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The Rockets’ Decision to Let Chandler Parsons Go

Nate Duncan looks at the Houston Rockets’ decision to let restricted free agent Chandler Parsons walk this summer.

Nate Duncan

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We will likely never know the Dallas Mavericks’ true motivation* when they signed Chandler Parsons to a three-year, $46.1 million offer sheet on July 10. How much did they want Parsons, and how much did they want to torpedo the best-laid plans of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey? At the time, Houston was the beneficiary of Parsons’ relatively low cap hold and the fact that it held his Bird rights. Houston’s plan was to use salary cap space to sign additional players and reach the salary cap, then use Parsons’ Bird rights to exceed the cap for his contract. By signing Parsons to the offer sheet, Dallas put a three day clock on the Rockets’ ability to use their cap space–if they planned to retain Parsons. Once the Rockets matched the offer sheet, Parsons’ $14.7 million would be on their books. If the Rockets did not use their cap space before this, it would be wiped out. With LeBron James’ indecision essentially extending the NBA’s moratorium, the Parsons offer sheet drew ever closer to the witching hour.

*Nor will we know for certain why the Rockets let Parsons out of the fourth year of his contract to become a restricted free agent to begin with. Speculation is that Parsons’ agent, the powerful Dan Fegan, secured the Rockets’ agreement to let Parsons out of his contract as part of the price for Dwight Howard signing in Houston a year earlier, although no one has actually be able to confirm that was the case.

But when James decided to sign with Cleveland on July 12, it appeared the stars were aligning once again for Morey. With James leaving Miami, the signing of Chris Bosh was suddenly considered nearly fait accompli by many observers on that frenzied day. To facilitate the potential signing, the Rockets bribed the Los Angeles Lakers with a protected first-round pick to take Jeremy Lin’s $8.4 million cap number* into their cap space. But with James gone, Miami immediately increased its Bosh offer to a five-year maximum contract. Bosh agreed to it, leaving the Rockets in a lurch.

*The protections on that pick: Lottery protected in 2015, top-10 protected in 2016 and 2017, top-five protected in 2018 and 2019, top-three protected in 2020, unprotected in 2021. Part of the reason for the high price was the fact that Lin’s actual salary in 2014-15 was nearly $15 million, a result of the odd offer sheet with which the Rockets had initially poached Lin from the New York Knicks.

Now, Houston had a difficult decision on whether to match Parsons’ contract. Before getting into the particulars, it is important to assess where Houston was as a franchise. The biggest factor in all of this analysis is the ages of the players involved. Parsons will be 26 years old by the start of the season. Unlike fellow maxee Gordon Hayward (24), it is unlikely he will improve significantly throughout the life of his contract. Parsons is also an awkward fit with James Harden, who really needs more of a wing stopper next to him due to his well-publicized defensive lapses. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard turns 29 in December. Unlike someone like Shaquille O’Neal, he does not have elite size for a center. Since he is largely dependent on athleticism, Howard realistically has two years left as an elite player, and possibly only one. And while Harden is only 24, he is not someone who seems to have the greatest fitness regimen. He could well reach his prime sooner than normal as a result. Therefore, Morey’s goal should be to maximize the Rockets’ championship chances over the next two years, the only two in which a team with Harden and Howard as the two stars would be likely to compete for a championship.

The Parsons Plan

Back to the offer sheet. The structure, as with many offer sheets, was extremely unpalatable to Houston. It included a 15 percent trade bonus* and a player option for the third year. Morey called it “one of the most untradeable” contracts he has seen, and he may be right. Parsons is now wildly overpaid for a player who is probably below average as a third banana on a contending team. Moreover, even if a team believed in him enough to trade for him from the Rockets, it would have to deal with a potentially even higher salary as well as the fact he could leave almost immediately as soon as the summer of 2016.

*Relevant only if the maximum salary increases by more than Parsons’ 4.5 percent annual raises per year.

For Morey, the decision of whether to match “came down to a bet of Harden, Howard and Parsons being the final piece, because we would have had no ability to do anything after that.” Here is what the Rockets’ cap situation would have looked like after a Parsons match and some other assumed moves, such as the recently announced signing of draftee Kostas Papanikolaou to most of the mid-level exception.*

Rockets with Parsons match

 *Note that figures in italics are based on assumptions, including the future cap numbers.It is unclear exactly how much the cap will go up based on the new national television deal in 2016-17, new local TV deals and overall rising revenue league-wide. The owners may also attempt to limit the shock to the system by slowly ramping up the increases in TV money over the life of the deal rather than having it implemented all at once. Nevertheless, $75 million seems a conservative estimate for the increase in the cap by that year. Also the trade of Omer Asik for Trevor Ariza, while it technically could still have been made, would not have happened if Parsons had been kept.

As the Rockets retained their top three players, that team would have looked a lot like last year’s team. Papanikolaou* projects as a physical, high-effort defender (if not a lockdown guy) who can knock down threes. The hope is that he will be a superior backup wing to anyone else on the roster last year, and that he can also enable the Rockets to play smallball with a third wing who is actually good. The Rockets would have retained the $2 million Bi-Annual Exception (for which they have yet to find a taker), as well as the $8.4 million Lin trade exception through next summer. They could also likely count on improvement from Terrence Jones in his third year. Since the team ranked fourth in offense and 12th in defense last year, one could argue that incremental improvements might be sufficient to put Houston right in the Western Conference mix.

*It is possible that the Rockets might have succeeded in paying Papanikolaou less in the first year by guaranteeing more money later on, which they were unwilling to do to preserve 2015 cap flexibility in the current scenario.

That said, the loss of Lin and Omer Asik would really hurt the depth, as there are no proven backup point guards or centers on the roster right now. If Patrick Beverley were to get injured again or Howard misses time, the Rockets would be in trouble. All told, it seems like the team would be about as good as last year, unless it could acquire another point guard or big man with the Lin trade exception during the season. Given the team’s first-round loss and complete inability to stop Portland* in the playoffs, it is hard to see the Rockets in the same league as the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers in the West.

*One possible upgrade Houston apparently has not explored is at coach, where Kevin McHale’s defense underperformed last year. With a defensive taskmaster involved, perhaps a realistic scenario would emerge in which Houston could have contended with the current core.

The problem then, as Morey sees it, is the difficulty in upgrading the team over the next two to three years with Parsons on the roster. With him untradeable in Morey’s eyes, opening up additional cap space by moving salary like in previous years would be impossible with $53 million tied up in Howard, Harden and Parsons. The Rockets would project to have middling cap space at most next summer, and even that would require dumping potentially valuable players. They might have room in the summer of 2016-17 if the cap goes up with the new TV deal, but by then two more years will be on Howard’s odometer and he will likely opt out to pursue a new contract as well. If the Rockets have not contended by then, perhaps Howard would look to go elsewhere, or require a larger contract than Houston were willing to pay.

Aside from the fruits of the Lin trade exception, Harden, Howard and Parsons would likely be the major players on the team over the next two years if they had kept him.

The 2015 Plan

The Rockets did recover from the Parsons loss with the signing of Trevor Ariza. While he is not the passer or driver that Parsons is, Ariza provides about the same level of spotup shooting and far superior defense. One can make the argument that Ariza was a better player than Parsons a year ago, especially considering the Rockets’ desperate need for someone who can play defense on the wing. Now Ariza will likely decline this year from career-best shooting numbers, and Parsons could get slightly better. But the starting lineup might actually be superior to a year ago for Houston.

The same cannot be said about the bench though, where the unproven Isaiah Canaan replaces Lin as backup point guard and the backup centers are currently Joey Dorsey and raw draftee Clint Capela. Overall, the Rockets project to be a little worse during the regular year due to the lack of depth, especially if injuries hit. In the playoffs, however, the bench matters less. They could also acquire another player via the Lin trade exception down the stretch, assuming he were not owed too much long-term money.

Nevertheless, the team should not be that much worse than a year ago.  Indeed, it is possible the Rockets could carve out an elite defense with three excellent defenders in Ariza, Beverley and Howard along with actual effort from Harden.
Meanwhile, this is the Rockets’ current cap forecast after letting Parsons go.

Rockets 8.12.14 Actual

The Rockets only have a nominal $5.3 million in cap space for next summer, but that becomes $10 million if they waive or trade the non-guaranteed Papanikolaou. They could potentially open up another $2.3 million by declining the fourth year option for 2015-16 on Donatas Motiejunas (which would have to occur by October 31, 2014), leaving an approximate $12 million in space. Beverley will be a restricted free agent after his third year and will command a healthy raise as a restricted free agent, but his qualifying number will be low enough to enable the Rockets to add more salary first before he is re-signed.

The real trump card for the Rockets is a potential trade of the newly-signed Ariza. His contract starts at a hefty $8.6 million, but declines each year to $7.4 million in 2017-18. That is not a great contract considering Ariza will be 32 during the last year of it, but it is not immovable considering the rising cap and the scarcity of two-way wings. Assuming he does not have a disastrous year, trading him without a sweetener could be possible. And were one required the Rockets have adequate assets in hand, including a first-rounder from New Orleans in the Asik trade, Capela, Motiejunas (if his option is picked up) or even Jones if necessary to induce a team to bite.

Moving Ariza next summer would open up a potential $15 million or so in cap space to pounce on the following free agents, with potentially even more available for some of the big boys if they want to move Jones or the cap rises more than anticipated:

Here are some potential free agent targets in 2015:

Kevin Love
LaMarcus Aldridge
Luol Deng
Rudy Gay
Paul Millsap
Arron Afflalo
Jimmy Butler (RFA)
Kemba Walker (RFA)
Kenneth Faried (RFA)
Draymond Green (RFA)
Kawhi Leonard (RFA)

Not all of these players will be available, and there is no guarantee they will take the Rockets’ money if they are. But you can make the argument that all of these players are superior fits to Parsons on the Rockets’ roster, while many of them should be more cost-effective as well. And, this of course opens up the possibility of getting another star player to pair with Howard and Harden, remote though that is.

Ultimately, the choice on Parsons was between the likelihood but not certainty of a slightly higher chance of contention this year, and the chance to get a third star or a better fit than Parsons in the summer of 2015 while the Howard and Harden combination is still good enough to attract one. Morey has famously commented that high-risk transactions are required to maximize a team’s ceiling when only one of 30 teams can win the championship each year. Letting Parsons go for nothing would seem to be such a risk. But perhaps the greater risk would have been betting that Parsons would improve enough at age 26 to constitute a championship core with Howard and Harden.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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