Chandler Parsons is intrinsic to the Houston Rockets' offensive success. Without a player like him, defenses would key in more heavily on James Harden and double-team Dwight Howard more aggressively. Without a player like Parsons, Houston's fast break attack would lose a lot of steam. Without a player like Parsons, the Rockets wouldn't really be able to afford to pay so many other guys so much.
Parsons is scoring 17 points per game efficiently, shooting 56 percent on two-pointers and almost 40 percent on threes. He's a mediocre rebounder for his position and a straight-up bad rebounder for his height. Defense is notoriously hard to judge, but Parsons doesn't seem particularly adept yet at stopping opponents despite possessing the tools. (The plus-minus numbers back this up, for what it's worth.) Parsons appears to be a great fit in the locker room with Harden and Howard and seems like a favorite coup of GM Daryl Morey.
The best part: he costs less than a million bucks this season, and he's under contract for $964,000 next year. But there's a catch, and it presents a conundrum that will shape Morey's offseason work to bolster the Rockets.
That $964,000 due in 2014-15 is a team option. If the Rockets pick up that option, Parsons will become an unrestricted free agent in July, 2015. If the Rockets decline the option, Parsons becomes a free agent in July 2014 -- a restricted free agent. That means that the Rockets will be able to match any offer sheet Parsons signs. Teams don't get that luxury with unrestricted free agents. Based on what other players of Parsons' age and scoring output typically get, Parsons can expect to sign something like a four-year, $36-40 million deal.
So here's the question Morey has to answer. Does the risk of potentially losing Parsons in 2015 outweigh the benefit of delaying his payday one year?
Morey actually addressed the issue in a recent talk with season ticket holders, saying that Parsons will make a lot of money. Morey has also recently said that the Rockets' top two players are championship material, but that the team lacks a third banana at that level. But Morey didn't show his hand on whether he's willing to let Parsons walk. Based on the Rockets' current roster, signing Parsons to anything above the mid-level exception would cause Houston to flirt with the luxury tax line in 2014-15. Anything around the $8-10 million he's more likely to make would put the Rockets as currently constructed into the tax. Those concerns go away in 2015-16 as Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik come off the books.
More on Chandler Parsons
More on Chandler Parsons
The issue comes down to from where Parsons' value stems. At $1 million, he's a great value. At $9 million, he's not a value if he's producing like he currently does. If he's not a value at that price, is he replaceable? Few players in their early to mid-20s score as much and as efficiently as Parsons. There aren't a lot of obvious replacement candidates out there; certainly Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, who play behind Parsons, can't score quite like him. But if you lower your efficiency requirements to open it up, you'll find that they are a decent number of young forwards who can score at a good rate above league average efficiency. (Free Brandan Wright!)
Small forward is a strange position because it's so stratified. The two best players in the league are small forwards, but you can find a dozen teams (including a number of playoff squads) with underwhelming starters at the position. Parsons skews toward the better end, but he's nowhere close to the top. And while he's a valuable player for Houston, he's valuable primarily because he is basically free.
To me, it's an obvious choice: You keep the basically free producer basically free as long as possible. The worst that could happen is that Parsons walks in 2015, when the Rockets expect to have a nice chunk of cap space, be in the upper echelon of the West and expect a solid free agent class. (We're already hearing about teams with 2014 cap space -- like the Lakers -- attempting to defer it to 2015.) Plus, if the Rockets avoid the risk by declining the player option this summer, there's no guarantee other teams will act sanely. What if a club makes Parsons some ridiculous offer, like $48 million over four years? If the Rockets don't match, they will have given up a basically free year of Parsons for nothing. That's a worse result than losing him in 2015.
If the decision bugs Parsons or his agent Dan Fegan, then Parsons can have an epic 2014-15 and walk out to $40 million plus from someone else in 2015. The Rockets will likely be able to survive the loss.
In the meantime, keeping Parsons cheap in 2014-15 allows Morey to potentially add a piece (depending on what he wants to or can do with Asik and Lin) in his quest to get Howard, Harden and Kevin McHale a championship. Paying Parsons earlier to remove the risk of losing him doesn't help get the Rockets any further in 2014-15. Houston needs to swing for the fences early and often, and playing risk management with Parsons' contract isn't worth it.