Free agency has been a bummer for the Houston Rockets so far. The winningest team in the league a year ago watched a starter in Trevor Ariza walk away for a one-year, money-driven deal to a rebuilding Suns team. Then his backup, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, fled too. While the Golden State Warriors are even stronger after signing DeMarcus Cousins, their biggest threat has been diminished. It’s painful to watch.
A team that was 24 minutes away from advancing to the Finals needed to merely retain the pieces that got it there. Instead, it appears they’ve lost the urgency to win now.
What’s stood in the way for Houston to retain its pieces is the luxury tax, which is the NBA’s method of controlling how much money teams spend on talent. Once teams hit a pre-determined tax level each year, they pay an additional tax that increases dependent on how much over they go that tax level. The cost could rise into the hundreds of millions quickly, which deters owners, to some degree, from stacking super teams.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has suggested the luxury tax wasn’t the problem, telling ESPN, “We know we’re going to be in the luxury tax, and if you want to compete for a championship, I feel like unless you get real lucky, you’re going to be in the luxury tax. So it is what it is. ... It never even came up in any discussion.”
But with the lowly signings of Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis, and the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony for the veteran’s minimum, it’s the only logical reason for losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute.
The offseason is still flowing and general manager Daryl Morey is great at his job, but what’s on the table now is far from exciting. It’s hard to see how Houston can maintain its same success from last year.
Fortunately the team did agree to a five-year, $90 million deal with Clint Capela, or this offseason could’ve ended worse. But fans shouldn’t be thrilled by their team’s offseason moves.
The Rockets lost important production from last year and haven’t replaced it
Though we might remember Ariza as one of the many Rockets who couldn’t connect on a single three-point shot to beat the Warriors in Game 7, there’s no denying his importance on both sides of the ball. A three-and-D wing who was tasked with defending any opponents’ best slasher, Ariza was essential to the Rockets success, on and off the court. Yet the Rockets let him walk for a one-year, $15 million payout with the Suns.
Why did Houston, just inches away from reaching the Finals last month, let him AND Mbah a Moute sign elsewhere, aside from fear of paying too much in luxury tax fees? Were both players looking for long-term deals? Are the Rockets conceding that the years after 2018-19 are more realistic to win a title? Do they think Ennis, Carter-Williams, Anthony, and second-round draft pick DeAnthony Melton can adequately replace Ariza and Mbah a Moute? None of those possibilities seems especially promising, which leaves money as the only logical conclusion.
To be fair, the price tag would have been hefty. But if there’s any time to cough up the money, it’s when you’re this close to the Finals.
Using Spotrac estimates, had the Rockets signed Ariza to a deal starting at $15 million deal like he got from the Suns, signed Michael Carter-Williams to the minimum, not signed James Ennis or Carmelo Anthony, signed Melton to a deal worth $1.3 million annually, waived Zhou Qhi and Vincent Edwards and let the rest of their unrestricted free agents go, they’d have paid an estimated $58.9 million in luxury tax. For reference, the Golden State Warriors are estimated to pay $50.3 million in luxury tax next season, according to Spotrac.
Instead, with Anthony signing for the league minimum and Melton signs for $1.3 million in the first year of his contract, the Rockets stand to pay an estimate of $19.8 million in luxury tax.
So yes, Ariza did cost more than $15 million when factoring the luxury tax, closer to $39.1 million more. But if there’s a time to pay, it’s now.
Houston’s additions have been underwhelming
With the Rockets cap-locked with big investments in Chris Paul, James Harden, and Ryan Anderson (oops), they have limited means to replace the players they’ve lost. So far the team’s landed below replacement-level talents Ennis and Carter-Williams, along with Anthony, who played like it last year.
Even signing these talents at the minimum feels like an awful move. Adrian Wojnarowksi reported that there is a chance Anthony will come of the bench, but there has been no word that Anthony himself is okay with that.
Carmelo Anthony isn’t a reasonable Trevor Ariza replacement
Everything that made Ariza the perfect fit is what will make Anthony an awful one. A ball-dominant, inefficient scorer with a low defensive motor is the kind of player an advanced-metric savant like Morey usually avoids.
As we saw in OKC, Anthony isn’t the player of old, bottoming out in his age-34 season and bristling at the perfectly logical thought that he should come off the bench. Maybe the Rockets will be the team to convince him a change is needed, but that is yet to be seen.
Channeled to a spot-up role around Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony scored a career-low 16 points on a career-low 40 percent shooting from the field, including a career-low 36 percent from deep. Like he has for most of his career, he defended poorly. This is the exact role the Rockets would have him fill, except with even more standing around and even more defensive stress.
Does Houston really think it can get by without its best defensive wings? Does the team expect Anthony or Ennis to defend Kevin Durant or LeBron James?
Maybe, just maybe, the Rockets have a trick up their sleeves.
As things stand, there’s no reason to believe Houston has a better chance of beating Golden State next year. With the Warriors gaining Cousins, their chances are actually way worse.
But we’ve doubted Morey before — most notably after losing Chandler Parsons to Mark Cuban and the Mavericks — and that’s worked itself out and then some. The 2018 Executive of the Year has earned some benefit of the doubt. Maybe a suitor for Anderson comes into play to shake up the depth chart. Maybe it’s something we can’t see just yet, like the CP3 trade from last year.
But on paper, this summer has been ugly for the Rockets. A team that was a step away from glory last year has taken one in the opposite direction.