whom the team will pay more than the $1.266MM minimum salary it’s dishing out to Garcia this season. There are bargains, like a rejuvenated Omri Casspi, within that group, but it’s the low-cost, high-reward signings that Morey made in previous years that allow the team to be more than just the Harden-and-Howard show. Beverley and Chandler Parsons make up two-fifths of the starting lineup, and they’ll earn just slightly more than $1.7MM combined this season. Morey helped himself in signing unheralded players to three-year, mostly non-guaranteed deals that allow the team to cut ties with those who don’t pan out and gain full Bird rights for those who do. Still, it will be a challenge to keep the team’s supporting cast together once Parsons, Beverley and others hit finally free agency with Howard and Harden clogging the team’s books on their max contracts.

That conundrum awaits on the horizon, but a more pressing concern is what the Howard signing has done to the psyche of Omer Asik, who’s reportedly been making weekly trade requests since Howard arrived. Notwithstanding an ill-fated attempt to pair Howard and Asik in the starting lineup, the arrival of Howard displaced Asik and turned last year’s starting center into an overpaid backup with a sullen attitude. Morey is at work trying to trade Asik, but the Turkish center’s demands and nearly $15MM balloon payment next season will make it more difficult than it might otherwise be to find a home for the 7’0″ top-flight defensive stopper. The challenge is just one of many ripple effects of the Howard acquisition that make it as much of a risk as any transaction Morey has made. The contract itself prompts questions, too, since there’s no guarantee Howard will be worth the $87.6MM he’ll make over four seasons. Morey might not fit the stereotype of the classic Texas gambler from the Old West, but his moves suggest he plays the part well. The Rockets can only hope he doesn’t go bust.

Luke Adams contributed to this post. 

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