We’re all constantly reminded that the NBA is a business, but only teams with forward-thinking models inspire the kind of code-switching that frames them as the billion-dollar companies they actually are. We don’t talk about the Kings’ risk profile. The Hornets may be boiling the ocean, but we definitely don’t discuss their Sisyphean task of escaping mediocrity in those terms. A team like the Rockets, on the other hand, has a strong sense of innovation; it’s one of their core competencies. With every new year comes a refurbished narrative about how the Rockets are pushing the boundaries of shot selection. In their defense, they almost always are. It was a twinkle in Daryl Morey’s analytical eye that became a subterranean revolution, first as an incubation project by the Rio Grande Vipers, the Rockets’ G League affiliate. But soon enough, it emerged in full bloom, culminating in what we witnessed last season, in which Houston wasn’t just shooting an unprecedented amount of 3-pointers, it was shooting them from farther away than ever, too. Market inefficiencies, you know?
It’s hard to imagine the Rockets topping their 2017-18 campaign in terms of how drastically the team changed its style and perception. They upended expectations in more ways than one. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s famed run-and-gun ethos was dismissed in favor of establishing favorable isolation matchups through the pick-and-roll. All the while, Houston proved a D’Antoni-led team could play top-10 defense for an entire season while maintaining one of the most efficient offenses in history. They developed the ideal center for their system in Clint Capela: a young, low-maintenance, athletic specimen who has become a perfect pick-and-roll option and a defensive fulcrum that can handle the pressure of defending more shots around the rim per game than any other player in the league. They found small-ball lineups with players like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute that could both slay giants and corral fellow miniature arrangements. In the aftermath of free agency’s boom time earlier this month, many of those lineups can no longer exist.
Perhaps more importantly, Capela, who emerged as a legitimate third star in the postseason, remains ensnared in contract negotiations that point to two unsatisfactory ends: either a one-year qualifying offer worth $4.7 million, or a long-term deal that falls well short of the max contract that, in most years, he’d likely command with ease. [Update: Capela has agreed to a five-year extension with the Rockets worth $90 million, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.] Attaining a star’s valuation is as much symbolic as it is tangibly beneficial: For a team like the Rockets, status can be everything. On a recent episode of the The Lowe Post podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reiterated what a source had told him about the effect of Houston’s hierarchy on team dynamics:
“One of the things that irritates Trevor in Houston and elsewhere, is that we’re all going out to dinner, and even though it’s a team and it’s a family, there are different rules for superstars than there are for everybody else,” Lowe said. “Superstars get stuff that we don’t get. And he’s just sort of had to swallow his idyllic vision of what a basketball team should be.”
It’s not necessarily shocking. This past season, we saw the Rockets institute an offensive system with a power structure more befitting of a group trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Houston put overwhelming pressure on its creators (James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon) to initiate everything, and everyone else was expected to fall in line. Capela (or his backups Nene and Tarik Black) was the vertical spacer, the person who dislodged defensive assignments and reoriented matchups for the benefit of a creator. The lowest of the three-tiered hierarchy in the Rockets system, it seemed, were the spot-up shooters, who remained stationary for the bulk of the team’s possessions. It can be a tedious, unfulfilling existence on the court. It’s a reflection of how Houston views the 3-and-D role in general: as a cheap, replaceable commodity.
The romantic notions of a positionless NBA conjure images of games in which five players go through an endless osmosis on the court, with each player absorbing and relinquishing the same responsibilities. The “unicorn” was supposed to be the final frontier; if centers are starting to shoot 3s and make plays on the move, what’s stopping the rest of the league? While the league’s talent pool is rapidly trending toward that overlying ideal, it’s not there yet, and it’s not particularly close. All any team can do is build a team that best functions around its central core; it just so happens that what works best for Houston’s star creators, Harden and Paul, is a bunch of players who know to get out of their way. By definition, those supporting players are less valuable.
Like its shot distribution, the Rockets front office doesn’t wade too deeply into the middle ground. More than half of the present roster is signed to deals that pay less than $2.5 million annually; three are being paid more than $20 million annually (even then, the Rockets are desperately trying to unload Ryan Anderson’s albatross). Houston has only three other players who don’t fit those two brackets, and all three are paid somewhere between $3.7 million and $13.5 million. (The Hornets, for reference, have 10 players who make an annual average between $2.5 million and $20 million; the Heat have nine.) In this league increasingly defined by interchangeability, it seems the Rockets see it as less about skill and more about value. It’s not that Ariza and Mbah a Moute’s contributions weren’t important, it’s that the Rockets seem confident in their ability to find approximates for that level of service; there is no replacing what a player like Harden or Paul can do. That line of thinking is also what puts Capela in the gray zone he finds himself in now: Is his marginal utility as a defensive playmaker as essential as his offensive counterparts?
The Rockets took a gamble on the raw, but boundlessly athletic Capela with the 25th pick of the 2014 draft. This occurred less than two months after the conclusion of Dwight Howard’s first season in Houston, when Howard was paid more than $20 million annually over what would be three seasons of service. In 2015, the Rockets drafted Montrezl Harrell early in the second round, months before Howard’s final season with the Rockets. By the time Howard flocked to Atlanta in 2016-17, Capela was ready to assume the starting role, and Harrell was waiting in the wings. Capela fractured his fibula early that season, and Harrell stepped up admirably, to the point of Rockets fans wondering who might be the better starting option moving forward. Of course, Harrell was included in the trade that landed Paul, and now, with DeAndre Jordan in Dallas, Harrell is the best big man on the Clippers roster.
Earlier this week, the Rockets signed 2017 draftee Isaiah Hartenstein to a three-year deal. And so goes the assembly line. The Rockets have drafted five centers in the four drafts from 2014 to 2017, seemingly for the express purpose of finding capable Plan Bs. Capela has graduated from that university, from D-League standout to Dwight stand-in to fringe star, but is finding the job market to be less than inspiring—how relatable.
The Rockets have all but squeezed out the middle class by design, but how does the calculus of an analytically inclined franchise change after coming so tantalizingly close to the Finals? How does it change knowing there might be only so many more years of elite play from CP3? Accept Capela on a midrange deal, or take what production you can get out of one final year of Capela and trust in a system that has developed viable replacement big men in the past? Trade winds have subsided, yet negotiations between the Rockets and Capela persisted long after most of the members of the free-agent pool found their rightful homes. There was good reason for that. The Rockets are at a crossroads that, under a certain light, could be seen as a crisis of faith. Their decision speaks volumes.
This piece was updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on July 27 with additional information after publication.