It’s been awhile since my last cap update, and the Houston Rockets find themselves in quite different territory than they did last July. Having put together what many thought to be a legitimate title contender, the Rockets viewed themselves as building upon a run to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Fast forward to now, and Houston is instead scrapping for the 6-seed in a Western Conference that features two teams — the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs — having among the greatest regular seasons ever. Almost everything that could have gone wrong for the Rockets has. Ty Lawson, their major off-season acquisition, was a disaster on the court. Their first round pick (Sam Dekker) missed most of the season with a back injury. Even their trade deadline deal of Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Pistons (for a mid-first round draft pick and millions in luxury tax savings) blew up in their faces when Detroit voided the trade due to concerns with Motiejunas’s back. Motiejunas — who the Rockets and most of their fanbase still really like — has played subpar basketball since returning from injury while trying to round himself back into form.
Since the Motiejunas trade was voided, the Rockets made a series of roster moves. The following is an explanation of each of those moves, from both a basketball and a salary cap standpoint.
Dumping a guy for nothing who was scoring ten points per game in limited action seemed like a fairly pointless act, but the situation between Thornton and the Rockets may have turned acrimonious following the voided trade. Also, Houston may have wanted to make better use of his roster spot. While Thornton probably could have helped the Rockets during the playoffs in spot minutes, he was unlikely to return next season.
Many (including me) believed Houston had a plan in place for a team like the Sixers to claim Thornton off waivers, which would have saved the Rockets around $1.7 million in salary and luxury tax while also helping the Sixers meet the salary floor before the end of the regular season. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), no team claimed Thornton’s one-year vet minimum contract off waivers, leaving the Rockets to foot the bill for the remainder of his salary and a heftier tax bill.
Putting a thoroughly unsuccessful marriage out of its misery, Houston bought out Lawson, releasing the point guard to catch on with another playoff team in exchange for Lawson leaving another $225,000 on the table (in addition to his entire 2016-17 salary, which he previously made non-guaranteed in order to facilitate his trade to Houston).
While Lawson’s non-guaranteed contract still held some value as a pre-draft trade chip, it is unlikely that the Rockets would have actually used it in lieu of chasing the top free agents this summer with the additional cap room created by waiving Lawson this June.
The Lawson trade was still a move a team like the Rockets probably makes nine times out of ten, especially given all of the downside protection involved, as more particularly described in my last cap update. Sadly, like many things for the Rockets this season, it just didn’t work out.
With the Rockets in desperate need of bench scoring, they turned to the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and signed its MVP, former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley to a two-year vet minimum deal. His salary for next season (approximately $1.4 million) is non-guaranteed if Beasley is waived by August 1.
Although Beasley has had a reputation as a knucklehead of sorts in the past, the Rockets (according to GM Daryl Morey) had solid intel that he now has his priorities in order and is ready to be a meaningful contributor to a good NBA team.
Thus far, Beasley is showing that he can score in bunches and, uh, . . . is not shy about taking shots. Through five games with the Rockets, he is averaging 10.8 points on 8.8 field goal attempts in just 14.2 minutes per game. Before last night’s extended playing time against the Grizzlies (and some purposely passive play in garbage time as the deep bench was able to get in on the scoring act), Beasley was averaging a whopping NINE field goal attempts in just 10.8 minutes per game!
With both Terrence Jones and Motiejunas heading towards restricted free agency, and with unrestricted free agent Josh Smith unlikely to return, the Rockets needed to add another power forward option to Montrezl Harrell. Getting Beasley on a cheap non-guaranteed deal represents good value for a Rockets team trying to maximize its cap space to make a run at adding up to two max free agents.
Following the losses of Lawson and Thornton, the Rockets bolstered their backcourt depth by signing another MVP, former D-League and Eurocup MVP Andrew Goudelock, to a two -year vet minimum deal, similar to the one signed by Beasley. Goudelock’s salary for next season (just over $1 million) is non-guaranteed if Goudelock is waived by August 1.
At 6-3, Goudelock is a combo guard with a knack for scoring. With 38-year-old Jason Terry currently filling that role in the Rockets’ rotation, the team needed another (younger) guard.
In his first extended action as a Rocket, last night against the Grizzlies, Goudelock displayed his scoring touch, putting up 11 points in 17 minutes, albeit at the end of a blowout win.
Neither Lawson (whose $13.2 million cap figure was far too rich) nor Thornton (whose relationship with the team had run its course) were going to be back next season. With James Harden and Patrick Beverley as the only true guards under contract for next season (and, no, I am not counting wing players like Corey Brewer or K.J. McDaniels as “guards” for this purpose), Houston wanted to add another cheap option.
The voided Motiejunas trade left the Houston Rockets hopelessly unable to drop below the luxury tax threshold. That, combined with the team’s largely ineffective bench corps, led Morey and his crew to adjust the roster in order both to boost bench scoring this season and to provide additional affordable players to fill its many open roster spots next season.
Here’s hoping these moves actually work out.