This first appeared in the Sept. 3 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
The Houston Rockets came within a few (OK, many) missed three-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals of playing for the 2018 NBA title.
After a summer full of cost-cutting moves – including last week’s trade in which they shipped Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton to the Phoenix Suns for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss – the Rockets are going to have to turn several cheap lemons into lemonade to take the next step.
It’s hard to look at the way this summer has played out any other way. At every turn, the Rockets have cut costs. They declined to retain either Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute, two critical components of last season’s 65-win team, instead watching Ariza sign a one-year deal for $15 million with the Suns and Mbah a Moute going to the Clippers for a one-year deal worth $4.3 million. Trading Anderson, along with the draft rights to Melton, saved roughly $3 million.
Meanwhile, the players Houston brought in – James Ennis, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams – have all been signed for the veteran’s minimum. All of it seems to point in one direction: GM Daryl Morey working under a mandate from new owner Tilman Fertitta to keep costs down.
Not that Fertitta was willing to cede that point in an interview with ESPN’s Tim MacMahon at the Las Vegas Summer League in mid-July.
“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,” Fertitta said at the time. “So it is what it is. … It never even came up in any discussion.”
In this case, though, actions speak louder than words.
It is understandable that Houston wasn’t willing to match Ariza’s balloon payment from the Suns – especially when, as I wrote in this space two weeks ago, it would be no surprise if Ariza is eventually bought out by what should be a Suns team out of the playoff hunt in the West, and he winds up back in Houston for the stretch run.
Not keeping Mbah a Moute is harder to justify. The only potential reason against matching the offer he received from the Clippers – which Houston could’ve done using a portion of its taxpayer’s mid-level exception – is a concern that his shoulder, which he dislocated twice last season, is a long-term problem. But, even if it is, the fact Houston didn’t use any of their MLE this summer is telling about its approach this summer.
Anthony was the biggest name addition, but his signing comes with its own problems. Playing in a supporting role for the first time in his career last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he struggled mightily. In particular, he was a sieve defensively – something that will undoubtedly be exposed if Houston finds itself in another head-to-head matchup with the Golden State Warriors in the West finals next spring.
After seeing those two teams viciously attack the weak link on the other side of the floor for seven games, there’s little doubt Golden State would do the same to Anthony any time he’s on the court. It’s hard to see how Houston could anything do to make him less of a weak spot.
Ennis could be an inspired find – a long, athletic wing who is the type of player Coach Mike D’Antoni has been able to coax into a higher shooting percentage. But even if Ennis works out, the Rockets still felt like they were a man short during last year’s playoffs. It appears, at best, they remain one man short. (It’s hard to see Carter-Williams, who is now on his fourth team in four years, doing anything to change that fact either.)
That brings us to last week’s trade. No, Anderson wasn’t going to provide much help in a potential rematch with the Warriors. Remember, it was Golden State’s 14-2 run in less than three minutes in the second half of Game 7 – a run that came with Anderson on the court – that helped flip the game in the Warriors’ favor.
One player who at least showed the potential for playing in such a setting, though, was Melton. Yes, it was Summer League, and it is always dangerous to take away too much from the league’s annual television show in the desert, but Melton was one of the stars of this year’s edition. He averaged 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals in five games and flashed the kind of athleticism that could make him a factor in the postseason. It was a performance that backed up strong statistical projections for Melton’s game, which were important given his season at USC was cut short because of an FBI investigation.
But rather than signing Melton to a long-term deal, and potentially having him grow into a key contributor, Houston used him as a chip to get Phoenix to take on Anderson’s onerous deal, allowing the Rockets to save that $3 million this season and, assuming they don’t pick up the fourth-year option on Chriss’s deal, more than $6 million in 2019-20. That is before potentially stretch-waiving the final year of Knight’s contract, which would allow Houston to save north of $16 million next season compared to what it was going to pay Anderson in his final year.
Perhaps D’Antoni can work his magic with one or both players. Knight was a productive player earlier in his career, but his trajectory stalled after he was traded to Phoenix at that year’s trade deadline, and a torn ACL last summer caused him to miss all of last season. Perhaps he can be a more productive backup point guard option behind Paul than Carter-Williams (who, ironically, was part of that same 2016 trade, as he replaced Knight in Milwaukee), but that is a low bar. Chriss, meanwhile, has the athleticism to be effective as a switch defender in Houston’s scheme but has yet to show the consistency or awareness on the court – at either end – to capitalize on it.
There is a scenario in which this all works out. And, to be fair, it’s not like Morey and the Rockets haven’t been here before. Ariza was seen as a discount replacement for Chandler Parsons and worked out swimmingly. Mbah a Moute was signed for the minimum a year ago. Gerald Green was signed off the scrap heap and turned into a productive role player. Perhaps they can prove their doubters wrong yet again.
This time, however, Houston was on the cusp of winning a title. And, rather than going all out in pursuit of one, the Rockets appear content to maintain the status quo while saving a little money.
If it works, the Rockets will look like geniuses and be hailed as such. But if it doesn’t? Well, those cheap lemons that Houston has collected this summer won’t taste very good.
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