HOUSTON - With the 2017-18 Rockets season coming just 24 minutes short of a trip to the NBA Finals, Houston now heads into the offseason -- one that could be relatively drama-free, or perhaps alter the entire landscape of the NBA (more on that in a moment).
First, here are the Rockets who become free agents this summer:
PG Chris Paul (unrestricted; can sign anywhere he chooses)
C Clint Capela (restricted; Rockets can match any offer he agrees to with another team)
F Trevor Ariza (unrestricted)
F Luc Mbah a Moute (unrestricted)
G/F Gerald Green (unrestricted)
G Joe Johnson (unrestricted)
F/C Tarik Black (unrestricted)
Three of those guys -- Paul, Capela and Ariza -- were starters this past season; Mbah a Moute was an integral part of the rotation before a late-season injury; and Gerald Green was one of the few guys head coach Mike D'Antoni trusted in his short playoff rotation.
Now, the NBA has what's called a "soft" salary cap -- meaning teams are allowed to exceed the payroll limit. Teams that go over the cap must pay a "luxury tax," something new Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta has said he was prepared to do.
In 2017-18, the NBA salary cap (which is determined based on much money the league generates) was about $99 million. The luxury tax limit was about $119 million. The 2018-19 cap is projected to only go up ever so slightly, possibly around $102 million.
Which brings us to the various offseason scenarios the Rockets could run into this summer. Let's start with the easiest.
Scenario No. 1: Run It Back
The Rockets just put together the best regular season in franchise history -- superstar James Harden is a shoe-in for league MVP, his team won 65 games, secured the top overall seed in the playoffs, and was just one half away from dethroning the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Had Chris Paul been healthy, it's entirely possible the Rockets pull it out in the Western Conference finals.
So if ain't broke, don't fix it.
As Fertitta told KPRC's Lainie Fritz following that Game 7 loss:
So the simplest -- and likeliest -- scenario is the Rockets re-sign CP3 and Capela (and likely Ariza), and just deal with the financial ramifications later.
“Gotta sign Chris, want to keep Clint.”- Tilman Fertitta — Lainie Fritz (@KPRC2Lainie) May 29, 2018
Paul, 33, would likely get the "max" contract allowed under the league's collective bargaining agreement for a veteran who re-signs with his current team -- five years, $205 million, with a starting yearly salary of about $35 million.
Capela, 24, has been a bargain for Houston while playing under the deal he signed as a rookie when the Rockets drafted him in 2014. He's likely to command a new deal at or near the max. For a player with Capela's experience, that's a 5-year deal starting with around $25 million annually. Reportedly the lowly Phoenix Suns were interested in handing that kind of deal to Capela (though that is likely no longer the case with Phoenix owning the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft). Still, there's any number of teams who will pony up for a young, dynamic center who can defend any postion. If Capela agrees to terms to with another suitor, the Rockets get the chance to match the offer -- something it seems they're ready to do.
If both CP3 and Capela get shiny new deals from the Rockets, it becomes a bit trickier filling out the roster around them and Harden. Super sub Eric Gordon and Swiss army knife P.J. Tucker are already locked up for the next two years, while stretch forward Ryan Anderson is still owed more than $41 million guaranteed over the next two seasons, making him virtually untradable. If Fertitta is serious about paying the luxury tax, the Rockets can keep together their core and take another crack at the Warriors in 2018-19.
Scenario No. 2: King's Landing
There's really only one thing -- or one person for that matter -- that stands in the way of the Rockets just keeping the band together: LeBron James.
The King once again becomes a free agent this summer, and at this point in his career is admittedly only interested in winning championships.
Even though LeBron is back in the NBA Finals for an eighth consecutive year, the Cleveland Cavaliers are heavy underdogs against Golden State. This current Cavs group simply doesn't enough pieces around James to contend with teams like the Warriors, Rockets or even Boston Celtics (when they're at 100 percent).
LeBron has eschewed answering questions about his offseason plans for almost a year now. He could elect to stay home in northeast Ohio and try to lure another all-star or two to the Cavaliers. He could go west to Los Angeles and try to resurrect the Lakers, while also building up his budding media company.
But if James is truly only focused on winning titles, his best option is to join a team that's already a contender. That really only leaves two destinations -- the upstart Philadelphia 76ers and their young dynamos Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, or the Rockets.
It's not as far-fetched a notion as one might think.
LeBron is very good friends with Paul, dating back to their teenage years. He's even publicly stated his desire to someday team up with CP3 in the NBA. James was teammates with Harden on the 2012 Olympic team that won gold in London, and has always spoken highly of the Beard.
And unlike the 76ers, the Rockets are a veteran team, filled with guys who have made deep runs in the postseason. There's also no state income tax in Texas -- a fact of which multimillion-dollar athletes are acutely aware.
If LeBron came to Houston, he would command a max or near-max deal, meaning Houston would have to spend nearly all of its cap space on James, Harden and Paul. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey would have to get creative filling out the rest of the roster, and would likely have to trade guys Eric Gordon or Ryan Anderson (if he could even find any takers).
The King may be reticent to head south though, given that he has spent his entire NBA career in the Eastern Conference. This year especially has proved LeBron is essentially guaranteed a finals berth by playing in the East. Joining the Rockets means contending with teams like the Warriors, Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans, et al. There's also the issue of fit. LeBron -- just like Harden and Paul -- is a ball-dominant player who is used to running the show. He may determine his talents are best to put use playing alongside a different kind of superstar.
Scenario No. 3: Rockets Ragnarok
LeBron convinces CP3 to join him somewhere else.
Ariza and Mbah a Moute both walk.
The Rockets' roster leaves them as a pretty good team, but probably just a step below title contenders.
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