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Rockets Build Bench From The Deepest Of Pools

Chandler Parsons has received most of the press, but he's not the only important player the Houston Rockets need to replace, as they also gave away Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for essentially nothing in terms of present assets. Even worse, because the Rockets were already pressed close to the salary cap, they were forced to shop in the free agency bargain bin for Lin and Asik's replacements, signing a few European free agents and second round picks on minimum-salary deals.

The guys they are bringing in - Joey Dorsey, Jeff Adrien, Nick Johnson, Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington - have proven nothing at the NBA level. Nevertheless, there's still reason for optimism about their ability to contribute immediately, as no front office in the NBA has done a better job of finding players off the street than the Rockets. Houston jump-started the careers of Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith and Troy Daniels, all players the rest of the league passed over.

A former second round pick of the Miami Heat in 2008, Beverley had refined his game after bouncing around Europe for a few seasons, but few NBA teams noticed a guy who had slipped through the cracks the first time. He was brought in to back up Lin, but he eventually won the starting PG job due to his superior defensive and spot-up shooting ability. He is one of the best bargains in the league, a starter on a 54-win team who makes only $1 million a year until 2016.

Coming out of college, Smith had the size (6’10 250 with  7’3 wingspan) and the athleticism to play in the league, but he didn’t get a lot of publicity on a bad Fresno State team and went undrafted in 2011. In three seasons with the Rockets, he put up per-36 minute averages of 13 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 62% shooting. Still only 23, he signed a guaranteed contract with the Dallas Mavericks this offseason and looks headed for a long NBA career.

Daniels was one of the best shooters in the country at VCU, but his one-dimensional game caused him to go undrafted and he wound up in the D-League. After averaging 21 points a game with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers while hoisting 12 3’s a game, the Rockets gave him a shot on the biggest stage of the sport. He responded with a game winner in Game 3 and a 17-point scoring outburst in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers.

With their most recent signings, Houston is gambling they can find the next versions of those players. Dorsey, Adrien, Canaan, Johnson and Covington all have holes in their games, but they also have skill-sets that could allow them to thrive in roles on a second unit. That’s what separates the Rockets from a lot of other NBA franchises - they aren’t afraid to give younger players chances rather than recycling brand name players and established veterans on their last legs.

At 6’9 260 and 6’7 245, respectively, Dorsey and Adrien were caught between positions in their first runs through the league, without the height of a center or the skill to play out on the perimeter. However, either would be an interesting frontcourt partner on the second unit for Donatas Motiejunas, a 7'0 stretch 4. Playing behind Dwight Howard should also minimize their lack of size, since few NBA teams play two traditional centers in their rotation anymore. 

Neither Johnson nor Canaan is a pure playmaking PG, which is why they both slipped into the second round, but they both have the athleticism and scoring ability to create shots against second-unit defenses. Canaan, the Rockets second-round pick in 2013, spent last season in the D-League, where he averaged 22 points a game. Johnson, their second round-pick in 2014, was a second-team All-American and Pac 12 Player of the Year as a junior at Arizona last season.

Covington, like Canaan, spent most of last season in the Rio Grande Valley, where he averaged 23 points and 9 rebounds a game on 44% shooting while taking 8 3’s a game. At 6'9 215, he has the size and shooting ability to be a stretch 4. He was undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State because of concerns about his level of competition in college as well as his position at the next level, but he has the athletic ability to at least hold his own defensively on a second unit.

There's no guarantee that any of the five will make it, but you could have said the same thing for Beverley, Smith and Daniels. What all three needed was a chance, which doesn’t always happen for young players on the fringes of the NBA. Far too many teams are blinded by NBA experience, bypassing more talented guys for “proven veterans”. Just as an example, at the same time the Rockets signed Beverley, the Mavs brought in Mike James to be their backup PG.

However, for teams looking to round out their bench, the upside of looking under every nook and cranny for talent is clear. Alan Anderson, Gerald Green, Chris Copeland, Anthony Parker, Pero Antic - the list of NBA rotation players who played in the European leagues grows every year. They don't cost much money and they don't cost anything in terms of assets. That's what a lot of teams don't understand - there's no shortage of professional basketball players out there.

The NBA is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to professional basketball players. By the time guys reach their prime, they are at least 3-4 seasons removed from college. Whether or not they played in the NBA, they have learned how to last as pros and have been forced to mature on and off the court. Even if we assume the top 450 in the world are in the NBA (and they aren’t), players right outside that group can improve dramatically in their mid to late 20’s 

If Canaan, Johnson, Covington, Adrien and Dorsey don't stick in Houston, they'll bring in more guys with NBA measurables and resumes that are just as good until they find some players who do. While their bench is a question mark coming into the season, my guess is they’ll figure out a mix that works by the playoffs. There's so much talent in the world there's no reason for any of the 30 NBA teams to have a bad bench. You just have to be willing to give guys a chance.

Grading The Deal: Pelicans Trade For Ömer Aşık

The Houston Rockets receive a first round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Ömer Aşık. The pick protection reported by Brian Windhorst is that Houston receives the pick if it falls anywhere from 4th to 19th. Subsequent year protection is unknown at present.

The trade for New Orleans

Aşık is a very good player and a true difference-maker on the defensive end. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, he has two huge downsides that make the trade incredibly short sighted: Aşık only has one year left before becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent and his contract calls for a substantially higher salary in the final year than his cap number.

The first fact substantially worsens the trade for New Orleans because they have no meaningful advantages to keep him beyond this season, making Aşık a rental. Beyond the small benefits in percentage raises (not a big financial difference on a non-max contract) and a fifth year the Pelicans should never offer, the best retention tool New Orleans has at their disposal is a successful season. Considering the fact that many teams are looking to clear their books for 2015 and some teams are not going to get the top targets, it stands to reason that Aşık will get overpaid on his next contract anyway.

With that combination of factors, it makes sense to evaluate the Aşık acquisition as a one year investment. He certainly makes New Orleans better for the 2014-15 season but the timing makes little sense because of how strong the top of the Western Conference will be. New Orleans finished 12th in the conference and I fully expect most if not all of those teams to be good enough to make the 50-win mark a reasonable line to even make the playoffs. In fact, the Rockets themselves likely are using this transaction to set up adding a major piece. Even if New Orleans has their dream scenario, they land somewhere in the 5-8 range in the West and likely get some positive attention and two playoff home games. Is that really worth giving up another first round pick?

That is where the balloon payment comes in. By having a cap number of $8.37 million and actually getting paid $14.9 million, the market for Aşık narrows substantially. We saw at the trade deadline that many owners simply have little interest in that kind of financial outlay and that was with at least some of the cheaper part of his contract. A thinner market means that there were less teams competing for the Rockets' center. Even then, the Pelicans gave up a likely lottery pick for one season plus zero team control of a player who will help them win but not likely enough to make any long-term difference for the franchise.

The crazy thing is that I really like the fit of Aşık on the Pelicans for this one glorious season. He can play with either Anthony Davis or Ryan Anderson and can provide the team a defensive identity even with some flawed defenders on the team. Rim protectors are pivotal in today’s NBA and there are not many better than Aşık. Unfortunately, the timing and cost of acquiring him make it the second straight year the Pelicans sacrificed future assets in an attempt to contend before they are ready for prime time.

Grade for New Orleans: D

The trade for Houston 

While Daryl Morey may have asked for the moon for Aşık in February, he got a pretty solid return for him in June with even less leverage. We can expect New Orleans to be good enough to avoid the 1-3 part of the pick protection but out of the playoffs, meaning the Rockets likely picked up a late lottery pick for one year of a player they were seemingly inevitably going to lose anyway.

Despite the fact that I will continue to think that a Dwight Howard / Ömer Aşık pairing at the two big man positions could have worked dangerously well for stretches, the Rockets now have the pieces in place to make one last major upgrade and enhance their core. Since Aşık is owed so much money this season in actual dollars, I would have been surprised if one of the teams with a desirable free agent would have been happy taking him in a sign-and-trade. Since both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would require their current team’s active involvement to acquire without cap space, that becomes a relevant consideration in terms of whether Houston would need to create cap space to bring in the final piece. As such, moving Aşık was fundamental to those hopes even though it appears no agreement with a bigger fish is clearly in the offing.

Not having Aşık this season absolutely weakens the Rockets some, especially if Dwight Howard misses time due to injury. Even if his sole value came as a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” big (which it did not), Ömer had plenty of usefulness to a Houston team gunning for a top seed in a stacked conference in a race with zero room for an extended stumble. That said, if the choice had to be made between him and any of the Rockets’ other expensive non-Lin pieces, it makes complete sense. While Morey did not get two picks for his hyped trade piece, I would rather have a pick in the late lottery than two deep firsts, especially with an owner potentially willing to spend to acquire a pick in the twenties anyway.

Trading Aşık now clears one major hurdle that would have gotten higher a week from now as teams use up their cap space on other players through free agency (particularly with his balloon payment) and getting a likely late lottery pick for it makes the move even better.

Grade for Houston: A-

Troy Daniels Rewards Rockets, Proves Detractors Wrong With Game-Winner In Game 3

In the middle of training camp in October, Troy Daniels listened to the Charlotte Bobcats’ front office inform him of his release. He was a prolific shooter at Virginia Commonwealth, a positive soul and a hard worker, and here was the Bobcats’ reasoning for cutting the undrafted Daniels: Too short, a point guard-shooting guard tweener.

For a night, Daniels justified his standing, draining three 3-pointers and the game-winning three-pointer in the Houston Rockets’ 121-116 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 on Friday night. This was Houston’s season – a 3-0 series deficit staring them all the way into an offseason filled with regret and questions surrounding coaches and players.

Everyone understood the shooting prowess in Daniels, but no one plucked him out of the NBA Development League like the Rockets in February. They signed him to a non-guaranteed contract through 2015-16, an investment to reward his play with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, whom Daniels remained with in agreement with Houston after it also released him before this season.

Two months later, Daryl Morey’s acquisition paid dividends in the most ultimate way. Daniels isn’t a pure point guard and steady defender yet, but that’s why Houston has Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley.

By releasing Ronnie Brewer to create roster space for Daniels, perhaps the Rockets feared some franchise was bound to beat them to the deadeye shooter. He was their own, too, helping implement a transformative playing style in the D-League, with an emphasis on launching three-pointers because, well, they’re worth more than two.

In the end, the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic closely monitored Daniels and had interest in him before his deal with the Rockets, leagues sources told RealGM. And yet, these Rockets were the recipients of Daniels’ 3-of-6 shooting from three-point range, honoring his four collegiate seasons and commitment to the Summer League and D-League route to the NBA.

“It’s a dream come true,” Daniels said at the interview podium after Friday's game.

The Rockets have utilized Rio Grande Valley for serious roster development and invest in the minor-league franchise to grow players for the main organization. They sell players on the Vipers’ system, the environment they’ve created with coaches.

Daniels averaged 21.5 points and made five three-pointers while attempting 12.5 with Rio Grande Valley, and this is exactly why Kevin McHale turned to the 22-year-old rookie in Game 3: his shooting is special. The Rockets had been reeling through Games 1 and 2, receiving poor performances from James Harden and the bench, but Harden went for 37 points and Lin and Daniels combined for 22 critical points on Friday.

The Trail Blazers kept coming back, and Damian Lillard was brilliant and took advantage of mismatches. They forced overtime despite trailing by double digits early in the fourth quarter, but LaMarcus Aldridge missed all three shot attempts after regulation. For the Rockets, the Blazers’ frontcourt allows them to use Dwight Howard and Omer Asik together, big men able to provide length on Aldridge.

Suddenly in overtime, Lin probed the lane out of desperation and a scramble situation, when he found a streaking Daniels wide open and aired the ball out to the 6-foot-4 guard. Without hesitation, with Aldridge closing out, Daniels rose, fired his smooth jumper and rattled in the go-ahead shot with 11 seconds left.

One by one, they all mobbed him, Harden and Chandler Parsons, Josh Powell and Beverley. The Rockets were on the brink of an upset to a younger, more inexperienced team, on the brink of a 3-0 hole, and Daniels revived the season and restored their promise in this series.

“A couple weeks ago, [Daniels] was in the D-League,” Harden told reporters. “He saved our season.”

It’s simply one jumper, people will say, but clutch shots in the postseason have enhanced careers and padded résumés in the past, and they’ll continue to.

An inch too short, Daniels had heard in training camp. For him, Friday was all part of his goals. This was his job. Other teams paid close attention as Daniels’ three-point totals flourished in the D-League, but no one made the signing. Season on the line in Game 3, and the Houston Rockets found their hero: Troy Daniels.

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