Welcome to the annual NBA dead period.
The last free agent of significance to swap teams was Mo Williams, who joined Minnesota on a one-year, $3.75-million deal way back on July 28. Since then, the market has largely dried up as ring-chasing veterans appear to be taking their time in deciding if (and where) they’ll play.
The good news is that the market may soon pick up. Shawn Marion visited Cleveland on Monday and looks to have more visits on the near-term horizon. Ray Allen gave multiple interviews to reporters this week outlining his process and priorities in making a decision.
If the Rockets want to get involved with either, they have a compelling case. Besides offering a ready-made team with two superstars and visions of contending, they also have more money for spending than most other contenders. The Rockets have most of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE), which should amount to near $4.8 million after spending a small portion to lock up second-round pick Nick Johnson for three years.
They also have the biannual exception (BAE), which allows them to sign a players at a salary starting near $2.1 million for up to two years. That was what they appeared to offer to Kostas Papanikolaou last month, before backing away when the Greek forward asked for more money, which would’ve significantly cut into the team’s MLE.
So while the Rockets do have nearly all of both exceptions, there is a catch. The controversial decision to let Chandler Parsons walk to Dallas was made in large part due to a desire to maintain ample flexibility for the summer of 2015, which means the Rockets are unlikely to hand out a contract of more than one year (unless there’s a team option). That insistence on a one-year deal appeared to play a big role in Jameer Nelson‘s choice to head to Dallas on a two-year contract, despite recruiting pitches from Houston and former teammate Dwight Howard.
The Rockets could also choose to hold over a small portion of exception money for the regular season, potentially giving them a leg up on veterans who are bought out by losing clubs. However, even if that’s a consideration, there should still remain ample funds to use this summer. The team also has a $8.4 million traded-player exception (TPE) from the Jeremy Lin deal that could theoretically be used in a sign-and-trade, but there doesn’t seem to be a remaining free agent in that price tier and it appears GM Daryl Morey will likely hold onto the TPE for future trade proposals.
Here’s a look at where the club may stand with some of the marquee remaining free agents:
Why he fits: Despite leading the league in three-point attempts, the Rockets ranked only 15th in three-point accuracy. Other than newcomer Trevor Ariza, who shot a career-high 40.7% from behind the arc, no presumed Houston rotation player shot better than 36% from deep. Enter Allen, perhaps the most feared long-distance shooter in NBA history (40% career). He’s already used to playing a smaller bench role on a contender, and at 39 years old with four NBA Finals trips under his belt, he brings a level of championship experience that the current Rockets lack.
Why he may not: Well, he’s 39 and his game is clearly in some decline. He can still shoot well, but is it worth taking away minutes from the likes of Troy Daniels?
Verdict: This appears to be Houston’s primary target. We know from the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen that the Rockets and Allen have talked. We know from Allen’s interview earlier this week that he wants to play for a contender and is seeking more than a minimum contract. The only other contender to have comparable money to Houston is San Antonio, but the Spurs would have to boot Marco Belinelli from the rotation, and that seems unlikely. The bigger stumbling blocks would be the potential for Allen to retire and spend more time with his family, and whether he considers Kevin McHale the “great, veteran coach” he’s said to be looking for. If Allen decides to play in 2014-15, the Rockets would seem to have a real chance.
Why he fits: There’s only one remaining free agent who played at least 2,000 minutes for a playoff team last season. That’s Shawn Marion, who remained a full-time starter in Dallas until Parsons’ arrival pushed him out the door. At 36, he’s still a good defender at both small forward and power forward, rebounds relatively well and manages to score in double figures on offense without demanding the ball. The Rockets had depth issues last year, and Marion would seem to be a reliable candidate for at least average production. Marion lives in Dallas with a family and presumably would like to be close to home.
Why he may not: At this stage of his career, Marion is losing a step and still isn’t a good shooter from distance. That makes him more of a small-ball power forward than a small forward, especially in a system like the one in Houston that thrives on shooting and spacing the floor. And at the PF spot, the Rockets already have returning starter Terrence Jones, breakout candidate Jeff Adrien and high hopes for summer-league sensation Donatas Motiejunas. Marion could still play spot minutes at SF, of course, but the addition of Ariza should already go a long way toward shoring up last season’s defensive deficiencies.
Verdict: How long will Marion wait? Specifically, will he wait longer than Allen? That’s the real question. Marion’s market doesn’t appear to be strong at all. Last week, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he had had no contact with teams, and his free agency “tour” began this week with a visit to Cleveland, a team that can only offer him the league minimum. There haven’t been any reported leaks of dialogue between Marion and the Rockets, which makes it appear that the Rockets have other priorities. Marion could be a fit if the Rockets miss on other targets, but it would depend on how long he’s willing to let the process drag out. His plan this week to schedule visits could indicate that he’s getting a bit antsy, which may not bode well for Marion in Houston.
Why he fits: After trading Lin, the Rockets don’t have an offensive anchor to their bench unit. Despite his faults, Lin was quite useful because of his ability to play the role of catalyst when James Harden was off the floor, and his penetration skills were crucial in sparking the ball movement that McHale craves. Perhaps second-year guard Isaiah Canaan and/or rookie Nick Johnson can develop into a scoring point guard of that caliber in time, but it’s certainly not ideal for a title contender to rely on completely unproven talent in their rotation. It would appear that Sessions could be the perfect bridge. Long an analytics darling (PERs of 16.0, 17.7, 16.7 and 19.0 the last four seasons), Sessions is a foul-drawing machine and thrives on penetration opportunities. The Rockets have already reached out to Sessions in recent weeks.
Why he may not: Sessions isn’t a good defensive player, and if the Rockets are sold on either Canaan or Johnson, they may choose to prioritize other positions.
Verdict: It may hinge on whether Sessions will take a cheaper short-term deal for the upside of added exposure from playing on a playoff team. Historically, Sessions has chosen the opposite. He’s played on one playoff team in seven years, and in his last stint as a free agent, turned down better teams for a richer contract on the then-laughably-awful Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets). Additionally, the lack of buzz around Sessions this summer would seem to indicate he’s stalling in hopes of finding a better offer. Sessions would seem to fit well in Houston, but it will likely come down to whether he’s willing to take the sort of one-year contract that Nelson would not. The answer to that is probably out of Houston’s hands and depends on how the rest of the market values Sessions.
Why he fits: The young combo guard has been described by many as a potential superstar, and his negotiations with the Suns in restricted free agency have turned sour. It’s bad enough now that Bledsoe appears to be threatening to take Phoenix’s qualifying offer, which would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015 and leave the Suns for no compensation. The real logic behind such a move would seem to be leverage to get Phoenix to either raise its current offer (4 years, $48 million) or sign-and-trade Bledsoe to a team willing to meet his price tag. While the Rockets don’t have the cap room to meet his demands outright, they could eventually become a viable trading partner. When the non-guaranteed salaries of Alonzo Gee ($3 million) and Scotty Hopson ($1.45 million) become eligible to be traded in larger packages come September, the Rockets could theoretically offer Phoenix a sign-and-trade package focused around young pieces and draft picks and use a combination of non-guaranteed deals to approach a first-year salary figure that Bledsoe may consider (though not the max he’s said to be looking for). And after losing Channing Frye in free agency and adding Isaiah Thomas, the Suns appear to be one man deep in the backcourt and one man short in the front court. A trade to balance that disparity could make some sense.
Why he may not: Because Bledsoe wants a big contract and would require a sign-and-trade to acquire, it would essentially be a similar “all-in” move to the one the Rockets declined to make with Parsons. Is Morey that sold on him? Bledsoe has had a history of injuries, and while he’s shown flashes of being an elite player, he certainly hasn’t proven it on any sort of consistent basis.
Verdict: Too many ifs. For Bledsoe and the Rockets to have any shot, his situation would have to drag out into September. The Suns would have to be amenable to trading him to a conference rival. Bledsoe wouldn’t be able to get the max deal he craves in Houston, either, even with a combination of non-guaranteed deals. The math isn’t there. The only hope would be that Bledsoe would prefer a shorter-term, non-max deal to establish his value, much like Lance Stephenson opted for in Charlotte over a longer-term deal in Indiana. But even in that scenario, it would compromise much of Houston’s flexibility, so it would depend on whether Morey sees Bledsoe as the type of cornerstone “Big 3” piece that he did not with Parsons. It’s not impossible, but with many questions, it’s unlikely.
Why he fits: After trading Omer Asik, the Rockets don’t have a proven rim protector behind Howard. At one time, Emeka Okafor was just that. In his most recent season as an NBA player (2012-13 season), Okafor averaged 9.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1 block in 26 minutes per game in Phoenix. He missed the entire 2013-14 season with a herniated disc in his neck, but is said to be recovered and is still only 30 years old. Okafor isn’t historically an injury-prone player, having played in at least 67 games in seven of nine seasons. A Houston native, he would likely jump at the opportunity to play for his hometown team.
Why he may not: Morey has sung the praises of recently-signed Joey Dorsey, who he labelled as one of the best defensive bigs in Europe. The team has also had fairly decent results playing Motiejunas at center, a position he largely played with success during the offseason NBA Summer League. In short, we don’t know if Morey still considers backup center a position of concern.
Verdict: Will someone gamble on Okafor at more than the minimum? If so, the Rockets will probably be out of the race and focus on other positions. But if Okafor’s situation lingers and accepting the minimum becomes a reality, he could become a worthwhile gamble before training camp.
Why he fits: Experience with the system. Garcia has played a part in the last two Houston playoff teams, and at 33, he was the team’s elder statesman. Garcia was in and out of the team’s rotation, depending on if his shot was in rhythm, but he certainly had his moments — especially against Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City, a team that always stands in Houston’s way. At 6-foot-7, he has the versatility on defense to guard multiple positions.
Why he may not: The backup wing situation was bad enough in Houston that McHale turned to Troy Daniels in the playoffs despite getting almost zero experience in the regular season. And that came after the team traded for Jordan Hamilton at the trade deadline and briefly experimented with him in Garcia’s role. In short, the Rockets were clearly not satisfied with Garcia in a prominent rotation role and were actively searching for upgrades.
Verdict: It seems unlikely. Garcia is a liked guy in the Houston locker room, and by all accounts Garcia enjoyed his time in Houston. But even if the pursuits of Allen and Marion fail, there’s still Daniels, who the Rockets clearly hope is ready to take on a larger role this season. I’m sure Garcia would be welcomed back at the league minimum and as one of the team’s final bench players, but it seems more likely that he’d head elsewhere in search of a defined role.