After a disappointing exit in the first round of the playoffs, the Houston Rockets head into the offseason with the flexibility general manager Daryl Morey typically craves.
With Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin each on expiring contracts and only about $59 million or so in projected salary, the Rockets can easily create a large chunk of cap room to be serious free-agent players. By using their combined assets of young players and draft picks, the Rockets can also trade for a star.
But is trading or signing a major third player the best thing to do?
There are certainly potential downfalls with that strategy, but depending on the quality of the player, the reward can absolutely outweigh the risk.
Let's start by assessing what Houston could be risking by chasing another. The first thing that would almost certainly have to be sacrificed before the free-agency period would be the chance to decline the team option on Chandler Parsons and make him a restricted free agent. Instead, the Rockets would have to accept Parsons' option (which will pay him less than $1 million for the upcoming season) and let him become an unrestricted free agent in 2015.
By keeping the payroll small and accepting Parsons' option, the Rockets leave the door open for a major free-agent signing but also run the risk of losing Parsons next year.
There's also the chance that signing a free agent could alter the chemistry the Rockets are still working to establish, but that doesn't appear to be a major concern at this point. Here's what Rockets owner Leslie Alexander told Mark Berman of MyFoxHouston.com:
"We're going to have cap room to bring in a terrific free agent and I think next year we'll be a lot better than we were this year," Alexander said in an interview with FOX 26 Sports.
"I think the nucleus is great. I think we have two of the brightest stars in the league. We have players who are going to be much better next year, young guys. We have a very good nucleus."
Alexander's comments are interesting, if only because the Rockets won't have cap room to sign anyone making a substantial salary (above $5 or $6 million) without moving Asik or Lin. While that dollar amount doesn't rule out the addition of a terrific free agent, typically that price range will get you a solid role player and not a star.
That brings about a whole different issue for the Rockets. Is a third star truly needed, or is it about finding another capable role player who can mesh with Harden and Howard without stealing away touches?
I don't know if bringing in another ball dominant star like Love or Anthony is the answer for Houston. Have to do it if you can, though.—Yannis Koutroupis (@YannisNBA) May 3, 2014
While Houston's biggest needs are on the defensive end, it's not as though there's no room for another capable offensive player. While fitting in someone like Carmelo Anthony would certainly require Harden and Howard to share the ball much more, that's going to be one of the league's very best offenses regardless. There's just too much talent.
Do the Rockets need such a massive talent boost to win a title, though? Maybe not, but if the price is right, it makes sense to load up and create the next "Big Three" and then find role players to supplement those guys. You don't put the cart before the horses.
I would always take a third All-Star guy, either from one of our guys improving or addition. There’s no negative to adding an All-Star-level player. That said, I don’t feel it’s necessary. I do feel it’s my job to explore those things. I think (we’ll be helped by) our group playing more together after only a season together, plus a lot of young players that can take a step forward and improve. Plus we’ve got financial flexibility this year. We’re not limited to minimum-player additions.
We have all our draft picks going forward to execute trades if necessary. We’ve got a lot of flexibility to improve. It’s my job to get that done and the players’ job to work on their games over the summer. The coaches are taking another look at our strategies and deciding what we’re going to do different next year to improve.
If the Rockets can't find a suitable trade for Asik and Lin, and if the asking price on established stars like Rajon Rondo is too high, there might not be the need to really force the action. Houston was still a great team in just their first year, and considering how young the roster is, there's plenty of room for natural growth and improvement.
Here's what Morey told Feigen:
We’re always aggressive. We’ll always explore aggressive scenarios. But I feel confident if those don’t emerge, we’re not far off. We need to get (the win total) into the high 50s if we’re going to be as good as we want to be. We need to improve our defense primarily. We were the youngest team in the league (in the postseason, fourth youngest and second least experienced in the regular season) and improving, so an addition or two are key. I feel confident we can make that step forward that we need to make.
We made a big leap forward with the addition of Dwight (Howard) and the growth of our young players to get to the mid-50 range. I think we’ve got to take one more step forward. But I think the average NBA title team won 57 games, so we’re not far off.
The key thing there is that Houston is always aggressive, and this offseason should play out no differently. If the opportunity to add an elite player like Carmelo Anthony arises, the Rockets should take it and make tweaks as necessary to make all the pieces work together. You can find defenders like Patrick Beverley toiling away in the D-League or overseas, but you can't find players capable of scoring at Anthony's level as easily.
Chasing a star, even if the fit isn't perfect, should be the strategy for the Rockets this offseason. Even if getting a third big name isn't accomplished, the risk will still have been worth taking.