Ready For Takeoff?
How the Rockets are positioning themselves to be dominant once again.
by Leo Sepkowitz / @LeoSepkowitz
It would be easy to argue that the Rockets had one of the NBA’s worst offseasons.
In an effort to get their hands on as many picks and as much money as they possibly could, they traded point guard Kyle Lowry, waived forward Luis Scola via the amnesty clause and allowed Goran Dragic to walk to Phoenix.
Then they traded small forward Chase Budinger—who’s a little better than you think he is—to the Timerwolves for, you guessed it, a draft pick. They also sign-and-traded Courtney Lee to Boston rather than pay him. Combined, those five guys averaged 62.5 points per game last season. The Rockets as a whole put up a shade over 98.
Not to mention they dealt Samuel Dalembert right before the Draft and sent Marcus Camby to the Knicks in a sign-and-trade. Scola, Dalembert and Camby were the only guys on the team who averaged more than five boards last year. Lowry and Dragic accounted for 56 percent of the team’s assists. That’s a lot of production to replace, and striking out in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes made matters that much worse.
But here is where the Rockets deserve credit—they bounced back.
Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin were both young talents instrumental to their respective teams’ success last season. They were both restricted free agents, which means that their old team could match any offer they receive. Houston offered each player contracts worth roughly $5 million per season in the first two years with a jump to $15 million in the third season. Chicago and New York, both already dealing with luxury tax issues, declined to match.
Was roughly $25 million too much to offer Asik—a career 3 ppg scorer who played over 30 minutes just twice last season? Maybe. But there’s no denying Asik’s defensive ability, and if they want to be serious in the West, they’ll need a big man who is strong defensively and on the glass.
You could poke holes in the logic behind signing Lin, too. He’s a year removed from averaging under 3 points per contest and, oh yeah, is coming off of knee surgery. He’s a roll of the dice, but a worthy one. His impact on the Knicks last season was incredible, and they looked lost without him in the postseason. He improved Tyson Chandler’s game greatly (career-high FG% for TC), and maybe he can do the same for Asik, who similarly hangs under the basket and never demands the ball.
But enough about those two. They also picked three times in the first round, at 12, 16 and 18. They used their first pick on Jeremy Lamb—Kevin Martin’s clear replacement—awkward. Lamb averaged nearly 18 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor last season for UConn. At times he was too passive and didn’t call for the ball, but he’s an excellent scorer when he wants to be. He’s had a very solid preseason so far, and with enough playing time, he should turn into a productive wing player.
They made an interesting pick at 16. Houston grabbed Royce White, a guy who did it all for Iowa State. He’s 6-8, 270, but really plays as something of a point-forward. He averaged 13.5 points, 9.3 boards, 5 assists, 1 block and 1 steal while knocking down shots at a 53.4 percent clip last season. His fear of flying is bizarre, but his game is unique. It will be fascinating to watch whether he can continue contributing across the board as he transitions into the League. He’s struggled so far in the preseason, drawing concerns about his ability to play well without the ball.
Their third first-round pick was used on forward Terrence Jones. After averaging roughly 16 points, 9 boards, 2 blocks and a steal in his freshman season at Kentucky, nearly all of Jones’ numbers dipped last season (only his field-goal percentage went up). But he was on one of the greatest college teams of all time and had to contend with the likes of Anthony Davis and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist for touches. He’s a versatile player with a decent mid-range game, and with Scola gone, he should shoulder real minutes early. He dropped 20 points on the Mavericks in his pre-season debut.
On top of those five, they also have Patrick Patterson—a lottery pick in 2010 and, like Jones, a former Kentucky guy—as well as Donatas Motiejunas—the 20th overall pick in last year’s Draft. Patterson has been productive when he gets minutes, but his playing time has always fluctuated. He can score and rebound, and is likely to begin the season as Houston’s starting 4. It’s reasonable to expect numbers in the ballpark 15 and 8 if he can keep the starting gig.
Motiejunas is an interesting player. The 22-year-old from Lithuania (apologies for Motiejunas’ incorrect heritage—Ed.) is a true 7-footer, but can stretch the floor and has pretty good speed. He’s averaging around 10 points and 5 boards through five pre-season games while shooting 40 percent from deep. He should be a useful piece in the Rockets rotation early on.
Chandler Parsons, a second-round pick last season, shouldn’t be forgotten, either. In 63 games last season (57 starts), he averaged nearly 10 points and 5 boards to go along with a three, a steal and half a block per game. That’s excellent production from a rookie selected 38th overall, and he should improve this year with a full training camp and regular schedule (he had neither last season because of the lockout).
That’s not to mention Marcus Morris or JaJuan Johnson—a couple of former first-round picks who haven’t yet made a splash but are more than talented enough to do it.
Houston has an incredible amount of young frontcourt players (Patterson, Jones, Parsons, Motiejunas, Morris, Johnson and White are all 23 or younger and Asik is 26), and hopefully a backcourt for the future with Lin (24) and Lamb (20). On top of those guys, they’re in a position to add a significant amount of talent in the next year or so. In the 2013 Draft, they own the Raptors’ pick (with various protections) and the Mavericks pick (top-20 protected). If things break their way, they could have three first-rounders for the second consecutive year. They also have a ton of cap space.
After this season, Kevin Martin’s $13 million comes off the books. Newly signed Carlos Delfino’s $3 million can also be cleared if Houston declines his option. Letting go of Toney Douglas—acquired in the Camby deal—can shed an extra $2 million. Declining Greg Smith’s option would save a little under than a million bucks. If none of those guys come back, the team payroll will be roughly $25.5 million before the Draft or free agency next season.
That leaves them with roughly $33 million in cap space—a truly staggering number. It’s more than enough room to sign one max player, and with a little maneuvering they could bring in two max guys. Players set to hit unrestricted free agency a year from now include Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Manu Ginobili, Paul Millsap and their own Martin. There are also a bunch of guys with player options who may end up free agents, such as Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis and OJ Mayo.
Whether Houston wants to be active in free agency or just hang on to their dough, they’ll have plenty of options moving forward. They almost definitely won’t contend this season, but should be picking twice in the lottery in 2013, setting up for an even brighter future.
For Houston, which has hovered slightly above .500 and missed the Playoffs in each of the last three seasons (which, to me, is a worst-case scenario—no Playoffs and a mediocre pick), a chance to be dominant in two-or-three-or-four years is a welcome sight.