- Dwight Howard ($22,359,364)
- James Harden ($15,756,438)
- Trevor Ariza ($8,193,030)
- Terrence Jones ($2,489,530)
- Donatas Motiejunas ($2,288,205)
- Clint Capela ($1,242,720)
- Joey Dorsey ($1,015,421)
- Nick Johnson ($845,059)
- Pablo Prigioni ($1,734,572)1
- Kostas Papanikolaou ($4,797,664 — Team)2
Restricted Free Agents/Cap Holds
- Patrick Beverley ($2,725,003) — $2,725,003 qualifying offer)3
- K.J. McDaniels ($1,045,059) — $1,045,059 qualifying offer)4
Unrestricted Free Agents/Cap Holds
- 1st Round (18th overall)
- 2nd Round (32nd overall)
- Guaranteed Salary: $54,629,767
- Non-Guaranteed Salary: $1,294,572
- Options: $4,797,664
- Cap Holds: $22,523,182
- Total: $83,245,185
Maybe the Rockets would be best served to have an offseason of disappointment. That’s what happened last summer, and this spring they made their first conference finals appearance since the Hakeem Olajuwon era. Of course, the Rockets probably would have been in a better position if they had signed Chris Bosh, as they thought they were about to do, or another one of the other stars they targeted. Still, it’s undeniable that Trevor Ariza, Houston’s primary acquisition from the offseason of 2014, fit in well as a replacement for Chandler Parsons, giving James Harden a stronger defensive complement on the wing. Harden took another leap on both sides of the ball, responding to widespread criticism of his defense with a career best number in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box/Plus Minus metric and a marked gain in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus figures. Midseason pickups Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni became key contributors, as did Jason Terry, whose outsized salary the Rockets accommodated via trade in exchange for a pair of sizable non-guaranteed deals that came via the Omer Asik deal.
Terry’s contributions underscore how the Rockets really didn’t miss Asik or Jeremy Lin, both of whom Houston traded last summer to clear cap space for their failed run at a star. Coach Kevin McHale, who validated the team’s decision to extend his contract, and GM Daryl Morey spent the year making the best of an offseason that didn’t go to plan and a host of injuries that cost Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas significant time. The concern going forward is whether this season’s accomplishments are sustainable. The Rockets won 56 games when they should have won only 50, according to Basketball-Reference‘s expected win-loss stat, which is based on point differential. The Clippers could have denied them that Western Conference Finals bid if they had held on to a 19-point lead in Game 6 of their series.
Regardless, Houston seems to have faith in its supporting cast. The Rockets are “determined” to re-sign Beverley, and they’d like a new deal with Smith, too, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported. Morey told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com that the team has interest in re-signing its other free agents, too. Certainly, the Rockets would still like a third star to go with Harden and Howard, but such a pursuit may well have to wait until 2016. The Rockets can take their cap figure down to $57,577,046 barring any sort of trade, only about $10MM shy of the projected $67.1MM cap. They’d have to create roughly another $6MM or so of cap flexibility to sign Greg Monroe, the cheapest of the star-level unrestricted free agents, and somewhere around $9MM for most of the rest of the marquee free agents. Morey has made a habit of clearing salary this time of year, and surely there would be takers for Ariza and Houston’s first-round pick if he wants to renew that tradition. Cap holds for Beverley and Smith would further eat into Houston’s flexibility, but Morey could offset those with salary-clearing trades of Jones and Motiejunas.
Indeed, there is a route by which the Rockets could sign a max free agent, give Beverley whatever’s necessary to retain him and have the flexibility to at least get in the ballpark to re-sign Smith. That said, pulling off a trifecta of deals that would send away Ariza, Jones and Motiejunas for no salary in return wouldn’t be a snap, and it would come with consequences, particularly if the Rockets come up short again in free agency. Still, Morey is canny enough that NBA observers shouldn’t rule out the possibility.
That said, it seems more likely that Morey and his staff set to work on determining the right price for Beverley and Smith, whose respective market values are among the most difficult to peg in this year’s free agent class. Beverley has a reputation as a defensive bulldog, though he’s a negative in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus and not far into positive territory in Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus. The Rockets were 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Beverley on the floor this season, according to NBA.com, though that number is heavily influenced by who was on the floor with him. Beverley has barely averaged 10 points per game the past two seasons and his paltry 3.4 assists per game this season were a career best. He’s a strong rebounder for his 6’1″ size, but the none of Beverley’s numbers suggest that the Rockets should pay him much more than the equivalent of the $5.464MM mid-level exception.
Still, the Rockets seem want him back, so perhaps Morey’s proprietary advanced metrics show value that other stats don’t. It’s possible that Houston’s success in the playoffs without him, as he battled in vain to return from season-ending left wrist surgery, will take him down a notch in the team’s eyes, just as postseason results may well have sweetened the team’s pot for Smith. McHale’s insertion of the oft-maligned forward into the starting lineup coincided with Houston’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Clippers, and for the playoffs as a whole, Smith had a 16.4 PER, better efficiency than he’s put up in either of his two seasons since leaving the Hawks. Some of that had to do with his 38.0% postseason three-point accuracy, an unsustainable rate based on his track record, but Smith proved nonetheless effective in his role as a supporting player instead of as a miscast star.
The Rockets don’t have the flexibility with Smith, with whom they have only Non-Bird rights, that they do with Beverley, a full Bird player. Houston can’t top $2,492,400 in a starting salary for Smith without using another exception or cap space. That’s probably less than he’s worth, though Smith is due $5.4MM from the Pistons next season, and each year through 2019/20, thanks to the stretch provision Detroit used to waive its fat contract with him in December. The next contract that the Brian Dyke and Wallace Prather client signs will defray a fraction of the Pistons’ obligation via set off, but there’s still incentive for Smith to sign for as much as he can, even if he knows he has at least $5.4MM coming. That very figure, almost equivalent to the non-taxpayer’s mid-level, seems like a fair price for Smith’s next deal, a cost that would be quite difficult, if not impossible, for the Rockets to pay if they dip beneath the salary cap to make a marquee signing. If Houston operates above the cap and re-signs Beverley, re-signing Smith at that level would take away the team’s capacity to sign anyone it doesn’t already own the rights to for more than the minimum.
Reports have indicated the Rockets have interest in signing draft-and-stash prospects Sergio Llull, Alessandro Gentile and Marko Todorovic this summer, though none are former first-rounders, and thus the Rockets wouldn’t have a rookie exception to use toward signing them. Gentile doens’t have an out in his overseas contract and Llull doesn’t seem to have much motivation to come stateside. Morey shot down the idea that Houston was planning a three-year mid-level deal for Llull. That leaves Todorovic, a 23-year-old center from Montenegro who’s said the Rockets would like to sign him. He averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game for Bilbao Basket of Spain this past season. Those are decent numbers that suggest a minimum-salary offer wouldn’t cut it.
All of this makes it more likely the Rockets would seek to re-sign Terry and Brewer if they don’t open cap space. They’ll have full Bird rights on both, so they won’t face much restriction on their salaries. There’s a decent chance that Brewer, who turned down a $4.905MM player option for next season to facilitate the midseason trade that sent him to the Rockets, would want a similar amount in a new deal with Houston, but regardless, Morey will surely exercise caution with him and with Terry. The Rockets probably don’t want to court the projected $81.6MM tax line, nor will Morey be anxious to commit too much long-term money that gets in the way of a run at free agents in 2016.
K.J. McDaniels also holds intrigue as a potential restricted free agent based on the strong performance in Philadelphia that validated his decision to sign a one-year, non-guaranteed deal for the minimum salary, though he didn’t play much after the Sixers traded him to Houston. Kostas Papanikolaou hardly justified his nearly $5MM salary this season, but his uniquely designed contract that features both an option and non-guaranteed salary at least gives the team a chance to see how he develops over the summer before decision time arrives.
The Rockets face a stiff challenge to improve on this year’s performance, though they haven’t failed to make progress in any of the past three seasons. Improved health, more so than a star addition, is Houston’s likeliest path to another step toward a title next season, but the Rockets will once more loom as an outside threat to acquire any marquee name that becomes available.
1 — Prigioni’s salary is partially guaranteed for $440,000.
2 — Papanikolaou’s salary would be non-guaranteed if the Rockets pick up his option. It would become fully guaranteed if he remains under contract through October 4th.
3 — The cap hold for Beverley would be $947,276 if the Rockets elect not to tender a qualifying offer.
4 — The cap hold for McDaniels would be $947,276 if the Rockets elect not to tender a qualifying offer.
The Basketball Insiders Salary Pages were used in the creation of this post.