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NBA AM: Now What? – Houston Rockets Edition

As the season comes down to an end, it’s time for the Rockets to look back and evaluate their situation. Where will their rebuild take them next? It all remains to be seen, but time is on their side.

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There comes a time where an organization has to take a step back and analyze the things they’ve done right and wrong while keeping outside factors in mind. For this series of Now What? for Basketball Insiders, the Houston Rockets will be broken down to see what they have going for them heading into the final few weeks of the season, and what has held them back as an organization. While the Rockets have been a perennial contender for some time now, the departure of their franchise player, James Harden, has sparked a complete rebuild in Houston. What do the Rockets have to do to get back into contender form?

Strengths

The Rockets already have a budding star on their team in Christian Wood. Wood has been having a breakout season for the Rockets averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in his first season as a full-time starter. His breakout didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have watched his games before as he showed many glimpses at his potential with the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans in limited minutes. Wood can serve as the leader of the group as the team rebuilds and looks to add more youth to the roster.

Along with Wood, the team has rookies Jae’ Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin Jr. who have both shown they have the potential to be great NBA players. Tate has been very impressive, to say the least, as he has been one of the top rookies across the NBA this year. To put his season into perspective, take a look at this statistic put out by Alykhan Bijani, an NBA Insider for the Athletic: “Tate has 672 points, 324 rebounds, 141 assists, 78 steals, 34 blocks, and 48 3-pointers made this season…the only other rookie to have posted those numbers through the first 61 games of a season was LeBron James in 2003-04.” To be compared to one of the best players of all time is pretty good for a rookie. While he may be an older rookie at 25 years old, he has shown that he can be a great NBA player soon.

Time is the Rockets’ best friend as there is no reason for the organization to try to rush itself back to its winning ways. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams for years with James Harden, and while they may not have been able to get that elusive NBA Finals Appearance and Championship, that shouldn’t downplay just how good they were. They were one game away from defeating the Golden State Warriors juggernaut if it weren’t for one very bad shooting night from three-point range. With the past success in mind, the team needs to take this time to use its high draft picks on the right players and devoting time to developing them. If the season were to end today, the Rockets would be the odds-on favorite to win the NBA Draft lottery and the chance to get a franchise-changing player in Cade Cunningham. Along with their pick, the Rockets will likely have the Milwaukee Bucks pick via a swap, and the TrailBlazers first-rounder as well. It will be up to management and the scouting department to see how where they go with these picks, but they will have multiple opportunities to pick high-upside players in this year’s draft.

Weaknesses

The city of Houston has lost all of its firepower in the sports world and has been desecrated as a desired destination for free agents. The Houston Texans have almost effectively killed the city of Houston as a sports city with the mismanagement of their team and its best players. Then add in the huge cheating scandal that transpired in the MLB led by the Houston Astros This doesn’t necessarily apply to the Rockets, but it does affect how they are viewed nationwide as people have begun to question Houston’s authenticity as a city known for its sports teams. 

While head coach Stephen Silas has been a highly thought of name in NBA circles, his track record as a head coach doesn’t reflect him very well. In his first season as a head coach, he had to deal with all of the drama surrounding James Harden and had to attempt to coach a team to winning basketball without much firepower. Silas may be a great head coach, but the numbers just aren’t there for him. Will the Rockets give him time to develop and implement a culture with the team? Or will they send him packing after finishing the season with a horrible record? It remains to be seen, but it is possible.

Opportunities

The biggest opportunity available to the Rockets shortly is the lottery pick they possess in this year’s draft. While they are the favorite to obtain the #1 overall pick, the ping pong balls can change things up, but with the way the draft is shaping up this year, any of the top four or five guys could be franchise-altering talents. Any pick of the group of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, and even Jonathan Kuminga could turn out to be an NBA superstar. All of these players have All-Star potentials and higher floors than the average player, so the Rockets must make the best pick. Since the team already has Wood and Tate at the four and five spots, it would make sense for them to look for a guard or small forward in the draft. Cunningham would be the homerun pick for sure, but an electric scorer like Jalen Green would be a great pick as well. The only way for the Rockets to fumble this situation would be due to an unfortunate bounce of some ping pong balls. Yeah, it’s not an ideal way to depend on the future of your billion-dollar franchise. 

In a rebuild, acquiring assets and loading the team up with youth is a great strategy as a team attempts to bring itself back to prominence. For the Rockets, they have some young players who will contribute even more in the future, but they also have the tradeable veterans to acquire even more assets. The Danny Ainge philosophy. According to Spotrac, the Rockets have John Wall under contract through the 2021-22 season with a player option for 2022-23, with Eric Gordon also under contract until 2024. Both of these veterans still have great basketball left in the tank, but they aren’t ideal fits with a team that is trying to rebuild and find its identity. It shouldn’t be hard to find a team looking to add either of the two to their roster, but the money owed to both players, specifically Wall could make it difficult to swing a trade. Anyways, the opportunity is arising for the Rockets to part ways with these vets and go into a full-blown rebuild around a younger nucleus.

Threats

A toxic culture was evident in the Rockets organization when James Harden so desperately wanted out. While there hasn’t been any evidence that this will carry over into the new regime, it should still be a focal point for the team to avoid moving forward. A winning team is built on a positive culture where expectations are clear and everyone’s role is understood. Without a known core of untouchable players on the team, this could be a bit difficult for them to achieve, but if they wish to ace the rebuild, it should be something they work on improving. 

Getting too greedy is another threat to the team’s future success. A complete rebuild takes time to accomplish and if it’s rushed, it could lead to very bad results. The Rockets don’t want to be a mediocre franchise, they want to be a contender again. With a lost season in the wind, they have the opportunity to change the direction of their franchise in this year’s draft. If they for some reason didn’t trust the draft lottery they have the most valuable asset for trades in the league outside of a player like Zion Williamson, so if they mess this up, it would be an astronomical fail, but it’s possible. 

The Rockets aren’t the team they were heading into the last offseason. The trades of Russell Westbrook and James Harden along with the departure of legendary executive Daryl Morey made this evident pretty quickly. Even though the team has lost its once irreplaceable pieces, there’s always a way to get back to prominence, but it is going to take time. Don’t expect the Rockets to be a great team anytime soon. If they can ace this offseason and the one after it though, they might once again be a well-respected team around the league. For now, sit back and enjoy the rebuild as things continue to unfold in Houston.

 

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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