The Houston Rockets came this close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. They had the better record, home-court advantage in a Game 7, and a double-digit halftime lead in Games 6 and 7. They just couldn’t get it done.
Now, it’s worth revisiting what was hinted at earlier this season: what if they got into the LeBron James sweepstakes?
Don’t laugh. This is a possibility, though probably a removed one.
Those rumors were fed in December by an excellent column from USA TODAY’s Sam Amick, who laid out the stakes and explained why James would consider Houston. The reasoning makes sense: they’re a great team, he’s the best player in the league, and they employ his good friend Paul.
This is all speculation until the postseason is over and the parties in question know exactly where they stand. But let’s say we do reach July and James does want to join the Rockets. It’s a great idea, but Houston will need to use every trick in the book to fit such a scenario under their salary cap.
A look at Rockets’ cap space next summer
Houston will go into the offseason with eight players under contract and a little less than $80 million guaranteed. (Zhou Qi has a non-guaranteed contract.) The NBA’s projected salary cap is $101 million, and James’ first-year max salary would be $35.4 million under that projection.
However, it’s more complicated than that.
In these James-to-Houston scenarios, we’re imagining that the following players are untouchable: James Harden, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and Paul. Those four players make up the Houston core, and that’s why James would choose to join the Rockets in the first place.
Capela can be signed over the cap, but Paul has a massive cap hold, money that is temporarily applied to the team’s salary outlay in order for the Rockets to retain the right to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him. (This is commonly known as Bird Rights.) They can renounce that cap hold ($39 million) and lose his Bird Rights, and they can re-sign him for any amount to make the hold go away. However, until they do one or the other, that cap hold effectively makes the Rockets an over-the-cap team.
Here’s what it looks like on paper.
HOUSTON ROCKETS 2018-19 SALARY CAP
|FREE AGENTS||CAP HOLDS|
|Mbah a Moute||$1,544,951|
|Roster charges (4)||$2,328,720|
|PROJ. SALARY CAP||$101,000,000|
If Houston went scorched earth, renounced or traded every player except the untouchable ones, and waived their non-guaranteed players, they could manage about $8 million in cap space. That’s, uh, not enough to sign James.
IF THE ROCKETS GO SCORCHED EARTH
|FREE AGENTS||CAP HOLDS|
|Roster charges (4)||$4,657,440|
|PROJ. SALARY CAP||$101,000,000|
Can the Rockets successfully trade Ryan Anderson, P.J. Tucker, Nene, and Chinanu Onuaku while taking no salary back? That’s a tough ask even for Daryl Morey’s genius, but this hypothetical space we’ve created is governed by Kevin Garnett so anything is possible. (Sorry, that should read: “AAAANYTHING IS POSSSSIBBBBBLEEEE.”)
Even then, it’s not close to reach James’ first-year salary needed to sign him as a max free agent. James might take a small discount, but not one requiring him to give up tens of millions.
Unless Morey can pull another rabbit out of his hat, here are the options we think Houston has.
Option 1: Split ~$47 million between Paul and James
The first-year maximum salary for veterans who have been in the league for 10-plus years is 35 percent of the salary cap. There’s virtually no way for Paul and James to both receive that ($35.4 million) on a team also paying James Harden’s enormous contract.
However, if the Rockets renounced Paul’s salary cap hold and successfully went scorched earth, they would have $47 million in cap space. That could be $30 million for James and $17 million for Paul, or a split that’s closer to even should the two friends agree to it.
This requires Houston to successfully trade or release all non-essential figures without bringing any salary back, which will be extremely difficult.
But let’s say they jettison all except Nene, who remains at $3.6 million. Would Paul agree to $14 million while James remains at $30 million? Could James be convinced to cut another million or two off his annual salary so the Rockets could keep useful minimum-salary players around?
The more money they sacrifice, the easier this becomes. But there’s no indication that either player is willing to sacrifice this much.
Option 2: Trade Eric Gordon or Clint Capela
Houston could free up even more space by dealing one or their two key role players, Gordon or Capela. The Rockets will have to pay Capela well next summer, but his cap hold is only $5 million, so they can wait to finalize his contract last. That’s useful, and the Rockets also have leverage since Capela is a restricted free agent. It’s doubtful that Houston would even consider renouncing him for a marginal amount of added cap space.
Gordon, on the other hand, has emerged as a lethal “switch-buster” and a player whose three-point shooting really personifies Houston’s identity. The Rockets would be losing a crucial part of their offense if they dealt him — and remember, they can’t take much or any salary back in return or it defeats the purpose — but everything might be on the table if it means signing LeBron James.
Without Gordon’s $13.5 million, the Rockets could sign James to a contract starting at his $35.4 million max and Paul to one that starts upwards of $30 million.
Option 3: Trade for James just like they did Paul
James has a $35.6 million player option for next season, which puts him in a situation like Paul’s last summer. Paul unexpectedly opted into the final year of his contract to facilitate a complicated trade with the Clippers. What if James did the same, assuming he had a guarantee from Cleveland’s front office that they would trade him to Houston?
If the Rockets completed this trade after the draft, they could theoretically include a freshly signed Capela, Ryan Anderson, and first-round draft picks from 2019, 2021, and 2023. They wouldn’t have to pull off the scorched earth strategy on their role players.
However, this option requires a lot to go right. The Rockets would need the Cavaliers to be cooperative while trading the best player in the league, and Cleveland would need to value that offer, too. Those first-round picks will be late ones. Anderson is overpaid even if he keeps up his strong play. Capela is a good young player, but Cleveland won’t start rebuilding around a slightly undersized traditional center.
Option 4: Sign-and-trade for James
If James opts out, like we expect him to, then he could be sign-and-traded to the Rockets. Cleveland would have less leverage and presumably require less in return, but at that point, why would they cooperate at all? The Cavaliers haven’t given up on James returning to his hometown squad. They won’t willingly help him leave unless they were certain he wouldn’t be returning, and maybe not even then.
Even if they are, the Rockets will have limited flexibility due to sign-and-trade rules that prevent them from having a team salary more than $6 million above the luxury tax under any circumstances.
Because of all of this, James to Houston would be Morey’s magnum opus
It’s not easy or simple for the Rockets to acquire James, but they could decide the difficult, winding path might be worth it all the same. If Morey could pull this off, it would be his Mona Lisa.
That’s asking many variables to fall into place. James has to be OK with picking Houston, Paul has to be OK taking a steep discount, the Rockets would have to decide James is worth gutting their depth, and then they would actually have to succeed at going scorched earth to free up the necessary money.
Morey’s trade for Paul was the most complicated front office maneuver I’ve ever seen, involving a half dozen trades for fringe prospects that were ultimately lumped into a single package that brought Paul to Houston. When viewed through thick front office nerd glasses, it was sensational. When viewed through anything else, it was confusing as hell and vaguely magical that it worked. No one should doubt Morey after that.
I’d love to see James in Houston paired up with Paul and Harden. That team may not be favored against Golden State, but it would be damn close.
But remember that player movement doesn’t happen magically in this league. Houston would love to sign James, but actually doing so is much more complicated.
This story was originally published in December and updated after Houston’s Game 7 playoff loss to the Warriors.