Cause-and-effect is more basic than the advanced analytics Daryl Morey is known to favor, but the Rockets general manager likes the idea anyway. About a week after Houston’s Game 7 loss in the Western Conference finals, Morey shared his not-so-secret strategy for next season with the world: advance past Golden State; win it all.
“I don’t understand the teams that aren’t obsessed with beating them,” Morey told ESPN. “To win the championship, you have to beat the Warriors. Every team should be figuring out how to beat the Warriors.”
Morey didn’t need an ESPN spot to reveal his mind-set. The Rockets were engineered to beat the dynasty in NorCal. They came close this season. James Harden played at MVP level, Chris Paul provided a steady hand, Clint Capela matured into more than just a role player, the team was deeper on the perimeter, and the defense improved. Houston won an NBA-best 65 games in the regular season, then pushed Golden State to seven games before fate (and Paul’s injury) intervened. After Game 7 of the West finals, Kevin Durant was asked if the Rockets superteam was close to catching his superteam. “Anything could happen over the summer,” Durant said, “for both sides.”
The offseason hasn’t officially begun, but it already feels like it belongs to Houston. The Rockets automatically in the running for that distinction by being in the running for LeBron James. James or no James, the front office will be aggressive this summer. Trading for Paul last offseason set the tone. And that was before Houston came within one game of the NBA Finals. When Morey was asked about the level to which he’s still “obsessed” with beating Golden State, he was unabashed: “I’d say 10.” I make Morey moves.
James isn’t the only player rumored to be interested. One report suggests that the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan has been “focused” on playing in Houston, his hometown, ever since the two teams’ infamous locker-room “altercation” at Staples Center in January. The last time Jordan was close to joining a team in Texas, it didn’t pan out [sad emoji, plane emoji, horse emoji], and this one almost certainly will not, either. Houston already has Capela, who is nearly six years younger, and owner Tilman Fertitta has said he wants to retain the restricted free agent this summer. Aside from redundancy in the frontcourt, Jordan’s contract would never fit. Houston must get clever with its cap this summer to fit any sort of impact player into its books.The Rockets could trade for Jordan if he opts into the final year of his contract, like they did with Paul. But if Jordan forgoes his $24.1 million player option for next season in favor of testing the free-agent market, the Rockets would probably be able to meet his price only in a sign-and-trade, which would leave them hard-capped.
Trevor Ariza could also be facing a pay cut—not on the Rockets, but across enemy lines with the Warriors. Ariza will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and ESPN’s Chris Haynes said recently on the TK Show that the swingman is interested in Golden State. He would give the Warriors depth at the wing as a reliable veteran shooter, but he’d have to come at a bargain. Ariza made $7.4 million this season, but the Warriors will likely have only exceptions and veteran’s minimum deals to pad out their roster this summer.
Adding a starter from the team they just beat in the West finals, two years after doing the same with Durant, would surely only lead to more gripes about the Warriors’ unfair advantage. But if Morey has his way this summer, we may be saying the same about Houston soon.