September 26, 2016 at 2:18 pm

James Harden is the Rockets’ point guard, but hasn’t he always been?

Mike D'Antoni and James Harden

On Monday after practice, new Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni got some headlines when he acknowledged the fact that James Harden is his point guard.

“He’s more or less going to be responsible for giving rhythm to the team — that’s what a point guard does,” D’Antoni said. “He’s going to be on the ball and he’s going to be distributing the ball. So it will take some adjusting. He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. He’s a good basketball mind. He’s already telling guys, ‘We can do this, we can do that’ so he’s great.”

While the Internet is lighting up with this “change”, it’s really the role Harden has played for years here in Houston. Patrick Beverley’s job has always been to defend, hit spot up shots and take care of the ball. Harden has been the drive and dish playmaker of the team.

Both the coach and player acknowledged that not much is different.

D’Antoni, who chose the title of “points guard” for Harden, said “very little” has changed about Harden’s role. He said 80% of this he was doing anyway.

When asked how this is different for him, Harden said, “It’s not.”

What is different about this training camp is that the Rockets are not shying away from it and are embracing it. Last year, with the addition of Ty Lawson, the Rockets talked about Harden playing off the ball and letting Lawson run the show — a plan that never got off the ground.

By embracing it, D’Antoni is saying Harden will have the ball right from the outlet pass.

“He doesn’t have to wrestle (now) with people trying to get the ball. He’s got it right from the get go,” said D’Antoni. “He doesn’t spend all the energy down there in a wrestling match with people trying to hold him, denying him and all that. There will be times where he’s off and Pat (Beverley) does it. We’ll find a happy medium between the two. But right now, he’s directing traffic.”

Here are the full interviews after practice with both D’Antoni and Harden.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
September 22, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Rockets trade Michael Beasley to Bucks for Tyler Ennis

Rockets trade Michael Beasley for Tyler Ennis

We thought a trade might be coming before training camp opened, but leave it to the Rockets to wait until the last day.

On the eve of Media Day at Toyota Center, the Rockets have made a trade, sending forward Michael Beasley to the Milwaukee Bucks for third-year point guard Tyler Ennis. The deal was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

The Bucks recently lost Khris Middleton to a torn hamstring while the Rockets need some depth at the point guard spot, so the deal may be beneficial here for both teams.

Beasley can score in a hurry, so it’s a surprise that new coach Mike D’Antoni would look to move him, but with new stretch four Ryan Anderson signed and Donatas Motiejunas likely to return, the Rockets had a surplus at the position. Beasley also will be a free agent in 2017.

Ennis is interesting. He’s a former first round pick (18th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft) of the Phoenix Suns who was traded to Milwaukee in the Brandon Knight/Michael Carter-Williams trade in February of 2015. He hasn’t done much in the league in his first two seasons, but he’s very young (just turned 22) and was touted as a pure point guard coming out of Syracuse.

The Rockets point out that in the final 18 games of the 2015-16 season, Ennis hit 48.3% from the floor while posting 7.6 points, 3.7 assists and 2.8 rebounds in just under 24 minutes a night. He is not careless with the ball and runs a strong pick-and-roll, which no doubt was attractive to the Rockets given how important that is to a D’Antoni squad.

Daryl Morey and company have done this type of move before, acquiring a young point guard who was stashed on the bench when Houston landed Kyle Lowry in 2009 for Rafer Alston. That’s not to say Ennis is a future Lowry, but there is some upside here given that Ennis could see opportunity in Houston.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
September 9, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Jeff Van Gundy thinks Rockets will be an offensive juggernaut

Jeff Van Gundy Houston Rockets Coach

After a season of mediocre .500 ball and a handful of changes this offseason, the Houston Rockets are tough to project for 2016-17.

Not for Jeff Van Gundy. The former Houston coach thinks this new Rockets squad will be extremely strong on one side of the ball.

“Defensively, they’re going to be challenged,” said Van Gundy. “But offensively, they’re an absolute juggernaut.”

Van Gundy spoke with Adam Clanton of SportsTalk 790 on Friday to discuss Yao Ming as he’s set to go into the Hall of Fame this weekend, taking time to talk about this year’s Rockets as well.

Calling new coach Mike D’Antoni a “home run hire”, Van Gundy thinks the Rockets will win 50 games.

“I think they’re going to be impossible to guard,” said Van Gundy. “The only issue is the guys they signed are talented, talented offensive players and shooters, but can they hold up? Nene to me is a great value signing, a very low contract and a very productive player. (Ryan) Anderson and (Eric) Gordon have had multiple injuries these past few years. If they can stay healthy, I think they’re a 50-win team.”

Van Gundy also said he “chuckles” all the time at the criticism of James Harden, who he calls an “absolute elite player.”

“I never heard this criticism of Steve Nash,” said Van Gundy. “No one was talking about his defense. They were talking about what a great offensive talent he was.”

It’s an excellent interview and you can listen to it in its entirety here.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
August 17, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Bill Worrell planning retirement, Craig Ackerman to take over road TV duties

Bill Worrell Houston Rockets

Longtime Rockets broadcaster Bill Worrell is planning his retirement, a source informed ClutchFans today.

Worrell plans to retire after this coming season, though there is a slim possibility that he will remain for two more years. However, the transition is underway. The Rockets are currently planning some broadcast changes as a result, with Worrell doing the play-by-play for Root Sports on just the home games this season.

The current plan is for Rockets radio voice Craig Ackerman to take over Worrell’s television broadcaster role for road games. Ackerman should do a terrific job as he’s passionate about the team and his playcalling. You can see his voice/calls synced to video here from the Rockets Game 6 comeback against the Clippers in the 2015 West semifinals.

As for who will do the radio call, SportsTalk 790’s Matt Thomas will fill in for Ackerman on the radio play-by-play for road games.

That’s not the only role Thomas will play this season. ClutchFans has learned that Thomas will take over the public address announcer duties at Toyota Center, replacing John Paul Stevenson, who has been in that role since 2006. Stevenson will remain with the organization.

Thomas was the PA announcer at The Summit for the Rockets during the championship seasons of 1994 and 1995. The Rockets are preparing for their 50th anniversary season so the move coincides with that direction. Thomas does a great job and should bring back some nostalgia as well, but it’s a shock they would replace Stevenson, who has been very strong for 10 seasons.

As for Worrell, he is a Houston treasure, having been a fixture in our city for over 30 years. He has been broadcasting Houston Rockets games since 1983, then with Home Sports Entertainment (HSE). He also covered the Houston Astros from 1985 to 2004.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
August 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Houston Rockets release 2016-17 schedule

Houston Rockets 2016-17 Schedule

We’re smack dab in the middle of the NBA’s dead period, but we got a little tease on Thursday as the league released their 2016-17 game schedule.

The Houston Rockets, armed with new shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to play alongside James Harden, will open the season on the road as they face the team Mike D’Antoni’s previously coached, taking on the Lakers in Los Angeles on October 26th. The Rockets follow that up with an away-home doubleheader against the Dallas Mavericks.

It’s a fairly tough start for the Rockets as seven of their first eight games are on the road, including road matchups with the Cavaliers and Spurs.

Dwight Howard makes his return to Houston on February 2nd when the Atlanta Hawks come to town, though it won’t be the first time he faces his former team. The Rockets-Hawks square off in Atlanta on November 5th.

The Golden State Warriors were already a hot ticket but it’s clearly the show to see now with Kevin Durant joining Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Warriors will play at Toyota Center on January 20th and March 28th.

Anderson and Gordon will make their return to New Orleans on February 23rd when the Rockets take on the Pelicans.

Holiday game dates? The Rockets had played on Christmas Day in three of the previous four seasons but it will not happen this season. They will play on New Year’s Eve at home however, taking on the Knicks.

You can see the full Houston Rockets 2016-17 schedule at Rockets.com here.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
July 22, 2016 at 11:36 am

Rockets are looking for a new Clutch the Bear

Clutch the Bear Houston Rockets mascot

The Houston Rockets will be looking for a new person to play their mascot, Clutch the Bear, a source within the organization confirmed to ClutchFans.

Robert Boudwin, who has played “Clutch” for 21 seasons, will not be back with the team.

The team’s mascot is a member of the Mascot Hall of Fame and has nearly 150,000 followers on Facebook. The Rockets will be holding open auditions looking for a new person to play their mascot, possibly in August.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
July 13, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Pablo Prigioni returns to Rockets, signing a two-year deal

Pablo Prigioni Houston Rockets

Pablo Prigioni is coming back to Houston.

The 39-year old point guard has agreed to sign a two-year deal with the Rockets, according to Adrian Wojnarowski. The second year of the deal is a team option. With Houston being capped out, this has to be a veteran minimum salary.

In February of 2015, the Rockets acquired Prigioni in a mid-season trade with New York. With Patrick Beverley out, Prigioni ended up being a rotation piece for Houston’s postseason run when he logged over 17 a minutes a night in 17 playoff games. He was especially important late in the West semis against the Clippers.

The Rockets dealt Prigioni this past summer to Denver as part of the Ty Lawson deal. After being waived by the Nuggets shortly after, Prigioni signed a deal with the Clippers, playing in 13.9 minutes a game over 59 games, averaging 2.5 points and 2.2 assists.

Prigioni was a strong three-point shooter in New York, but he has struggled from deep in both Houston and Los Angeles. His strength is in the pick-and-roll, as we saw several times with Pablo and Capela running it nicely.

Though he’s not likely to make a major impact, the Rockets do add an experienced backup here.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
July 12, 2016 at 11:10 am

Houston Rockets Salary Cap Update: 2016 Offseason Edition

Ryan Anderson Eric Gordon Houston Rockets

Well, that was an eventful Saturday afternoon press conference!

At that press conference, the Houston Rockets introduced their two key free agent acquisitions, sharpshooting power forward Ryan Anderson (“4 years, nearly $80 million) and dynamic scoring guard Eric Gordon (4 years, nearly $53 million). Both players are expected to add much-needed shooting, floor-spacing and shot creation to an offense that relied far too heavily on James Harden last season.

Then, in a surprise move, the Rockets also announced that they had renegotiated and extended Harden’s deal so that he will get paid the maximum salary through 2020 (the last season being a player option). I wrote more about that extension here

This seemed like as good a time as any to examine these moves (and others) and their salary cap implications for the Rockets.

Since My Last Update…

Here are some Rockets-related moves that happened since my last salary cap update:

  • In the 2016 NBA Draft, the Rockets selected Chinanu Onuaku (6-10 C out of Louisville) with the 37th pick and Zhou Qi (7-1 C out of China) with the 43rd pick
    Immediately following the draft, Houston agreed in principle to multi-year partially-guaranteed deals with undrafted free agents Gary Payton II (6-3 PG out of Oregon State), Isaiah Taylor (6-3 PG out of Texas) and Kyle Wiltjer (6-10 PF out of Gonzaga)
  • Dwight Howard opted out of his contract for 2016-17 and later agreed to a new 3-year, $70 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks
  • The Rockets extended a qualifying offer to Donatas Motiejunas, making him a restricted free agent (no qualifying offer was made to Terrence Jones, who became unrestricted)
  • The salary cap for the 2016-17 season was set at $94.143 million (with a luxury tax threshold of $113.287 million)
  • On the second day of free agency, the Rockets agreed to deals with Anderson and Gordon
  • The Rockets agreed in principle to a one-year, $2.9 million deal with Nene (Hilario)
  • In order to clear cap room for the Anderson and Gordon deals and the Harden extension, Houston renounced its rights to free agents Howard, Jones, Josh Smith and Jason Terry and also waived Andrew Goudelock

Player Salary, Exceptions and Available Cap Room

The Houston Rockets currently have the following player salary commitments, cap holds and salary cap exceptions available for the 2016-17 season:

Player salary commitments: Harden ($26.54 million), Anderson ($18.7 million), Gordon ($12.4 million), Trevor Ariza ($7.81 million), Brewer ($7.61 million), Beverley ($6.0 million), K.J. McDaniels ($3.33 million), Sam Dekker ($1.72 million), Michael Beasley ($1.40 million – non-guaranteed until August 1), Clint Capela ($1.30 million), and Montrezl Harrell ($1.05 million).

Cap holds: Motiejunas ($5.72 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights). Second round picks (like Onuaku or Zhou Qi) do not count against the cap until they are signed. Since none of Payton, Taylor or Wiltjer have actually signed, none of them count against the cap.

Other Salary Cap Exceptions: Because the Rockets opted to drop below the salary cap in order to use their available cap room on Anderson, Gordon and Harden, they have lost the use of the “full” Mid-Level Exception and the Bi-Annual Exception. Instead, they are limited to using the Room Exception ($2.898 million), which can be utilized once they use all of their cap space. Presumably, this Room Exception has been dedicated to Nene.

Given these salary commitments, cap hold and exceptions, and based on a 2016-17 salary cap of $94.143 million, the Rockets have only a little more than the rookie minimum salary’s worth of cap room remaining. If Motiejunas leaves in free agency, Houston’s available cap room could increase to nearly $6.3 million, but for reasons described below, that probably won’t happen. As with all of these updates, these figures assume the Rockets do not make any trades; but as we all know, GM Daryl Morey is always looking for trades that can help his team.

So… What Happens Next?

Houston Rockets Donatas Motiejunas against Draymond Green

The Rockets can go over the cap to re-sign restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas

Bring Back D-Mo: It’s no coincidence that Houston waived its rights to all of its free agents except for Motiejunas. As one of the league’s top remaining free agents on the market, D-Mo will very likely receive an offer sheet (or perhaps even an offer from the Rockets) well in excess of his $5.72 million cap hold. Since the Rockets hold Motiejunas’s Bird rights, they can exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign him or to match any offer sheet. With precious few impact players willing to take $6 million or less in this market – I’m still surprised Houston got Nene for just $2.9 million – odds are that the Rockets follow through with their threats to match any offer sheet for D-Mo, even if it is somewhat excessive. In the alternative, the Rockets could conceivably sign and trade Motiejunas as part of a package for another key contributor, although (what used to be known as) “Base Year Compensation” issues with D-Mo might complicate some trade scenarios.

Save a Little Something for Nanu: Expect the Rockets to use their remaining salary cap room to make Onuaku part of a Rockets tradition that has spanned from Chase Budinger to Chandler Parsons to Isaiah Canaan to Nick Johnson to Harrell. Each of those players were early to mid-second round picks who received a multi-year (three or four seasons) deal from the Rockets with a starting salary above the rookie minimum. (Johnson’s salary was right at the rookie minimum, but he got three years, fully guaranteed.) Morey and company have always tried to lock in these second round picks to longer-term deals in order to secure talent on the cheap. They will likely try to sign Onuaku before signing or matching an offer sheet for Motiejunas. However, given the increased salaries being handed out to other early second rounders this summer (such as Deyonta Davis and Ivica Zubac), there is some risk that Onuaku might take the “K.J. McDaniels Route” and instead accept a one-year rookie minimum deal in order to hit restricted free agency next summer. The Rockets will try to resolve any such issues with Onuaku sooner rather than later.

The Undrafted Guys: While it was reported on draft night that the deals agreed to in principle with Payton, Taylor and Wiltjer were for three years each, the Rockets’ lack of cap room may necessitate that those deals become two-year contracts instead. The third year of each player’s deal was likely non-guaranteed, and each deal was likely negotiated to include a third season to the extent the Rockets had cap room available for that purpose. If there is any additional cap room that opens up, some of it may be used to sign Payton for a third year, then maybe Taylor and/or Wiltjer, too.

Gentile Will Have to Wait: Despite registering interest in playing for coach Mike D’Antoni, it appears 2014 second round pick Alessandro Gentile will have to wait at least another year to play for the Rockets. Reportedly, Gentile recently committed to stay one more year with Olimpia Milano after failing to reach agreement with Houston. With a glut at the wing positions and with little to no cap room to spare (Gentile would have probably required more than the rookie minimum to make the jump to the NBA), a fit could not be found at this time. With several other NBA teams reportedly expressing interest in Gentile, don’t be surprised if Houston trades his draft rights, whether for a future pick or as a sweetener in a larger trade.

Looking Ahead to 2017

The Houston Rockets currently have the following player salary commitments, cap holds and other salary variables for the 2017-18 season:

Player salary commitments: Harden ($28.53 million), Anderson ($19.54 million), Gordon ($12.96 million), Brewer ($7.58 million), Ariza ($7.42 million), Beverley ($5.51 million), McDaniels ($3.48 million – team option), Capela ($2.33 million – team option), Dekker ($1.79 million – team option), and Harrell ($1.09 million)

Cap holds: Nene ($3.48 million – Rockets hold Non-Bird rights), Beasley ($1.01 million – Rockets have Early Bird rights)

Other Variables: Motiejunas (if retained – 2017-18 salary unknown), Onuaku ($905,249 one-year vet minimum, fully guaranteed?), Payton ($905,249 – partially guaranteed?), Houston’s 2017 first round pick ($1.1 million to $2 million cap hold?)

With a projected salary cap of $102 million (recently revised downward from prior estimates as high as $110 million), the Rockets were not expected to have max cap room, even before the Harden extension. Add to that any salary paid to Motiejunas, and that cap room becomes relatively minimal in the grand scheme of attracting star free agents. Even if Motiejunas is allowed to walk this summer, all team options (except for Capela’s) are declined and Brewer is jettisoned for no salary in return, the Rockets wouldn’t have more than about $21 million in cap room in a summer when the lowest max salary is expected to exceed $24 million (subject to further increase in the upcoming CBA negotiations).

If the Rockets are going to add another star in 2017, it will probably need to be either via trade or with cap room created by trading pieces out. But if Houston can get back to its winning ways, there is a decent chance that teams swimming in cash again next summer would be willing to take on some of the Rockets’ role players. (For instance, a trade for Brewer with only one year left on his contract – or after a bounce-back season – would be much more palatable to other teams than dealing for him now and would require less pick compensation from the Rockets in order to move him.)

Also, if the Rockets remain above the cap next summer, they could use the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (currently scheduled to be $5.8 million but subject to likely increase in the 2017 CBA) to add another contributor, perhaps including the long-pursued Sergio Llull.

Conclusion

The Houston Rockets have added some significant future pieces and locked up their franchise star longer-term, sending a statement to the league that they will not be in the same boat as teams like the Thunder and Kings, whose stars are (or will be) the subject to constant trade rumors. While cap flexibility may be more limited going forward, as Kevin McHale used to say, “Cap Flexibility” never scored a point or grabbed a rebound. Here’s hoping for many more points, rebounds and wins from Harden and his new crop of Rockets teammates.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Salary Cap Update |