June 21, 2016 at 4:03 pm

Dwight Howard declines player option with Rockets, will become a free agent

Dwight Howard leaving Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard has declined the $23+ million player option on his Rockets contract for the 2016-17 season, paving the way to become a free agent on July 1, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The news is good for the Rockets, who are counting on having millions in cap room this summer to pursue free agents and are not expected to make a huge offer to Howard. Howard notifying the team early was a little bit of a surprise given that he had until the end of the month to decline the option.

The Rockets also hired Mike D’Antoni in the offseason, a coach that Howard struggled with in Los Angeles. From everything I’ve been told, the Rockets would like to have Howard back, but not at the salary he is expected to pursue (and I’m told it would be a good-sized gap), which makes it a good bet that this is the first step to the end of his Houston Rockets career.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 2, 2016 at 10:18 am

Corey Brewer likes Mike D’Antoni’s energy, but wants a strong defensive assistant

Corey Brewer on Mike D'Antoni

Corey Brewer was on ESPN Face to Face with Hannah Storm on Thursday, and he spoke about the Rockets hiring of Mike D’Antoni.

“He’s going to bring a lot of energy,” said Brewer of Houston’s new coach. “That’s what we need. We need some energy back here in Houston. It was a bad year this year. Expectations were high and we ended up playing really bad but I think Coach D’Antoni is going to come in and change all that.”

However, the Rockets small forward was quick to comment on where the Rockets really need to improve.

“But we’ve got to play some defense,” added Brewer. “So hopefully we get a good assistant to help Coach D’Antoni and we’ll be OK.”

Of course, the Rockets have added a strong defensive assistant to D’Antoni’s staff in Jeff Bzdelik, so we’ll see where this goes. As for D’Antoni, he mentioned on 790’s The Bottom Line with Adam Clanton and Sean Jones on Wednesday that he hopes to figure out how to get Brewer back to playing the way he played the year before last season.

Brewer does think the addition of D’Antoni will be big for James Harden.

“I think this is really good for James,” said Brewer. “The way he plays, with Coach D’Antoni’s offense, he’s going to have an amazing year. He’s going to make the game a lot easier for the rest of us. We’re playing high pace. There’s going to be a lot of open shots.”

Brewer also was asked about the relationship between Harden and Dwight Howard.

“It wasn’t as bad as people say it was,” said Brewer. “Superstars are going to have their disagreements and different things, but it was just a bad year. I’m not going to say it was either one of their faults. It wasn’t those guys not getting along. It was all of us. None of us played our best basketball and we got knocked out of the first round.”

Does he think Dwight will opt out and leave Houston?

“Probably only Dwight knows,” said Brewer. “For us, if he comes back, we’re going to be happy to have him come back. If not, good luck to him and we’ve got to do what we got to do to try to win basketball games next year.”

You can watch the full interview here:

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 1, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Video: Rockets introduce Mike D’Antoni as their head coach

Houston Rockets introduce Mike D'Antoni

The Houston Rockets introduced Mike D’Antoni today as the 13th head coach in the history of the franchise and Rockets owner Les Alexander didn’t waste any time addressing the fans and naysayers that have been critical of the hiring (it’s well known by now that roughly 13% of Houston fans polled approve of it).

We’ll have more up discussing the events today soon, but here’s the entire press conference.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 26, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Rockets to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach

Mike D'Antoni Houston Rockets coach

It’s only fitting that the Houston Rockets, led by a player who doesn’t play any defense, are hiring a coach that doesn’t coach any.

The Rockets have made their choice, working to finalize a deal with Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski.

D’Antoni was an innovator with the Phoenix Suns from 2003-2008, setting trends that are clearly visible in today’s NBA. He ran a fast-pace, high-octane offense centered around fast breaks, quick shots, pick-and-rolls and three-pointers. He averaged 53 wins a year in Phoenix, going to the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006. But two failed stints in New York and Los Angeles since then have taken the shine off as he’s been unable to duplicate the success he had with Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire and those Suns teams.

D’Antoni comes to the Rockets after nearly a full season as an assistant with the Sixers.

From a team needs standpoint, this is a shocking move. At his season-ending press conference (see video), Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was asked what the team was looking for in a coach.

“I think it’s going to be someone who embodies what we need which is we need to get our defense stronger,” said Morey.

In his 11-12 seasons as a head coach in the NBA, D’Antoni has never had a Top 10 defense.

On the other hand, is it really that surprising? Rockets owner Les Alexander makes these coaching hire decisions and has long been in love with those Phoenix teams. Former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, after being let go by the team in 2007, famously said that Alexander wanted to model the Rockets after D’Antoni’s Suns.

“My owner had issues with my style of play,” said Van Gundy then. “He wanted to be faster, Phoenix-like.”

The problem is the Rockets, nearly a decade later, already implement many of these offensive philosphies. The team was 8th in offensive efficiency in 2015-16, shooting the second-most three-point attempts in the league per game. The problem was they didn’t have the shooters/scorers. The key to improvement on offense, with or without D’Antoni, will be on roster upgrades — primarily adding shooters.

But upgrading their defense, which the team was expected to do by hiring a strong defensive coach, will now be more of a challenge. The Rockets were 20th in defensive efficiency last season.

D’Antoni has experience with both James Harden and Dwight Howard. He was an assistant coach with the 2012 USA Olympics team that Harden was a part of. He also coached Howard in 2012-13 with the Lakers, though it was not a great experience for either coach or player. It is largely expected that Howard, who holds a player option on his contract, won’t be back with the Rockets.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
May 10, 2016 at 1:27 pm

Houston Rockets Salary Cap Update: 2016 Offseason Pre-Draft Edition

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander

One year ago at this time, the Houston Rockets were battling through the Western Conference on their way to a conference finals series against Golden State.

Man, how things can change in one year.

Last summer, the Rockets had grand designs of building a championship-contending roster much better than the team that had just lost to the Warriors, who were clearly better than Houston. They were going to get back a (presumably) healthy Donatas Motiejunas. They re-signed both Patrick Beverley (a key piece missing from their playoff run) and Corey Brewer (an integral part of that playoff run). The Rockets even had a potential sign-and-trade deal lined up to acquire free agent LaMarcus Aldridge from Portland, but Aldridge ultimately chose to sign with San Antonio.

Fast forward about a year, and the Rockets look like a team in turmoil. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired just eleven games into his three-year contract extension. His replacement, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, did not fare much better, “leading” the team to a mediocre 37-34 record. James Harden and Dwight Howard could not get along and never truly meshed on the court. Brewer and Terrence Jones had utterly disappointing seasons. Motiejunas’s back injury lingered longer than expected, hampering his development. Even a February trade deadline deal of Motiejunas for a first round pick was voided after Motiejunas “failed” his physical in Detroit. As for the Rockets’ own first round pick, … more on that below.

The 2015-16 Houston Rockets season may go down as among the most disappointing, aggravating and just plain awful seasons in Houston sports history. For us diehard Rockets fans, this season felt like a long series of gut-punches. While getting a lone playoff victory over Golden State was nice and all, many felt that Houston’s elimination from the playoffs (4-1) was like a mercy killing.

With the season now ended, it’s time to once again take a look at the team’s salary cap situation and where the Rockets can go from here.

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: Howard ($23.28 million – player option), Harden ($16.78 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), Clint Capela ($1.30 million), Montrezl Harrell ($1.05 million), Michael Beasley ($1.40 million – non-guaranteed), and Andrew Goudelock ($1.02 million, non-guaranteed).

Cap holds: Jones ($6.22 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights), Motiejunas ($5.72 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights), Jason Terry ($980,431 – Rockets hold full Bird rights), and Josh Smith ($980,431 – Rockets have only Non-Bird rights).

Other Salary Cap Exceptions: If Houston operates over the salary cap this summer (an unlikely scenario but at least possible if Howard opts in to his contract), the Rockets will have access to the Mid-Level Exception (MLE), either the Non-Taxpayer variety ($5.628 million, the use of which would impose a hard cap at the “apron” level – currently projected at $112 million) or the Taxpayer variety ($3.477 million), as well as to the Bi-Annual Exception ($2.203 million). In the much more likely event that the Rockets use their available cap room this summer, they could instead have the Room Exception of $2.898 million at their disposal.

Given these salary commitments and exceptions, and based on the currently projected 2016-17 salary cap of $92.0 million, the most cap room the Rockets could create (barring trades … yeah, I know) is about $44.22 million. This assumes that Howard opts out of his contract and would involve renouncing rights to all free agents and waiving Beasley and Goudelock. If Howard opts in, that figure drops precipitously to $21.49 million. However, expect Howard to opt out and for the Rockets to hold onto Beasley and at least attempt to hold onto Motiejunas. So, adding their salaries/cap holds, that cap room figure comes out to about $38.19 million. Regardless, expect the Rockets to explore trades that could open up additional room.

So… What Happens Next?

As the Rockets prepare for the NBA Draft and the subsequent free agent season, there will be some internal maneuvering for GM Daryl Morey and his staff to do.

Most immediately, the Rockets need to hire a new head coach. With several prominent names still in contention (among them, Jeff Van Gundy, Frank Vogel and David Blatt), Houston is casting a wide net in their coaching search. This approach should benefit the franchise in gaining as much outside knowledge as it can while also establishing favorable long-term relationships around the basketball world. There is some thought that the Rockets might hold off signing a new head coach until after free agency begins, in order to allow a marquee free agent like Kevin Durant to join with Harden in hand-picking his own coach. But the likelier scenario is that the Rockets – perhaps with some input from Harden – hire “their guy” without putting that decision squarely in the hands of its prospective star players.

Kevin Durant Houston Rockets

Houston’s Plan A is to pursue Kevin Durant

Houston will need to decide whether to extend qualifying offers to Motiejunas ($4.43 million, more than he’d otherwise receive based on his prior salary due to meeting the “starter criteria” of starting 82 games over the course of the past two seasons) and to Jones ($3.53 million) in order to make them both restricted free agents and to give the Rockets the ability to match any offers from other teams. More on those decisions below.

In preparation for the eventuality that their pursuit of big name free agents to fill all of their cap room doesn’t play out as hoped for, the Rockets may also once again explore the possibility of bringing over one or more of its “draft rights held” players from overseas, led by everyone’s favorite tease, 2009 second round pick Sergio Llull. Houston’s courtship of the now 28-year old Llull (a 6-3 combo guard who has developed into one of the top guards in Europe) fell apart last summer, and Llull ended up signing a long-term contract extension with Real Madrid. However, reports are that the extension actually lowered Llull’s NBA buyout, thus far one of the biggest impediments to his NBA debut. After years of flirtation, most Rockets fans won’t be holding their breath for a Llull signing. But in a summer where free agent deals will hit astounding levels, having exclusive NBA rights to a player of Llull’s caliber may be helpful, either to sign him outright or as a trade asset.

Another international prospect who might help next season is Alessandro Gentile, a 6-7 scoring wing taken with a 2014 second rounder purchased by Houston. But with Ariza, Brewer, McDaniels and Dekker all under contract for next season, it is hard to see a role for Gentile without one or more trades clearing the Rockets’ glut at small forward.

Draft Day Maneuvering

The Rockets will enter the 2016 NBA Draft armed with the 37th and 43rd picks, about $2.96 million in remaining cash to spend before July 1, as well as an assortment of young players, draft rights and future picks to trade. However, unlike in years past, the prospects for a significant draft night trade – something that the Rockets are known to actively seek – will be fairly low.

Because Houston remains subject to a hard cap through June 30, the Rockets cannot exceed the 2015-16 “apron” level as a result of any draft night trade. With the Rockets a mere $242,000 or so shy of the apron, unless a trade involves Houston dumping salary, most trades will be prohibited. Of course, a trade could be agreed to in principle, with the actual consummation of that trade not going through until following the July Moratorium.

Houston will be without its own first round pick (15th overall), which was sent to Denver in the Ty Lawson trade. The protections on that pick were unique in that the top-14 protected first rounder in 2016 immediately converted to a 2017 second round pick if the Rockets missed the playoffs, rather than the more common carryover of owing a future first round pick (a restriction that often has lingering negative effects on a team’s ability to trade future draft picks). So while the Rockets could have kept a pick in the 12-14 range had they missed the playoffs in the last week of the season (owing only Portland’s second rounder next season), they instead convey their pick and move on.

As for the draft slots Houston currently holds, the Rockets could go in a number of directions. They could elect to use both picks on players to add to their roster for next season, as second round picks count $0 against the cap until signed, and there is expected to be a lot of roster turnover this summer anyway. They could instead use one (or both) of those picks on an international draft prospect, as this year’s draft is expected to have one of the deepest international crops in recent memory. The Rockets could also look to move up in the draft – something they often try to do – although don’t expect a package of #37 and #43 to move them too far up the draft board (last year, Minnesota traded the 31st and 36th picks to move up to pick #24).

Also, don’t be surprised to see Rockets owner Leslie Alexander once again allow Morey to spend his remaining cash allotment this season on an additional second round pick to stash overseas (as the team has done in recent years with Furkan Aldemir and Gentile). With several teams holding multiple picks in this year’s draft (led by Boston, with an astounding eight picks), the odds of multiple second round picks switching hands on draft night is fairly high.

Internal Free Agent Decisions

The Rockets have several key decisions to make regarding their own free agents that could impact what they do in free agency.

Dwight Howard: The first domino that must fall for the Rockets to execute any big summer plans is Dwight’s decision of whether or not to opt out of his contract. His $23.28 million player option year is likely more than he will get on an annual basis as a free agent. But Howard will turn 31 years old in December and will likely want to lock in a longer-term deal before his skills decline much further. There is also the possibility that at least one team (among the many expected to be flush with cap room and have no one else to spend it on) will offer Howard a huge contract paying him as much as $25-30 million per season. However, don’t expect the Rockets to be one of those teams. While the door cannot be completely closed to the possibility of Howard’s return to Houston on a more reasonable multi-year deal, it is becoming increasingly more evident that if (or when) Dwight opts out of his contract, he will be moving on to another team.

Terrence Jones Houston Rockets Free Agent

Terrence Jones likely lost millions after a disappointing 2015-16 season

Terrence Jones: Few players did more to hurt their free agent stock than Jones this past season. Once thought by many to be lining up for a huge contract (Zach Lowe wondered whether Jones could possibly get offers in the $15 million per year range!), Jones suffered through a disappointing season filled with poor defensive focus and more strange injuries. He ended the season as the fifth power forward on the depth chart. Although Jones will have a cap hold this summer of $6.22 million, the Rockets will need to extend him a one-year, $3.53 million qualifying offer in order to make him a restricted free agent. The extension of such a qualifying offer once looked like a no-brainer but is now seriously in question. It will be a surprise at this point if Jones is a Rocket next season.

Donatas Motiejunas: Motiejunas represents a very interesting case for the Rockets. At 7-0 with both post skills and three-point range (a combination held by only a handful of NBA players), D-Mo will undoubtedly have his share of suitors in free agency. But his back injury has turned out to be a more serious red flag than many anticipated. Detroit – once thought to be the Rockets’ biggest competitor for Motiejunas this summer – voided its trade for D-Mo after its doctors expressed reservations about the long-term prognosis for that back. Motiejunas came away from that experience with a resentment for Detroit, so there may not be a future for that relationship. Although D-Mo will have a cap hold this summer of $5.72 million, the Rockets will need to extend him a one-year, $4.43 million qualifying offer in order to make him a restricted free agent. Expect the Rockets to extend that qualifying offer and to hope they can execute other moves in free agency before having to worry about matching an offer sheet for him.

Jason Terry: Despite some purported interest in a coaching gig, Terry recently expressed a desire to play another year or two before retiring. As one of the few stable veteran voices for the Rockets last season, it is scary to consider how awful Houston’s locker room would have been without him. And while his production on the court wasn’t too far from that of the prior season (his shooting percentages dipped a little and his defense was once again atrocious), it may be time for the Rockets to part ways with the venerable Terry.

Josh Smith: After spurning the Rockets (and their larger contract offer) for a veteran’s minimum deal with the Clippers, it was all downhill for Smith. The Clippers ended up paying Houston to take Smith off their hands. A solid defender and gifted passer, Smith still showed enough to get a couple of chances in the Rockets’ lackluster power forward rotation. But with several power forwards under contract for next season, don’t expect to see Smith back.

Michael Beasley: Beasley was one of the few pleasant surprises for the Rockets this past season. After an MVP season in China, Beasley came in and immediately became Houston’s second-best offensive weapon. He fulfilled his role as a bench chucker, pouring in several long two-point shots that only Harden seemed permitted to take, as those two were likely the only two players on the roster capable of shooting a high enough percentage of them to make that shot worthwhile. Beasley has a non-guaranteed salary of $1.40 million for next year (which becomes guaranteed if he is not waived by August 1). Especially since Beasley could easily get an MLE-sized deal (or more) in free agency, expect Houston to hold on to him, either as an offensive weapon off the bench next season or as a trade chip this summer.

Andrew Goudelock: Goudelock was brought in to replace Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton as a backcourt scorer off the bench. However, as a late-season addition, Bickerstaff never showed enough trust in Goudelock to play him over Terry. His situation became even more odd during the playoffs, when Bickerstaff elected to make Jones (a fifth power forward) active over Goudelock (a third point guard and just the fourth “true” guard on the Rockets’ roster) for Games 2, 3 and 4 against a Golden State team with plenty of backcourt depth. With Bickerstaff out, it is possible that Morey likes Goudelock enough to keep him around for next season on a $1.02 million non-guaranteed deal (which becomes guaranteed if he is not waived by August 1). But if the Rockets need the extra $472,000 or so in additional cap room that can be created by waiving Goudelock, they probably won’t lose too much sleep over waiving him. If no one claims him off waivers, the Rockets can still re-sign him to a vet minimum deal.

#Pursuit of Outside Free Agents

At the center of the Rockets’ plans to return to NBA prominence is the pursuit of one or (more likely) two star free agents.

The headliner of the 2016 crop of free agents is Durant. (With Lebron James most likely staying put in Cleveland, we’ll exclude him from this group for all intents and purposes.) Durant’s free agency has been talked about for years, with rumors of his possible interest in playing with Harden in Houston circulating as long ago as 2013. While it is a long shot that Durant will actually elect to sign with the Rockets, his talent is prodigious enough that pursuing him as Plan A is still worth it.

Hassan Whiteside Houston Rockets

Hassan Whiteside could be a free agent that the Rockets pursue

Another free agent who could be high on the Rockets’ wish list is Al Horford. Capable of playing power forward or center, Horford would be a suitable replacement for Howard. Horford’s combination of long-range shooting (he can hit long two-point shots at a clip high enough to get them in the Rockets’ offense) and all-around good defense make him an intriguing possibility.

As nine-year veterans, Durant and Horford will each be eligible for a max starting salary worth a little over $25 million (with an actual max figure to be determined during the July Moratorium). One complication to signing either to a long-term contract is that each becomes entitled to a much higher starting salary in 2017, when they become ten-year veterans assigned a larger percentage of the salary cap as their max salary. While Horford may take the long-term security of a deal this summer, many believe Durant will seek a two-year deal (with a player option on Year 2) similar to the deals Lebron has signed with Cleveland each of the last two summers in order to cash in next summer.

A slightly more “affordable” Howard replacement (as in a starting salary of closer to $20 million) could be Hassan Whiteside. A talented center who squandered the first several years of his professional career underachieving compared to his tremendous natural talent, there is some concern that Whiteside will revert to his old ways once he secures a lucrative long-term deal. But as a premier rim protector, Whiteside could be worth the gamble.

Paying Kevin Durant

Most expect Durant to re-sign with Oklahoma City this summer. With Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder provide Durant with a competitive enough roster to justify his staying put. But re-signing with Oklahoma City does not necessarily guarantee Durant the most long-term salary.

The jump in the salary cap (and, by extension, the max salary) this summer means that any team with enough cap room can offer Durant a starting salary equal to what the Thunder can offer. And with another huge jump in the cap expected next summer, a team like the Rockets could conceivably use newly available cap room to re-sign Durant next summer to a long-term deal as lucrative as anything Oklahoma City could give him.

Conclusion

After a miserable season, the Rockets must now turn their attention to repairing their roster – as well as their basketball culture – via the draft, trades and free agency. Morey and [whoever the next head coach is] will need to come up with a variety of alternative plans to return the Rockets to respectability, let alone title contention. It remains to be seen whether Plan A (where Durant comes to save the franchise), Plan [X] (another rebuild) or any plan in between ends up being the path they take.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Salary Cap Update |
April 26, 2016 at 9:53 pm

Charles Barkley apologizes to the Houston Rockets

Charles Barkley apologizes to the Houston Rockets

Someone must have sent a powerful message to TNT because Charles Barkley has just done something he hasn’t done in a long time — play nice with the Houston Rockets.

Barkley apologized to the Rockets Tuesday night, saying he “overreacted” to two tweets that were made by Rockets CEO Tad Brown and GM Daryl Morey.

“I want to apologize to the Houston Rockets,” said Barkley. “I overreacted, said something I shouldn’t have said. I want to apologize to Daryl Morey, Tad Brown and Les Alexander.”

“When you’re on television, it should never be personal,” added Barkley. “We’re supposed to do our job. When Daryl Morey said that, I got mad and was 100% wrong. When Tad Brown tweeted last week, I was 100% wrong. Les Alexander treated me great when I was in Houston. I want to apologize to those three guys.”

Barkley had called Brown “Toad Smith” after his tweet that blasted Barkley and referred to Morey as “Daryl Moronic”. See the video below (starting at the 0:45 mark).

It’s no secret that Barkley has held a grudge against the Rockets, claiming they still owe him $3 million from his playing days in Houston, and it has skewed his commentary about the team. Barkley has blasted the Rockets at every turn for years, including during their Western Conference Finals run of 2014-15.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
April 26, 2016 at 11:36 am

Houston Rockets 2016 NBA Playoffs Intro Video

Houston Rockets 2016 Playoff Intro Video

If you missed the Houston Rockets playoff introduction video this year, here it is.

The intro isn’t quite as unique as it has been in other years — frankly, that’s likely a result of not getting into the playoffs until the final day — but it still creates a powerful effect. The Rockets used audio from the Star Wars: Rogue One teaser trailer, mixing in words from Forest Whitaker that now seem fitting with Houston down 3-1 in the series at the moment:

What will you do when they catch you? What will you do if they break you? If you continue to fight, what will you become?

Posted in Houston Rockets |
April 25, 2016 at 8:25 am

Podcast: Opportunity lost, backs to the wall and the future of the Rockets

James Harden Golden State Warriors Houston Rockets playoffs

MK Bower joins Dave Hardisty at the Toyota Center after the Rockets fell 121-94 at home in Game 4 of their first round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, falling behind 3-1 in the series. The two discuss the ups and downs of Game 4, Stephen Curry’s injury, the differences between the two teams, what positives have come out of the series that made it worth the draft pick sacrifice and the future of the Houston Rockets.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |