December 19, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Rockets trade for Corey Brewer, Alexey Shved

corey brewer houston rockets Rockets trade for Corey Brewer, Alexey Shved

The Rockets made good on their intention of pulling off a trade by December 19th, acquiring small forward Corey Brewer from the Minnesota Timberwolves and guard Alexey Shved from the Philadelphia Sixers today. The deal was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

As part of the deal, the Rockets will send guard Troy Daniels along with a 2015 second round pick from Sacramento (via the Jason Terry trade), Houston’s 2016 second round pick (protected for picks 31-45) and cash. The Rockets also send their 2015 second round pick and the rights to Sergei Lishouk to Philly for absorbing Ronny Turiaf’s $1.5 million expiring deal. Houston uses part of the trade exception they created in the Jeremy Lin trade last summer to absorb Brewer’s contract.

To make room for Shved, the Rockets have released Francisco Garcia.

“A great situation, it’s going to be great,” Brewer told the Minnesota Star Tribune. “Playing with guys like Dwight Howard and James Harden, they’re in a playoff race. They have a good team. I think I can come in and help that. That they wanted to trade for me and think I can help, that means a lot.”

“I’ve got lots of room for more rings,” said Brewer, who won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. “Last time I went to Texas, it worked out. Make it 2-for-2 in Texas, the Texas Two-Step.”

At 6-foot-9, Brewer is a good defensive player that can cover both guards and small forwards. Despite playing only 28 minutes a game, Brewer is currently the league leader in steals at 2.3 a night. He can agitate and plays with a lot of energy, often gambling to steal passes in the lane.

So in Brewer, Houston adds a rotation piece at the wing spot. The Rockets (and their #2-ranked defense) needed to add some depth there as they have relied heavily on Trevor Ariza, who is playing a career-high 38.4 minutes a night — the second-most minutes of any player in the NBA this season, trailing only Jimmy Butler’s 39.8.

How Brewer will fit offensively, where his skills are a little more limited, is the better question. The ideal defensive role player for Houston would also have the ability to knock down the open three-point shot, but Brewer has no three-point range — he’s shooting 19% from distance this season and has hit just 29.1% from beyond the arc over his eight-year career. But he’s active on the offensive end. He is more of a slasher and often takes off in transition for easy layups. He is capable of a random big game, as we all remember his 51-point night against the Rockets last season.

The Rockets wanted to make a deal by December 19 so they could also be in a position to make a bigger deal down the line. By acquiring Brewer and Shved now, they will be eligible to be combined with other players in a trade in exactly 60 days — in other words, just before the NBA trade deadline in February.

Shved is not much of an offensive player, hitting just 36% from the field and 29% from three-point range for his career, but his $3.3 million expiring salary could later give the Rockets the flexibility to possibly keep a Jason Terry or Kostas Papanikolaou if a deal for a bigger contract does present itself at the deadline.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 25, 2014 at 10:49 am

Is James Harden leading the early MVP Race?

James Harden MVP

Despite being short-handed in nearly every game this year, the Houston Rockets are 11-3.

MK Bower of CultureMap joins me on the podcast from the Toyota Center after Houston’s 91-86 win over the New York Knicks. We discuss the win, the current state of the Rockets and how James Harden’s play is warranting serious MVP consideration.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
November 22, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Talking Rockets Depth Issues and Trade Possibilities with David Weiner

Houston Rockets podcast

The Rockets got off to blistering start but have cooled off considerably since returning from their game in Mexico, firing blanks from the outside and running into health issues with Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard missing games — and their schedule is about to get much tougher.

But the biggest thing that seems to be biting them right now is their lack of depth, particularly with their big man rotation.

David Weiner joins us on the podcast to discuss Houston’s bench depth issues, his recent article about the possible shift in cap strategy by the Rockets and potential trades to explore.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
November 21, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Shifting Perspectives on 2015-16 Salary Cap May Impact Rockets’ Immediate Plans

Houston Rockets Salary Cap Projections

Updated: November 24, 2014

Much has been made recently about the NBA’s new national television contracts and their massive impact on the NBA’s salary cap in future years.

This season’s maximum team salary cap is $63.065 million. Several months ago (before the new TV deal was signed), the league released a projected $66.5 million salary cap for the 2015-16 season. The new deal, which does not kick in until the 2016-17 season, could increase the salary cap that year to as high as $85-90 million!

In order to address what could be a problematic one-year spike in the salary cap, the league has proposed one or more proposals to the player’s union in order to “smooth” the salary cap increase over several seasons. This issue must be collectively bargained with the player’s union, so any failure to agree by those two sides would likely result in that one-year spike.

Changing Cap Projections

For several months (both before and after the size of the TV deals was known), many league executives have been preparing as if the 2015-16 salary cap would be artificially increased in order to reduce the year-to-year increase caused by the new TV revenues.

However, whether based on perceived resistance from the player’s union on the league’s “smoothing” proposals (one or more of which allegedly call for the salary cap to only increase at around the rate at which Basketball Related Income (BRI) has increased over the past several seasons) or on an inability for the league to come up with a “smoothing” proposal that objectively makes sense for all parties, things don’t seem to be looking very good for teams (like the Houston Rockets) hoping for a big jump in the salary cap for the 2015-16 season.

Zach Lowe, Grantland’s lead NBA writer (and, in my opinion, the best national NBA writer in the business), wrote in a November 5 article about the increasing likelihood that the new TV deal would not lead to an increase in the salary cap for next season:

“No one knows what will happen to the cap in 2015-16 and 2016-17, the first year of the league’s mammoth new national TV contract, but the league’s most recent projections for 2015-16 remain in the range of $66 million to $68 million, per several league sources. It appears unlikely the league bakes any of the anticipated TV money into the cap figure a year early, meaning the 2015-16 cap will sit right around where the NBA had projected it.”

In a subsequent piece from November 17, Lowe reiterated this assumption:

“There is some opportunity cost in forfeited cap space this summer, assuming that the 2015-16 cap sticks around the projected $66 million–to–$68 million range. That is what almost all team executives anticipate now.”

Potential Impact on Rockets’ Plans

The Rockets currently have about $55.9 million in guaranteed salary committed for next season (not including cap holds, incomplete roster charges and other cap considerations). However, with a beefed-up 2015-16 salary cap that includes some early incorporation of new TV money, Houston would be in position–with only a couple of minor trades–to create enough cap space to either offer a max (or at least near-max) contract to a major free agent or be able to trade for almost any player under contract (perhaps dangling that New Orleans pick on or after draft night as bait).

Unfortunately, if the cap stays at the currently-projected $66.5 million, things do not look nearly as rosy for the Rockets in 2015 free agency.

Assuming that the Rockets waive all non-guaranteed salary for next season (namely, Kostas Papanikolaou and Tarik Black), renounce their rights to Jason Terry and Francisco Garcia, keep Patrick Beverley‘s cap hold on the books (which cap hold assumes that Beverley meets the “starter criteria” enabling him to get a higher qualifying offer from Houston) and otherwise do not make any trades (I know, unlikely, but still), Houston would be in line to have less than $7.2 million in cap room next summer.

That’s a nice amount of cap room, but it’s not enough to add that third star that Rockets GM Daryl Morey has been after since landing Dwight Howard in July 2013. The Rockets would need to clear out Trevor Ariza‘s salary (taking little to no salary back) to even approach the type of room they could create if a “smoothing” proposal were adopted. While Ariza is by no means completely “off-limits” in trade, he is an integral part of the team Houston is trying to build and is an ideal fit starting next to James Harden.

This relatively recent shift in perspective by many league executives on the projected 2015-16 salary cap may be a large factor in the Rockets’ apparent willingness to trade for Corey Brewer, whose contract includes a $4.9 million player option for next season. It could also be a reason why Houston might be trying to exert additional pressure on other teams to cough up a star (or near-star) player sooner rather than later (see Dragic, Goran).

Conclusion

Whether Morey is among those league executives starting to lose hope that a “smoothing” proposal can be swept through league and player’s union approval in time for next summer’s free agency/trade season is anyone’s guess. But if he is, then this shift could ultimately be the deciding factor in whether the Rockets choose to bite the bullet and make potentially cap-clogging moves in the next few months.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 20, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Terrence Jones appears unlikely to be ready anytime soon

Terrence Jones

The initially not-serious leg injury to Terrence Jones continues to grow more mysterious by the day, with the forward’s absence now at eight games — over two weeks of real time — and counting.

Consider the timeline:

Nov. 3: Jones plays 30 minutes in a 104-93 win in Philadelphia but at much below his usual efficiency, scoring 6 points (3-of-11 FG) and grabbing 4 rebounds. Two nights earlier, Jones led the Rockets with 25 points (10-of-16 FG) and 10 rebounds in a home win over Boston.

Nov. 4: An hour before the Rockets play in Miami, the team lists Jones as out with a “bruised right leg”. Houston Chronicle beat writer Jonathan Feigen hears the injury “does not seem serious”.

Nov. 7: The Rockets update the official listing of the injury to a “Peroneal nerve contusion”, saying Jones will be out one week (same as Patrick Beverley, who was nursing a hamstring strain) and then reevaluated. This remains the last official Jones medical update from the team with a timetable.

Nov. 14: After said week, Kevin McHale says Beverley will be back “much sooner” than Jones. Beverley did, in fact, return for the next game (Nov. 16).

Nov. 17: Play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell says on the Rockets-Grizzlies telecast that the Rockets are “maybe a month or so away” from getting Jones back. If that timeline ends up accurate, meaning Jones returns Dec. 17 — his absence would be 19 games, or nearly 25% of the season.

Nov. 19: Houston’s PR team says a timetable on Jones hasn’t been set and that’s he’s being monitored regularly.

Nov. 20: In an interview with SportsTalk 790, GM Daryl Morey is asked for an update on Jones. His response, transcribed by ClutchFans user J.R.:

It’s a tough one. It came on quick, unexpected. They don’t know what triggered it. The nerve is not signaling his foot well but it’s coming back. It could come back as quick as it went. It’s longer rather than shorter. It’s gonna be awhile is what their best guess is. … They thought it could be caused by getting hit in the leg in a certain spot. The doctors are confident he’ll have a full recovery but don’t know when. If he was you or I, this would not be a big deal. He has full movement but just weaker now. Getting back to being a NBA player, that’s a much bigger difference.”

So in two-and-a-half weeks, this has progressed from “does not seem serious” to still “gonna be awhile”. Considering they’re also challenged up front by a minor knee injury to Dwight Howard and sub-standard play from Jones’ replacement Donatas Motiejunas (5.4 points on 36.7% FG, 5.1 rebounds, PER of 8.1), it’s certainly not welcome news for an already thin group of Rockets’ bigs.

From what I can tell, Morey’s comments look on point. Jones has been seen walking around Toyota Center without a noticeable limp. The issue, of course, is that he’s been in suits rather than basketball gear. His routine walking movement seems fine, but the nerve injury appears to have shut Jones down from any sort of strenuous physical activity.

As a result, the longer this goes on, the trickier it gets. Not only will Jones have to rehabilitate the leg, but he’ll also face a major challenge in regaining the peak conditioning that it typically takes players an entire training camp and preseason to attain. There’s also the issue of Jones’ game being extremely dependent on his speed and athleticism. Naturally, because of all the variables in play, a precise timetable for his return to play is becoming rather difficult.

I reached out to Will Carroll, lead writer for sports medicine at Bleacher Report, to see if he could recall any comparable injuries whose recoveries could serve as a template. Carroll referenced Carson Palmer, the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals (though he’s now out for the season with a torn ACL, a different injury), as a possible analog. Though the nerve injury to Palmer was to his arm rather than his leg, the functionality of the throwing arm for an NFL quarterback would carry similar importance. Palmer, who suffered the injury on Sept. 8, was able to return on Oct. 12.

Summary: The reason no one knows a timetable is because even the Rockets themselves don’t know. The situation remainds fluid. What is clear, though, is this: the longer we go without hearing word of Jones resuming physical activity, the more concerning the situation becomes. It’s a real shame for Jones, who in his third year was off to a very encouraging start (14 points on 52% FG, 7.5 rebounds, 19.4 PER in 29 minutes) as the Rockets’ starter on the front line next to Howard.

In the meantime, starting Saturday, the 9-3 Rockets play five games in eight nights. With some luck, it seems Howard could help out that difficult stretch by returning early next week.

Jones, however, appears much further away, with no resolution on the horizon.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 10, 2014 at 3:46 pm

New Dwight Howard documentary is worth the watch

Dwight Howard In The Moment

I had the pleasure of attending the premiere Sunday night of the new Epix documentary “Dwight Howard: In the moment” at the Wortham Center in downtown Houston. The documentary will debut this Wednesday, November 12th, on Epix.

It was a fun night — I got to say it was pretty wild being in this movie theater. It felt like the Houston Rockets were a comic book and I was in their universe. Daryl Morey was in the row behind me, Dwight Howard was a few rows ahead of me and Les Alexander came in and sat down about six seats to my right. I immediately regretted not getting some popcorn sooner as there was no way I was going to make the team owner stand up for me to get by.

Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela were a few of the Rocket teammates I saw there, and James Harden made his entrance wearing a straw hat, making me question everything I know about fashion.

James Harden straw hat

Enough about that though — the documentary was quite good. I thought I knew a lot about Dwight, but I still learned quite a bit in this film, especially about his childhood and high school days in Atlanta.

There is also a raw honesty about the film. Dwight doesn’t hold back in confessing that he did go to management in Orlando asking for coach Stan Van Gundy to be fired, which led up to the classic interview where Van Gundy outed Dwight for doing it only to have Dwight show up. Even though I’ve seen it several times, the film does a great job of still making you cringe at this moment.

Dwight also admits that he and Kobe Bryant did not have the right chemistry in Los Angeles. Given some of Kobe’s public comments that are presented in the film, he felt there was no way he could win with the fans there. These were two negatives I thought Dwight would want to avoid, but he tackles them head-on in the film and I have to give him credit for that.

The clear high-point of Dwight’s career, which is focused on in the film, is the 2008-09 Orlando team that Dwight led to the NBA Finals. Dwight talks about how close everyone on the team was, and how they had a great chemistry and a lot of fun together. It then talks about how Dwight got a rude awakening to the business side of the league when they traded away Courtney Lee and then Hedo Turkoglu that very summer. They come full circle to Houston in saying that Dwight is finally back with a team that is close-knit and like a family as that Orlando squad was… of course, only a Rocket fan would catch the irony of this as they pan to a photo of Dwight in a huddle with Marcus Camby, Aaron Brooks, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons as they’re making this claim.

One more thing — I’m very familiar with Dwight’s sense of humor so I usually see it coming, but I must say there was a moment early on in the film where Dwight was talking to a nine-year old boy that had me laughing out loud. It’s a great exchange.

The only criticism I would have is that the film felt a little unfinished simply because Howard’s story is unfinished — significant success in the playoffs with the destination he ultimately chose (Houston) would make this a terrific feel-good story, but that’s unwritten as of yet. But whether you’re a Rocket fan or not, you’re going to enjoy this in-depth look at Dwight’s journey.

Interviews from the Premiere:

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 7, 2014 at 10:01 am

The red-hot 6-0 start for the Houston Rockets

James Harden poster slam

Off to their best start in 18 years, the Houston Rockets are simply rolling right now.

MK Bower of CultureMap joins me on the podcast to talk about the impressive 6-0 start and how this team has changed this season — from the defensive improvement to Trevor Ariza’s impact to James Harden’s commitment on both ends of the floor.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
October 28, 2014 at 11:13 am

Houston Rockets Salary Cap Update

Since striking out swinging for a super-team (a risk that, in this author’s opinion, was well worth taking), the Houston Rockets have been waiting for their next chance to get that significant hit.  So far, there has been a single or two for Rockets GM Daryl Morey; but that situational at-bat has not yet presented itself for the next big swing to be taken.

With the Rockets closing the book on training camp and ready to enter the regular season, it’s time to once again take a look at the team’s current salary cap situation and where the Rockets can go from here.

Player Salary, Exceptions and Available Cap Room

(Salaries and contract information courtesy of ShamSports.com and some good old-fashioned digging.)

Daryl Morey

Daryl Morey is positioning the Rockets to be able to make a significant trade this season

The Houston Rockets currently have the following player salary commitments, cap holds and salary cap exceptions available for the 2014-15 season:

Player salary commitments:

Dwight Howard ($21.44 million), James Harden ($14.73 million), Trevor Ariza ($8.58 million), Jason Terry ($5.85 million), Kostas Papanikolaou ($4.8 million), Terrence Jones ($1.62 million), Donatas Motiejunas ($1.48 million), Clint Capela ($1.19 million), Joey Dorsey ($948,163),  Patrick Beverley ($915,243, non-guaranteed), Francisco Garcia ($915,243), Isaiah Canaan ($816,482), Troy Daniels ($816,482), Nick Johnson ($507,336) and Tarik Black ($507,336, partially guaranteed for $50,000), along with guaranteed money owed to Jeff Adrien ($915,243), Ish Smith ($915,243), Robert Covington ($150,000) and Akil Mitchell ($150,000).

Cap holds:  None.

Exceptions:

(1) a trade exception from the Jeremy Lin trade that allows Houston to absorb one or more contracts totaling not more than $8.47 million (and which CANNOT be combined with other salaries for matching purposes in trades); and

(2) the Biannual Exception (BAE), which allows Houston to sign one or more players to contracts with starting salaries totaling $2.077 million for up to two years in length.

Given Houston’s current salary situation, the Rockets can no longer waive enough cap exceptions and salary to drop below the cap.  Barring another big trade in which meaningful salary is sent out for little/nothing in return, do not expect the Rockets to have any cap room this season.

The Rockets are about $9.6 million shy of the luxury tax threshold and about $13.6 million shy of the “apron” level that also acts as a hard cap for Houston this season.  That should be enough room for the Rockets to utilize most of the Lin trade exception, possibly the BAE, and still use salary matching rules to take on additional salary.  If there is a move to be made for a third star player, don’t expect the luxury tax to be a significant deterrent for Rockets owner Leslie Alexander.

What Are They Doing?

As expected, Houston elected to operate over the salary cap this season, most notably because the combined value of their cap exceptions far exceeded the amount of cap room the Rockets would have had to make player acquisitions.

Instead, the Rockets have been attempting to fill out their bench with shooting (Garcia, Daniels) and defense/toughness (Dorsey, Black), all with league minimum signings.  In fact, other than signing the very raw Capela to his first round rookie scale contract, Houston has only made two additions making more than the league minimum salary since trading for Ariza in mid-July.

Jason Terry Houston Rockets

Jason Terry could be the key salary piece of a trade later this season

Papanikolaou — the 24-year-old Greek small forward whose draft rights Houston held — was lured away from Europe with an eye-popping two-year deal paying him most of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (other than the rookie minimum-sized portion used to sign Johnson to a three-year deal).  Even with the second year being both a team option and fully non-guaranteed until early October 2015 (making his contract a potentially valuable trade asset next summer), a $4.8 million starting salary is far more than players of Papanikolaou’s caliber normally receive when first coming to the NBA.

Terry — the 37-year-old veteran guard whose best days are behind him — was acquired from Sacramento in what was obviously a salary dump for the Kings.  The Rockets received Terry and two potentially valuable future second round picks in exchange for the non-guaranteed contracts of Alonzo Gee and Scotty Hopson, two players who were never part of the Rockets’ future on-court plans.  (Quick tangent: With the trade of Gee and Hopson, Houston’s total haul from the Omer Asik trade this past July is now Ariza, Terry, a potential lottery pick and two second rounders, making it one of the most underrated deals of the 2014 offseason.)

The Rockets also made some tough final cuts to bring their roster down to the league-mandated 15-man maximum.  The most controversial of the cuts were Adrien and Smith.  Many had felt that Adrien had out-played Dorsey for a backup big man spot; and coach Kevin McHale had been using Smith as his primary backup point guard throughout much of the preseason.

So why take on Terry’s contract (even for the second rounders)?  Why pay Papanikolaou so much?  Why keep Dorsey over Adrien?  And why get rid of Smith?

Why Are They Doing That?

As I mentioned on the podcast with Dave Hardisty back on July 1, the trades of Asik and Jeremy Lin threatened to leave the Rockets devoid of contracts large enough to match salaries in major trades to add talent to the core of Howard, Harden and (now) Ariza.

By acquiring the mid-sized contracts of Terry and Papanikolaou, Morey has put himself in position to at least be able to make trades for players in just about any salary range.

While CBA rules dictate that Terry’s salary cannot be aggregated with other salaries in trades for a period of two months after he was officially acquired (that period expires on November 16), he is immediately eligible to be traded by himself for one or more players making up to nearly $8.9 million.  Even if salary aggregation is required, Terry will be trade eligible long before the next mini-trade season begins in mid-December.

As a signed draft pick (rather than an outside free agent), Papanikolaou became trade-eligible only 30 days after his signing.

The most important part about Terry’s and Papanikolaou’s contracts, however, is their expiration date.  Terry’s contract expires after this season; and Papanikolaou’s has a team option that will most likely be picked up but that won’t remain guaranteed unless he greatly outperforms initial expectations or a major trade is made without using his contract (it being quite likely that Papanikolaou ends up being traded or waived instead).

With both salaries cleared off the books next summer, combined with a potentially huge increase in the salary cap, the Rockets could open up a significant amount of cap room.  Even if both players are waived/renounced, there is still a chance that one or both could be back on next year’s team at a reduced salary.

Joey Dorsey Houston Rockets

The length of Joey Dorsey’s guaranteed contract likely played a role in his making the final roster over Jeff Adrien

None of this is to say that Terry and/or Papanikolaou are not viewed as potential contributors to this Houston team.  But the presence of their mid-sized contracts (versus the bevy of rookie scale and veteran’s minimum contracts currently filling Houston’s roster) will facilitate a variety of trade options that otherwise would not be available to the Rockets, all while still allowing for material cap room next summer.

Dorsey — who had been battling a foot injury for much of training camp — was signed to a two year, $2 million contract this summer, which includes a fully guaranteed salary in 2015-16.  Unlike Adrien (whose contract — while fully guaranteed — would have expired after this season), Dorsey could not be cut without negatively impacting the Rockets’ available cap room in 2015.  That was never really an option for Houston.  This, combined with Capela’s decision not to play overseas this season, resulted in Adrien (who himself battled an ankle injury throughout training camp) being the unlucky “odd man out” among the bigs.

As for Smith (who also had a fully guaranteed one-year deal), his lack of a reliable outside shot — combined with the increasingly impressive preseason performance of Canaan and the growing belief within the organization that Terry can be passable as a backup point guard playing alongside Harden — spelled his doom.  And with the Rockets otherwise lacking in depth at the small forward position behind Ariza and the rookie Papanikolaou, roster balance dictated that Garcia should claim a roster spot over Smith.

Conclusion

Morey has done an admirable (albeit not sensational) job of picking the team up off the canvass after a major swing-and-miss for a super-team.  The resulting supporting group of players is expected to provide the Rockets with both added perimeter defense and improved three-point shooting — two areas that sorely hurt the Rockets last season — while still offering the flexibility to make in-season trades of significance and/or to open up significant cap room next summer.

While the scoring and play-making ability of Chandler Parsons and Lin, as well as the post defense and rebounding of Asik, will be missed in Houston, there have been improvements made in other areas.  The end result, the Rockets hope, is a team better prepared for the NBA Playoffs.  And maybe for a big trade, too.  All while preserving flexibility to make a major addition next summer.

Posted in Houston Rockets |