Windows of opportunity close faster than you’d expect in the Warriors era. Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals was the closest the Spurs ever got to toppling the Warriors. Up 23 with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter, Kawhi Leonard exited the game with an apparent injury after Zaza Pachulia closed out hard and landed in Leonard’s airspace, causing a left ankle injury that knocked the Spurs star out of the series. Golden State swept the Spurs with Leonard ruled out; Kawhi has played only nine games for San Antonio since. He now wants out. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if the injury hadn’t happened. That’s a what-if that will haunt Spurs fans for years to come.
I’ve been wondering whether we’ll look back at last season’s conference finals in a similar way. Houston was far closer than the Spurs ever got, on the brink of winning a thrilling Game 7, up 11 at halftime before a run of 27 straight missed 3s sealed their fate and dropped them out of Finals contention. Now Houston has to try to run it all back. But their situation may have already changed too much for the Rockets to pretend they’re the same team as last year.
Trevor Ariza is gone. The Rockets’ quintessential 3-and-D wing, who took on tough assignments and shot nearly 37 percent from 3 last season, spurned Houston and agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns on the first day of free agency. He wasn’t the Rockets’ first priority, and it burned them. Chris Paul agreed to re-sign with the team on a four-year, $160 million maximum deal; it was the rare occasion in which losing a role player felt more consequential than retaining one of the biggest stars in the league.
A second surprise came Monday, when it was reported that Luc Mbah a Moute agreed to sign a one-year, $4.3 million deal with the Clippers. Despite his late-season ineffectiveness due to shoulder injuries, Mbah a Moute was a vital contributor to the Rockets’ “switch everything” defensive game plan last season (he had the best defensive rating of any Houston rotation player with at least 1,000 minutes)—Paul presumably got the news at a Cavs-Pacers summer league game in Las Vegas, as he was sitting courtside as the story broke. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who spoke to ESPN prior to the team’s game against the Clippers on Monday, assured fans that these moves weren’t influenced by the team’s impending entry into the luxury-tax zone (they’re currently on the books for roughly $118 million, approximately $5 million away from the tax). GM Daryl Morey also went on the summer league broadcast to make his case for their moves this summer.
“I saw a bunch of people are disappointed in our offseason,” Morey said. “We can just get Chris [Paul] back and it’s a good offseason.”
He’s not wrong. But if the Rockets’ inactivity in free agency has been puzzling, the plan they’ve outlined for themselves seems even more bizarre. Houston signed Michael Carter-Williams to a one-year, minimum deal. The cost is low, but it’s hard to trust the upside, even from a former rookie of the year. MCW hasn’t played more than 54 games in each of his past three seasons, and his shooting remains abysmal: He isn’t just a bad fit for the Rockets’ shooting ethos, he’s the antithesis. The Rockets are also expected to sign Carmelo Anthony to a deal once his buyout with the Thunder is complete. It’s not a perfect fit, given Anthony’s turbulent history with coach Mike D’Antoni during their days together on the Knicks. The Rockets thrived in an isolation-heavy system last season, but it was rooted in James Harden and Chris Paul’s individual efficiency. While there would be space for Melo to stay Melo, he proved in his season with the Thunder that he’s one of the least efficient players in the game.
Then there’s Clint Capela, the dynamic rim-running, rim-protecting center who was key in their second-round series against Utah. Capela, a restricted free agent, remains unsigned and without an offer sheet, despite arguably being the best player still on the market. Capela was expected to command near-max money this summer, but with much of the league strapped for cash (including the Rockets), he’s entered a strange and prolonged state of uncertainty. There’s been rumblings that Capela wants a $100 million deal, and that the Rockets offered a four-year deal worth around $60 million instead. Taking the qualifying offer (worth under $4.8 million) is a risk, but it could be the only way Capela eventually gets both the freedom and the long-term money he envisioned. For the Rockets, however, losing Capela—whether due to a late-arriving offer sheet or in free agency next season—could put their future in jeopardy. Morey, however, reiterated that he’s not worried.
”We need our best team on April 15th,” he said. “We’re going to either sign or trade or something to get us back to where we need to be [but] we also really like our group.”
The season is long, and as we saw from the Cavaliers last season, the Rockets don’t necessarily have to make all their moves during the summer to revitalize their team. The Rockets only want another shot at the Warriors, and I’m sure possible deals will come up. But after being shunned by LeBron this summer, and seeing the Lakers, Thunder, and Jazz either maintain their roster or make notable improvements in the West, this season is shaping up to be a tougher climb than the last. The Rockets, as it stands, should still be considered the second favorites out west, but a scary possibility looms: What if they’ve already reached their peak?