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Why the Rockets traded for every fringe NBA player known to man

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This was an incredibly creative way to make the Chris Paul trade work under NBA rules.

Houston Rockets Introduce Jeremy Lin Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets spent Wednesday doing two very different things. One of those things was a blockbuster deal to bring Chris Paul to town. The other was a mad rush to acquire every fringe roster player under the sun in exchange for cash considerations.

In the span of a few hours, the Rockets took on DeAndre Liggins from the Mavericks, Ryan Kelly from the Hawks, Tim Quarterman from the Blazers, Darrun Hilliard from the Pistons, and Shawn Long from the 76ers. On Thursday, Houston dealt for Jared Uthoff of the Dallas Mavericks. More moves like that could be on the way, as other teams rush to get in on what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst called a “salary-cap manipulation masterpiece” by the Rockets.

Ever heard of those guys? Not many folks have. To get them, all the Rockets needed to send out was sweet, sweet cash:

So what are the Rockets up to, anyway? Why are they suddenly so interested in collecting as many fringe NBA players as possible?

It’s related to Chris Paul.

The Rockets used some combination of these players to complete the Paul trade

NBA rules state that teams that are over the cap must craft trades where the salaries are within 120 percent of each other. The Rockets operated as an over-the-cap team to acquire Paul because they were never going to get far enough under the cap this summer to sign him outright in free agency.

But the basic structure of the Paul deal — Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and a 2018 first-round pick — did not offer enough salary to meet the 125 percent threshold. Paul was opting in to a $24.2 million contract next year, plus he was entitled to a 15 percent trade kicker that bumped his salary up further. (He ultimately elected to waive most of it to help the Rockets out). Beverley, Williams, and Dekker only add up to $15.3 million in salary, which is well below the 120 percent threshold.

Houston needed to add more outgoing money to complete the deal. They could do this by attaching another big salary, but they actually want to keep those players around. So, the Rockets adopted a different approach: Aggregate as many tiny salaries as possible, preferably ones that are non-guaranteed so the Clippers could simply waive the player upon arrival with no cap hit.

Which NBA players have tiny, non-guaranteed salaries? Fringe NBA players!

The minimum cap figure for an NBA player is projected to be about $543,000, depending on where the final salary projection falls. The Rockets already had two such players on their roster in Isaiah Taylor and Kyle Wiltjer. Both players have deals that are completely unguaranteed. Chinanu Onuaku also has a minimum salary, though it is guaranteed.

But even combining those three players doesn’t get the Rockets to the 120 percent threshold once you account for Paul’s trade kicker. Hence, the trade for Kelly. Hence, the trade for Quarterman. Hence, the trade for Liggins. Hence, the trade for Hillard. Hence the trade for Long. All but Liggins have non-guaranteed minimum salaries, so the Clippers can take them in during the trade, then immediately waive them with no penalty.

Ultimately, the Rockets included Wiltjer, Hillard, and Liggins in this trade. The other newcomers are still on the Rockets’ roster. We’ll explain why in a minute.

What did those teams get in return? Sweet, sweet cash (plus, in the 76ers’ case, a second-round pick that’s probably heavily protected). NBA rules allow teams to include up to $3.5 million cash each year to throw in trades. It’s unclear how much money is changing hands in each individual deal, but it’s likely enough to cover the salaries the Hawks, Pistons, Blazers, 76ers, and Mavericks were going to pay Kelly, Hillard, Quarterman, Long, and Liggins anyway.

A few-hundred-thousand-dollar cap hit here, a few-hundred-thousand-dollar cap hit there, and suddenly the Rockets had enough money to match salary in a trade for Paul, especially since Paul agreed to waive most of his 15 percent trade kicker.

In the end, Houston didn’t need all of these players to make this deal happen. So, what of the minimum-salaried players left over? What of Kelly, Quarterman, and Long?

One option is for the Rockets to keep them. Another, though, is to use them later on to help grease the wheels of another big trade. Like, say, Paul George or Carmelo Anthony?

Those guys make a lot of money, so the Rockets will need to get creative to cobble together enough outgoing salary. Theoretically, they could use Ryan Anderson ($19.6 million), Eric Gordon ($12.9 million), and Trevor Ariza ($7.4 million) to anchor deals for Anthony or George. But if the Rockets fall just short, they can also now use those three leftover minimum-salaried fringe NBA players to make up the gaps.

Everyone wins! Well, except the players themselves, who have to be rerouted over and over to satisfy the whims of obscure NBA rules.