After a summer in which many believe they got worse, at least when matched up against the team they’ll have to go through, the Houston Rockets are experiencing what is supposed to happen to the Championship winning team. The problem? They didn’t win the Championship.
The NBA salary cap is literally designed for this. The championship window is supposed to decrease, the second you win the championship.
A team leads the pack, wins lets say, 65 games. The following season, the rest of the league targets the best team’s free agents. Role players whose play appeared elevated due to their surroundings, an underpaid guy who flourished, 3&D wings whose percentages rose with open shots, the late first round pick who has put himself in position to get paid. Championship teams are supposed to have to make compromises. It brings them back to the pack. Competitive balance, the league calls it.
For the Houston Rockets’, the key free agents this summer would be Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Clint Capela and of course, Chris Paul.
Mbah a Moute, one of the bargains of the season, would only remain so for one year. It’s how they got him on a minimum contract in the first place. His performance prompted the Clippers to split their mid-level on him. Trevor Ariza, entering his age 33 season, was offered $15m for one season. The luxury tax priced the Rockets out of matching, meaning they could only beat the offer using years. Is handing a contract to a player who likely just played the last season of their prime a deal into their mid to late 30’s are sensible move? Unlikely. Ariza walked.
The second and third best players on this Houston team were retained no problem. Again, the salary cap is designed for this. A mixture of bird rights and restricted free agency allowed them to re-sign both Chris Paul and Clint Capela. As expected after a compromise, the best talents are those who stay.
Through no fault of their own, 65 win team the Houston Rocket’s have likely regressed. Their only realistic chance of keeping all their free agents would have been to unload Ryan Anderson’s $19m contract. Unfortunately, every other team in the league knows this, giving them leverage to squeeze out every Rocket’s asset they can offer.
They’re still in win now mode, finding themselves with a $23m luxury tax bill. For perspective, retaining Ariza on the deal he signed would have put them roughly $20–25m over the luxury tax line itself, incurring a ludicrous bill come seasons end. Instead, Daryl Morey had to manoeuvre around the edges once again. He will hope James Ennis can replace Mbah a Moute’s 3&D minutes for the minimum. Maybe Carmelo Anthony’s offence can balance out the loss of Ariza’s defense. Both are a tough ask.
Houston aren’t finished yet. Anderson will likely be moved for a bad contract who fits better. A Wes Matthews, Kent Bazemore, Courtney Lee. Who knows what Daryl Morey still has left up his sleeve. It wouldn’t be out of character for him to perform salary cap gymnastics once again.
They are still going to be very good. Any core made up of the reigning MVP James Harden, CP3 and Clint Capela are going to win games. Eric Gordon is still a spark plug off the bench, Melo can still score the rock, PJ Tucker will continue to anchor a small ball defense. However, as they chase the salary cap anomaly Golden State Warriors, it is easy to see why many onlookers have concerns that their biggest window may have just passed by.
The Rockets have inarguably felt the squeeze of being a championship winning side. The problem? They didn’t win the championship.