It feels weird to call the Houston Rockets 2019 season a failure. They made the second round of the playoffs and pushed the eventual Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors to six games. But a year after missing a Finals berth because of a tough shooting night (and a major injury), it felt like an opportunity was squandered. However, the Rockets got another MVP-caliber season from James Harden, and were considered contenders as soon as they recovered from a slow start, but that has become the standard for the Rockets.
Now, Houston transitions to an offseason where there have been reports that players are unhappy and the team has limited resources with which to improve. Despite assurances from general manager Daryl Morey that the team would make changes, and Morey’s ability to make a lot out of very little, this is a major challenge for the Rockets going forward.
Starting with the obvious: it’s going to be very hard to move Chris Paul, even if Houston is so inclined. He’s 34 years old and owed over $124 million through the 21-22 season. There are some obvious signs of decline in his game as well as continuing injury concerns. Even if a team viewed Paul as the final piece to a championship contender, matching his $38.5 salary in a trade would likely gut the acquiring team of a considerable amount of their depth. Add to it that both Paul and the Rockets say they have no desire to end their partnership and it’s pretty easy to see him remaining with Houston.
That leaves Clint Capela and Eric Gordon as the most likely candidates to be moved to change the dynamic. Capela is still young at 25 and signed to a team-friendly deal, while Gordon is on an expiring contract. The Rockets could either combine their salaries to bring in one high-priced star to team with Paul and Harden, or they could spread that money around to bring in some of the depth they sorely need.
As it stands today, Houston has their starting five of Harden, Paul, Gordon, Capela and P.J. Tucker all signed for the coming season, and veteran backup big man Nene will likely opt in. The team also has a bundle of players on non-guaranteed contracts, but other than possibly Gary Clark, none really projects to be a rotation player on a playoff team anytime soon. They only have Non-Bird rights for Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried, who could both garner bigger offers elsewhere this summer. Danuel House, who provided some wing minutes last year, is a restricted free agent the Rockets will hope to retain on the cheap.
That leaves several roster spots to fill and not much to fill them with. Houston will likely have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception available to them at about $5.7 million. This should be enough to add some additional depth in terms of one player, or it could be split up among two players. After that, it’s going to have to be minimum exception contracts for the Rockets, or trades of the players mentioned above.
The good news for Houston is that this is a summer where plenty of players should be available to sign to veteran minimum deals. Around 200 players will be free agents this summer, or nearly 40% of the NBA. Half the league has cap space, but that money will go very quickly. After the first couple of tiers of free agents are signed, most teams will be capped out and working with exceptions. Because the Rockets are positioned as contenders, they should be able to land productive players for at least the coming season.
Houston has needs up and down their bench, so they’ll be active with all positions. Players like Kyle O’Quinn, Kosta Koufos, or Richaun Holmes would be solid fits behind Capela. The Rockets could also take a chance on reclamation projects like Dragan Bender or Trey Lyles for some frontcourt depth.
On the wing, don’t count out a return for Gerald Green. He’s fit in well in Mike D’Antoni’s system the last couple of years. They could also take a chance on Mario Hezonja, Darius Miller or Thabo Sefolosha for additional depth.
Finally, it seems more imperative than usual to find a quality backup to Paul, given his age and injury history. Harden can be the primary ballhandler, so that makes finding a backup point guard more of a defensive issues than an offensive one. While bringing back Patrick Beverley would be the ideal fit, he’s going to be far too expensive and is unlikely to return to Houston. Someone like T.J. McConnell could fit in well, or the team could see if they can sign someone like Cory Joseph.
One other thing Houston should consider is re-signing Iman Shumpert to a bigger contract than it might seem like he is worth on its face. Because Shumpert is one of the few free agents that the Rockets have Bird rights for, they could re-sign him for $12 million to $15 million for the upcoming season and, in effect, make him a living traded player exception. This would allow Houston to package his salary in a deal down the line to help bring in additional help. They could also use Shumpert as part of a sign-and-trade, should the opportunity present itself. This situation is far less about Shumpert’s ability as a player, than making him into a salary-matching asset. That’s harsh in a way, but something Houston has to consider and would obviously benefit Shumpert financially.
Morey promised changes this summer, but it’s a little hard to see where those changes are going to come from. Barring a dramatic move for Jimmy Butler, the Rockets are sort of stuck. The hard thing for the fans to swallow is that the cap sheet doesn’t clear up considerably for at least a few more years. Eventually, Houston could really cash in by trading Harden, but that’s not something they’ll consider while he’s in the peak years of his career. That means that despite promises to the contrary, things are a lot more likely to look the same for the Rockets than they are different.
Guaranteed Contracts (5): Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (5): Chris Chiozza, Gary Clark, Deyonta Davis, Michael Frazier, Isaiah Hartenstein
Potential Free Agents (8): Trevon Duval (RFA – Two-Way), Vincent Edwards (RFA – Two-Way), Kenneth Faried (UFA), Gerald Green (UFA), Nene (UFA – Player Option), Danuel House (RFA), Austin Rivers (UFA), Iman Shumpert (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($122,741): Troy Williams
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: None. $15.9 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $50.4 million over