The question facing Houston hasn’t changed because the opponent hasn’t, either: How can the team get past Golden State? Even though the Rockets lost 101-92 in Game 7, the franchise is miles ahead of most of its Western Conference cohort, many of whom are still trying to pump out a winning record (check), play efficient basketball (check), or get a superstar (check, check). But more is needed for the Rockets to advance to the NBA Finals. They didn’t lose the Western Conference to just any NBA team; it’s a dynasty they’re up against.
General manager Daryl Morey essentially built this roster as a rebuttal to Golden State’s. By the time Chris Paul was acquired and P.J. Tucker signed, the team’s offense was already known to fire on all cylinders (just so long as those cylinders fired behind the perimeter). Yet the Rockets still came up second in the West. Like LeBron James in the East, this Warriors team will control the Western Conference for the foreseeable future. Where does Houston go from here, and can this team get any better as is?
Is Chris Paul Coming Back?
Consider it a win that of the free agents rumored to be headed to H-Town in the summer of 2017 (Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony), only one became a Rocket. CP3 won the case of Paul vs. the People, disproving the “there’s only one ball” concern trolls, while proving that there doesn’t have to be only one ball handler. The Rockets gave Paul a chance at the conference finals; Paul, finishing with 41 points in the Game 5 clincher against the Jazz in Round 2, got them to a Game 7 in the series (even without playing in games 6 and 7). It was a blockbuster trade that actually worked.
In April, Morey made his free-agency intentions with Paul clear. “Obviously, when we get someone as great as Chris Paul,” Morey said, “the plan is to keep him here. He’ll have a choice when the season ends. We feel like we set things up well. It should be an easy choice for him.”
To retain CP3, Houston will need to dip into the luxury tax—because he was traded from the Clippers, and not signed in free agency, the Bird rights carry over—but to what extent? Now 33, Paul is eligible for a five-year, $205 million deal this summer. But there’s only one 33-year-old in the league who should pull that kind money, one who also happens to be a free agent this summer …
Will LeBron Go to Houston?
LeBron James’s playoffs performance has become so transfixing that the most interesting conversation in the NBA—where he’ll sign next—has temporarily paused. The last time a free-agency move held this much weight was in 2016, when Kevin Durant joined Golden State. If LeBron were to join the Rockets, as he’s reportedly considering, it would create the same kind of elite powerhouse.
The Sixers, Lakers, and Cavs are also on LeBron’s list. Los Angeles has long been rumored, and Philadelphia sold itself with the way Ben Simmons closed the regular season. Cleveland, even as it advances to the Finals, has the least compelling argument. All three teams have more salary cap flexibility than Houston, but where there’s a Morey, there’s a way.
What Do Their Books Look Like?
There’s a reason the best player in the league doesn’t join the best team in the league every time he’s a free agent, and it’s not self-imposed competitive balance. The Rockets already have a solid roster; solid rosters cost money; and money, lots and lots of money, is necessary to sign LeBron. Kings don’t take pay cuts. But their friends might!
CP3 signing for significantly less money would be only one of the many steps Houston would have to take to endeavor to sign James. And even if it’s not James the Rockets are targeting, Houston’s front office will face pivotal decisions this summer. If Houston believes running back the same roster is enough, the main focus will be re-signing Paul and Clint Capela, the latter of whom will be a restricted free agent. But Morey and Mike D’Antoni are forward thinkers, and it’s hard to believe that they think this roster, as is, will achieve in 2019 what it couldn’t this year.
There are movable contracts, like Eric Gordon’s at two years and $27.6 million, and Tucker’s at three years and $24.3 million (only $18.9 million guaranteed). Then there’s Ryan Anderson, who is on the books to make $41.7 million the next two seasons. Franchises are increasingly wary of taking on bad contracts, and finding a way to deal him sounds like more work than recruiting LBJ in the first place.
SB Nation’s Tim Cato broke down all the possible tricks the Rockets could pull to make it work, including what may be most realistic: LeBron agrees to his $35.6 million player option with Cleveland under the condition that he’s traded to Houston. He wouldn’t be leaving the franchise with nothing that way, though Dan Gilbert might still [switches font to Comic Sans] have something to say about it.