It’s been five weeks since the embarrassing finish to the Rockets season, and if there is one thing we’ve learned since a 40-point flameout at home in game six of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs it’s that the Rockets may be further away from winning a championship than we thought on that dreadful Thursday night. Now, with the season over and the start of free agency rapidly approaching, Daryl Morey has his work cut out for him in what could be the defining summer of the James Harden era.
Despite having nine of their top 10 players from last season under contract for 2017-18, the Rockets will go into the offseason under the salary cap. If Morey declines the $1.3 million options on Isaiah Taylor and Kyle Wiltjer along with renouncing the rights to Nene and Troy Williams, the Rockets could be somewhere between $10-$12 million under cap. That doesn’t get you a star, but it gets you a solid rotation player, and the Rockets still have their mid-level exception for when they do go over the cap. That gives them another $6 million to spend, but they can still carve out more space if Morey, as he tends to do, looks to take a big swing in the market.
The most drastic move the Rockets general manager can make is to find a team to take Ryan Anderson’s contract that has three years and a smidge over $60 million left on it. Anderson had a good first season in Houston and was really everything the Rockets could’ve asked for, but as we saw in the postseason, where his production dipped making him a bigger liability at the defensive end, it’s hard to win big when he’s your second highest paid player. It’s doubtful a team would be willing to absorb the entire contract without giving the Rockets any salary in return, but he is their biggest trade chip, and due to his bloated salary he would bring back the biggest return whether in a sign and trade, or a swap of veterans.
Moving Anderson isn’t the only way to create cap space, though. Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams will both enter the final year of their contract’s next fall, but neither salary (Ariza: $7.4 million, Williams: $7 million) creates enough space to add a significant upgrade, though, because he is their fourth guard, Williams is basically the most expendable of the Rockets’ rotation players. Because Ariza’s salary is so small and the wing talent in the NBA is so sparse, it’s impossible to upgrade at his spot by just clearing out his salary. Otto Porter is about to get a max contract as a restricted free agent, and at least for next season, I’d rather have Ariza.
If Morey chooses to do nothing and decides to enter training camp with pretty the same roster he ended the Spurs series with, he’d technically have more cap space to work with a summer from now, but in reality, he wouldn’t. The Rockets currently have $75 million committed to the 2018-19 roster, but that number will go up if they elect to extend Clint Capela’s contract, something Morey indicated he’d be interested in doing this summer before he hits restricted free agency, the Rockets could be over the cap or right at it, and that’s before they figure out what to do with Ariza, Williams and Montrezl Harrell, a restricted free agent after next season. All three would have cap holds, essentially wiping out that theoretical cap space, so this could very well be the final time in the James Harden era that the Rockets go into an offseason under the salary cap, which brings us to the elephant in the room ad why this offseason is so important for the Rockets future: Harden could bolt.
He can become a free agent after the ‘18-‘19 season, and while it seems highly unlikely today that he’d leave with the prospect of a super-max contract staring him square in the face, but a lot can change in two years time. Who knows what the NBA will look like in two summers. This could very well be the last time Daryl Morey is able to make major additions to his roster before Harden hits free agency for the first time in his career. He did a wonderful job of rebuilding from the Dwight Howard nightmare last summer, but he can’t rest on that. Now Morey’s got to put the Rockets in position to take another step forward.