The 2016-17 NBA Champions were unquestionably dominant throughout the regular season and the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors built up to this point with shrewd signings and excellent draft selections over the last few years. The unprecedented salary cap spike, which occurred before the 2016-17 season, that allowed the Warriors to sign forward Kevin Durant while retaining all of their star players was the pinnacle of good timing and good fortune.
Recently, the NBA announced that the salary cap spike would raise the 2017-2018 salary cap to $99 million instead of the most recent projections of around $102 million (and much earlier projections around $108 million). Unlike the former, this current cap spike is lower than expected and has placed increased pressure on teams looking to compete for a championship next season.
Surprisingly, a number of teams have passed on the opportunity to wait out this projected period of dominance for the Warriors and have been positioning themselves to be as competitive as possible despite long odds and long term risks. Perhaps no team is loading up to challenge the Warriors as much as the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets have been extremely aggressive in their attempts to not only improve, but be legitimately competitive with the Warriors. These moves confirm general manager Daryl Morey’s earlier statements with ESPN’s Zach Lowe about staying competitive and bridging with gap with Golden State.
“We are used to long odds,” Morey said. “If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”
The Rockets quickly proved to have something up their sleeve with the stunning acquisition of Los Angeles Clippers superstar point guard Chris Paul. The Rockets’ own superstar guard had just completed a season in which he had shifted from shooting guard to point guard, nearly resulting in Harden’s first MVP award. This new acquisition is both stunning and a bit risky as both Paul and Harden are ball dominant guards, leaving some to wonder how well these two will coexist. Per basketball-reference.com, Paul and Harden tallied usage rates of 24.4 and 34.2 percent, respectively. One or both of them will have to move off the ball somewhat to make this work.
Regardless of fit, the Rockets landed Paul at the cost of defensive hound Patrick Beverly, a developing young talent in forward Sam Dekker, a future first-round draft pick and an interesting prospect in Montrezl Harrell, who spoke to Basketball Insiders recently about how he is excited to have a fresh start with the Los Angeles Clippers. How much better the Rockets will be as a result of this trade depends on how these two stars adjust. However, the Rockets should be examined as a whole with the subsequent moves that have since been made.
In addition to the Paul trade, the Rockets have added forward P.J. Tucker on a four-year, $32 million contract. The Rockets are adding Tucker for the same reason the Toronto Raptors acquired him last season — to guard elite forwards, especially the ones the team might face in the playoffs. Tucker should fit in well alongside current defensive wing stopper forward Trevor Ariza, giving the Rockets a second small forward with above average defensive abilities who can help guard the likes of Durant and other elite forwards.
The Rockets have also re-signed veteran center Nene on a three-year, $11 million contract. This three-year deal comes on the heels of an earlier four-year, $15 million offer, which the Rockets and Nene had already agreed upon. However, it was quickly pointed out that due to Nene’s age, he is barred from signing such a contract due to the over-38 rule. Unfortunately for Nene, after being frustrated by the nullification of his original deal, he seems to have not found a strong market outside the Rockets and quickly agreed to a smaller three-year deal. With Nene coming back, the Rockets have a capable scoring option in the post who has proven to be effective in Mike D’Antoni’s efficient offensive system.
The above deals have the Rockets positioned to again be very competitive. They took the San Antonio Spurs to a Game 6 where, under the pressure to constantly generate offense, Harden seemed to run out of gas. Nene had already gone down for the playoffs with a muscle tear of his left thigh. With Harden rendered ineffective and the Rockets already being shorthanded, they were blown out in a close-out Game 6 by a Spurs team that had lost superstar forward Kawhi Leonard to injury the previous game. Now with Paul available to share the offensive burden with Harden, the Rockets are poised to be the top contender to challenge the Warriors depending on how the Spurs manage their offseason.
But who says the Rockets are stopping here? After the recent firing of former New York Knicks President Phil Jackson, Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony finally appears to be willing to waive his no-trade clause. Jackson has spent a great deal of time trying to convince Anthony to waive the clause, which would pave the way for a trade to rid the Knicks of Anthony. Now that Jackson is gone, Anthony appears to have changed his attitude regarding this sticking point. Anthony has appeared to have given an indication that he would welcome a trade to either Cleveland or Houston, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Houston must first overcome the hurdle of convincing New York, or possibly a third team, to accept the remainder of Ryan Anderson’s three-year, $61.3 million contract. With Anthony, the Rockets will fully transform into a new look, star driven team. Anthony, Harden and Nene may not be renowned for their individual defense but Ariza, Paul and Tucker can help pick up the slack and perhaps ensure team defensive concepts are adhered to.
Obviously, the Rockets are looking to be as competitive as possible, so what’s the risk? Paul comes to the Rockets after choosing to opt in on the last year of his current contract. At the end of this upcoming season, Paul will be a free agent. If Paul and Harden fail to mesh and create winning synergy, the Rockets may be forced to trade Paul or risk losing him (and the assets that were used to acquire him) for a one-year rental.
Adding to risk/reward quotient is the potential addition of Anthony. The risk is fairly clear — Anthony would be another ball dominant player (29.1 percent usage) who has rarely found himself being the driving force behind a winning situation in the NBA. Adding to the volatility is his reputation being an inconsistent defender. Finally, don’t forget that D’Antoni and Anthony famously clashed leading to D’Anonti’s departure from New York. These are significant issues that Morey and his staff have considered and seem to think are worth the risk.
There is risk in acquiring Anthony and significant upside as well. Being surrounded by so much talent, Anthony may transform into three-time Olympics gold medalist who in international competition plays off the ball, executes defensive concepts and sacrifices to ensure victory. Anthony and Paul have been playing basketball at a high level for a number of years and should they team up in Houston, the hope for them is they might create a dynamic powerful enough to pose a real threat to the Warriors. Both players have demonstrated that they are among the best in the league in talent and individual output but both are on the tail ends of their primes and will not lack the motivation to win at the cost of individual success. At least, the Rockets must hope so.
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