Offseason In Review: Houston Rockets

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

Extensions

  • None

Trades

  • Acquired 2014 pick No. 53 from the Timberwolves in exchange for cash.
  • Acquired the rights to Sergei Lishchuk from the Lakers in exchange for Jeremy Lin, Houston’s 2015 first-round pick (lottery protected), and the Clippers’ 2015 second-round pick if it falls anywhere from 51st through 55th.
  • Acquired Trevor Ariza, Alonzo Gee, Scotty Hopson and New Orleans’ 2015 first-round pick if it falls anywhere from fourth through 19th in a three-way trade with the Pelicans and Wizards in exchange for Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, and $1.5MM cash. Ariza was signed-and-traded for four years, $32MM.
  • Acquired Jason Terry, Sacramento’s 2015 second-round pick if it falls anywhere from 31st through 49th, and New York’s unprotected 2016 second-round pick from the Kings in exchange for Alonzo Gee and Scotty Hopson.

Waiver Claims

  • Earl Clark: Claimed from the Grizzlies. One year, $1.063MM remaining. Contract was non-guaranteed. Subsequently waived.

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

  • Akil Mitchell
  • Geron Johnson
  • Akeem Richmond

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

It wasn’t too long ago that GM Daryl Morey took just nine months to turn a roster that seemed poised to challenge for last place in the Western Conference into a rising title contender with two superstars. Houston entered this past summer in position to make a third superstar acquisition in less than two years, but the franchise’s positive momentum vanished just as suddenly as it had gathered. Morey and the Rockets once more aimed high, pursuing LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, the top three free agents in the 2014 Hoops Rumors Free Agent Power Rankings, but he swung and missed on all three pitches. Houston didn’t just come up short on attracting outside talent. The Rockets flubbed the handling of their team option on Chandler Parsons, who bolted for the Mavs, and they traded Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to clear cap space for the stars that never came, stripping the team of valuable role players. Murphy’s Law had so befallen Houston that Morey felt compelled to defend himself against a storm of criticism, even though the Rockets were appreciably better than they had been two years prior and remain on the verge of contention.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Houston RocketsStill, the summer was a tough blow to a franchise that almost became a true power. Morey failed to land a face-to-face meeting with LeBron’s agent and though he did meet with ‘Melo, that encounter is more remembered for the giant image of Anthony wearing Lin’s No. 7 Rockets jersey that the Rockets hung than for any sway that Morey held with the high-scoring Knicks forward. Yet the team was agonizingly close to landing Bosh on a four-year deal for the maximum salary before Miami swooped in with a five-year max offer. A Bosh-Howard tandem would have given the Rockets the league’s best big-man pairing to go along with Harden’s slithery scoring prowess, and if Houston had opted in with Parsons, the Rockets could have paid him a mere $960K to play with those three. Still, such a fantasy never became more than just that.

Morey didn’t envision having Parsons at such a cheap rate this season, anyway. The GM instead expected that turning down the option would allow the Rockets to tie him up on a long-term deal in restricted free agency this past summer without exposing him to unrestricted free agency in 2015, which he was poised to hit if Houston had opted in. Leave it to frequent Morey critic and Mavs owner Mark Cuban to throw a curveball, signing Parsons to an above-market offer sheet for nearly the maximum salary. Dan Fegan, the agent for Parsons, reportedly designed the structure of the deal that won plaudits from other league executives for features like a 15% trade kicker, a player option and the contract’s three-year length, all of which made it tricky for the Rockets to match. Fegan’s involvement was a further twist of the knife for Houston, since he represents Howard, who can hit free agency in 2016.

Houston’s offseason was thoroughly disappointing, but it was far from a complete disaster. The Rockets wound up with a top-notch perimeter defender in Trevor Ariza, whose become significantly more valuable since he added accurate three-point marksmanship to his repertoire. Ariza shot 40.7% from long range in 2013/14, setting a career high for a second straight season. That makes him a fit with Houston’s floor-spreading philosophy, but it’s his defense that truly makes him a seamless complement to Harden, whose defensive shortcomings have been well-documented. It’s no coincidence that the Rockets are giving up the fewest points per possession of any NBA team this season after finishing 12th in that category last season, according to NBA.com.

The Ariza acquisition came as part of a sign-and-trade that sent Asik to the Pelicans in exchange for a first-round pick that’s protected in such a way that Houston is likely to end up with a lottery selection. It’s reminiscent of the protection on the pick that the Raptors gave up for Kyle Lowry, and the Rockets swapped that Toronto pick in the package that netted Harden. It’s a stretch to say that the Rockets are in position to once more strike gold with such a pick, but at the very least they wound up with a first-rounder that will probably be more valuable than the one they attached to Lin to entice the Lakers to take him on. Houston also netted a trade exception worth the equivalent of Lin’s nearly $8.375MM cap hit in that deal. The exception is the largest in the league as it stands, and while it doesn’t allow the team to grab a star, Morey seems eager to use it to trade for an intriguing rotation-level player whom he could package with another asset or two at the deadline to acquire a marquee name. Morey’s proven creative and ever willing to trade, so the exception in his hands is a weapon indeed.

He pulled off a trade this summer that serves as some degree of payback for the sting of losing Parsons to the rival Mavericks, bringing on one-time Mavs sixth man Jason Terry. Houston also netted a pair of second-round picks as Morey took advantage of tax-conscious Sacramento’s desire to clear his guaranteed salary of more than $5.85MM and Terry’s wish to play for a team closer to the title picture. Terry’s 37 now, his days as one of the league’s premiere reserves long since behind him, but he’s off to a hot start behind the arc, and he’ll help strengthen a bench that took a hit this summer.

Houston spent much of the summer filling out that bench with familiar faces who were willing to accept the minimum salary, re-signing Francisco Garcia and playoff revelation Troy Daniels, and bringing back former Rockets Joey Dorsey, Jeff Adrien and Ish Smith. Adrien and Smith fell victim to the team’s decision to bring 15 fully guaranteed contracts plus Patrick Beverley on a non-guaranteed contract to camp, which created a crunch for opening-night roster spots. Rookie Tarik Black, on a contract only guaranteed for $50K, furthered that logjam when he played his way into the rotation and earned his way onto the club for the regular season.

Black is one of four rookies on the team, and the size of that group is further indication that Houston’s offseason didn’t go as planned. There was speculation that the Rockets would trade their first-round pick or stash him overseas to avoid the guaranteed money on their cap. Morey instead signed No. 25 overall pick Clint Capela, a center from Switzerland, and for 42nd overall selection Nick Johnson, the Rockets doled out a three-year contract that, in a rarity, is fully guaranteed for each season. Still, the most surprising Rockets rookie deal is the one with Kostas Papanikolaou, who changed his mind after deciding in mid-July to remain overseas. He’ll make more than $4.591MM this season, a hefty sum that took up most of Houston’s mid-level exception, though his nearly $4.798MM salary for next season is both non-guaranteed and a team option. The deal gives Houston protection in case he fails to prove worth that money, but if he does wind up having merited that sum and perhaps more, the Rockets could have trouble retaining him thanks to the very same Gilbert Arenas Provision that helped them sign Lin and Asik two years ago.

Morey has never been afraid to experiment with unconventional moves to build a championship roster, but with experimentation comes the risk of failure. Houston experienced the downside of the GM’s approach this summer, but not every test tube shattered, and the Rockets remain an attractive destination for top-flight free agents as well as a serious player on the trade market. They took a step back, but they remain at least a step or two ahead of most.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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