While the Cleveland Cavaliers organization has fallen into disarray, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have been full participants in the NBA’s ongoing arms race. Both teams have sought to bolster their depth in hopes of challenging Golden State’s ongoing dynasty in the upcoming season. As a result, the Southwest Division’s entry in our series analyzing the best moves of the offseason is dominated by those two teams, with a nod to the New Orleans Pelicans, who hope to crash the party and get into the conversation as contenders.
Houston Rockets acquire Chris Paul from L.A. Clippers
The Houston Rockets’ trade for Chris Paul — in exchange for a package that included presumptive Clippers starting point guard Patrick Beverley, along with Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, Kyle Wiltjer, a top-three-protected 2018 first-round pick and cash — precipitated the largest shift in the NBA’s balance of power this summer. The Rockets now have a starting backcourt that arguably eclipses Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. In the era of superteams, Houston has positioned itself to compete with the juggernaut in Oakland.
The Rockets shocked the world last season as Mike D’Antoni moved James Harden to point guard, which resulted in Houston claiming the league’s third-best record. D’Antoni was rightly recognized with Coach of the Year honors for his outside-the-box approach. But Paul’s arrival does not assure that the Rockets will be better than last season. Beverley, Williams, Dekker and Harrell were all important depth pieces for a team that had its depth exposed in the conference semifinals against the Spurs. Nonetheless, the Paul trade gives Houston cache among other potential free agent signings and trade targets that should allow for further improvement.
Houston Rockets sign James Harden to record $228 million extension
Along those same lines, by getting Harden under contract through the 2022-23 season, Houston has announced itself as an organization absent the instability that could cripple the Cleveland Cavaliers’ chances to compete for a championship this year. The signing is yet another shrewd business move for owner Leslie Alexander, who reportedly will sell the franchise after owning the Rockets for 24 years. Harden will be just 33 in the final season of his newly-extended deal, so Houston has ensured that a potential purchaser will have the team’s centerpiece under contract for the entirety of his prime.
By relieving some of the pressure to carry the team, Paul’s signing could make Harden even more effective this season. Additional help could come in the form of a trade for New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, but moving Ryan Anderson’s contract to open cap space has proven difficult. Nonetheless, with Paul newly-arrived, Harden locked up for half a decade and no state tax in Texas, Houston has established itself as a destination franchise and a contender for years to come.
San Antonio Spurs sign Patty Mills
It’s difficult to overstate what a bargain Patty Mills is at four years and $50 million after he led the Spurs in net rating last season. Not appearing on this list are Pau Gasol’s new three-year, $48 million deal and the reported return of Manu Ginobili for his age-40 season. The Spurs have an age problem. While Ginobili was shockingly-effective at 39 last season, it’s impossible to think he will be as effective in what will likely be his final season. Starting point guard Tony Parker has been in precipitous decline, which makes retaining Mills, who could have taken over as the starter for a number of NBA teams, a huge coup for the Spurs.
San Antonio Spurs sign Rudy Gay
Unlike the Mills signing, the addition of Rudy Gay on a two-year, $17 million contract represents a significant gamble for the Spurs. If he can recover from the Achilles injury that ended his season to produce anything close to the 18.7 points per game he scored for the Kings last season, the signing could significantly affect the balance of power in the NBA’s Western Conference. Gay isn’t known for his defense, but he has the size to match up against Kevin Durant and the scoring acumen to make him work on the defensive end. However, if Gay’s injury results in diminished output for the long term, the Spurs may come to regret making this gamble rather than allocating that money to important depth pieces such as the departed Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon.
Houston Rockets sign P.J. Tucker
The Cavaliers lost the NBA Finals because big men Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love were ineffective from a net rating perspective and Cleveland lacked the wing depth to compete with the Warriors. Adding P.J. Tucker on a four-year, $32 million deal gives the Rockets a player who can guard wings and switch onto some power forwards. Houston also added Luc Mbah a Moute on a one-year veteran’s minimum deal, which gives the Rockets yet another player who can switch defensively against Golden State’s incredibly-deep corps of wings and forwards. These moves were very obviously made to give Houston a better chance of competing against the Spurs and Warriors in next season’s playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans sign Rajon Rondo
The nod here goes to Rajon Rondo, who had the Boston Celtics on the brink of a first round disaster before he fractured his thumb in Game 2, allowing Boston to recover and advance. The Pelicans signed Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million deal that could reach $150 million with incentives. This is an overpay for a player who rated as an average NBA starter according to Real Plus-Minus and will prevent the Pelicans from addressing its glaring depth issues. By contrast, getting Rondo on a one-year deal was a coup for New Orleans.
The Pelicans have yet to prove that the team can win with a pair of centers in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis as the team’s centerpieces. Adding Rondo gives New Orleans some inexpensive depth and an opportunity to sell Cousins — a fellow Kentucky Wildcat — on staying with the franchise beyond his current expiring contract.
Our list is of course dominated by the moves of Houston and San Antonio, the two teams most likely to challenge the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy this season. While those teams have loaded up in hopes of closing the gap, the Pelicans did what they had to do in re-signing Holiday since the team wasn’t in a position to replace him with comparable talent. It will be fascinating to see if Rondo — oft-maligned throughout his career — can become the much-needed glue guy in New Orleans that helps the Pelicans emerge as a contender and keeps the assembled core together long-term.
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