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Houston Rockets Salary Cap Update: 2015 Off-Season Edition

David Weiner breaks down the current salary cap situation for the Houston Rockets after an off-season full of ups and downs,

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Houston Rockets 2015 Offseason

It’s been an up-and-down journey thus far for Houston Rockets fans this off-season.

UP:  The Rockets pulled in a nice haul in the 2015 NBA Draft, nabbing Wisconsin small forward Sam Dekker with the #18 pick and stealing Louisville power forward Montrezl Harrell with the #32 pick.  Mock drafts had Dekker going as high as #8 and rarely lower than #15; and most mocks had Harrell as a sure-fire first round pick.

DOWN:  Not long after the draft, word came out that Spanish star point guard (and 2009 second round pick) Sergio Llull had elected not to accept a contract offer from Houston, believed to be for a substantial portion of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (MLE).  One of the world’s best players outside the NBA, Llull represented a potential solution to the Rockets’ point guard troubles.  But, alas, it was not meant to be this summer.  (Note: Llull has since reportedly agreed to a contract extension with Real Madrid that might actually lower his NBA buyout amount for next summer.)

UP:  Early in the July Moratorium, the Rockets agreed to terms on new deals with Corey Brewer (three years, $23.4 million) and Patrick Beverley (four years, $23 million).  Both signed contracts that decline in salary each year.  Brewer’s starting salary is the maximum amount Houston could sign him to with Early Bird rights; and his total contract pays him the exact same amount as Trevor Ariza over the next three years.  The fourth year of Beverley’s deal (at just over $5 million) is fully non-guaranteed.  Given the contracts that have been handed out this summer, both deals were largely viewed as reasonably good value.

DOWN:  On July 4, the league’s premier (departing) free agent, LaMarcus Aldridge, announced that he was joining the San Antonio Spurs, shunning the Rockets’ bid for him.  A key reason for the speedy agreements with Brewer and especially Beverley (a restricted free agent) was to prove to Aldridge that Houston would be fielding a competitive roster.  It is believed that the Rockets were attempting to acquire Aldridge via sign-and-trade using a package centered around Jason Terry (to be signed-and-traded via his Bird rights), Kostas Papanikolaou (and his non-guaranteed contract) and young players and/or draft picks.

UP:  The Rockets added veteran shooting guard Marcus Thornton on a one-year veteran’s minimum deal.  While not much of a defender, Thornton is expected to provide much-needed three-point shooting to a team that utilizes the three-point shot more than any other team.  He is also capable of the occasional scoring outburst.

DOWN:  Seeking a more defined role in advance of hitting free agency again in 2016 (and probably also a little miffed that the Rockets were not willing to use their MLE on him), Josh Smith bolted Houston for the Los Angeles Clippers after endearing himself to Rockets fans during the team’s recent playoff run.

UP:  The Rockets agreed to a new deal with restricted free agent K.J. McDaniels (three years, $10 million, using a portion of the MLE).  The McDaniels contract includes a team option in Year 3; and by virtue of signing him outright (rather than waiting to match an offer sheet he could have signed elsewhere), the Rockets can trade him without restriction after December 15.

DOWN:  Several hours went by following news of the McDaniels signing without the Rockets making another roster move, leaving many fans to be moderately bored for a short period of time.  But Houston’s most notable off-season move came later that evening.

Ty Lawson traded Houston Rockets

In Ty Lawson, the Rockets have that secondary play-maker they’ve lacked

UP:  Houston pulled off a major trade, acquiring Nuggets star point guard Ty Lawson and a 2017 second round pick in exchange for Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, and a lottery-protected 2016 first round pick.  In order to make the salaries match in this trade, the Rockets had to renounce their rights to Terry, whose $8.7 million cap hold came off the books, allowing Houston to take back over 150% of its outgoing salary, which is reserved only for teams whose total team salary (including players’ cap holds) does not exceed the luxury tax threshold upon completion of the trade.

The downside risk of acquiring Lawson — who not long ago was arrested for his second DUI this year — was mitigated by several factors.  None of the players traded to Denver were in the Rockets’ rotation.  The 2016 first rounder immediately converts to a 2017 second rounder (via Portland) if the Rockets somehow miss the playoffs this season.  But most notably, Lawson agreed to make the final year of his contract (for over $13.2 million) fully non-guaranteed, essentially making it like a team option for Houston (although, unlike with a “real” team option, the Rockets would not have any Bird rights to Lawson next summer if they waived him).  At worst, the Rockets will have wasted a draft pick and some money on a troubled point guard.  At best, Lawson can be that second ball-handler and shot creator the Rockets desperately missed in their recent playoff run.

With those ups and downs out of the way (and with more sure to come), 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 2015-16 season:

Player salary commitments:  Dwight Howard ($22.36 million), James Harden ($15.76 million), Lawson (12.4 million), Brewer ($8.23 million), Ariza ($8.19 million), Beverley ($6.49 million), McDaniels ($3.19 million), Terrence Jones ($2.49 million), Donatas Motiejunas ($2.29 million), Dekker ($1.65 million), Clint Capela ($1.24 million) and Thornton ($947,276).

Cap holds:  None.

Other Salary Cap Exceptions:  Houston has some small trade exceptions from the Alexey Shved ($1.62 million), Isaiah Canaan ($816,482) and Troy Daniels ($816,482) trades.

The Rockets used a portion of the MLE — which can be either the Non-Taxpayer MLE ($5.464 million) or the Taxpayer MLE ($3.376 million) — on McDaniels.  If Houston elects to use the Non-Taxpayer MLE (of which they will have about $2.27 million remaining) this season, it will be subject to a hard cap at the “apron” level of $88.74 million.

The maximum team salary (or “soft” salary cap) for 2015-16 came in at $70 million, with the luxury tax threshold coming it at $84.74 million, both numbers a little higher than projected.  However, based on their existing salary commitments (totaling over $85.2 million thus far), the Houston Rockets are officially over the luxury tax threshold.

More Moves Coming

With the Rockets already in tax territory, they need to be very careful about their next moves; but with only 12 players under contract, they still need to add to their roster in advance of training camp in a couple of months.

Reports are that Houston has agreed to terms with former Rocket Chuck Hayes on a one-year (partially guaranteed) veteran’s minimum deal to re-join the franchise that gave him his NBA start.  Assuming that Hayes makes the roster and is not waived before January 10 (when all NBA contracts become fully guaranteed), Hayes will make nearly $1.5 million this year based on his years of service in the league; however, by signing Hayes to a one-year deal, the Rockets will only have to pay him the two-year veteran’s minimum salary ($947,276, which will also be his cap hit), with the league picking up the tab for everything above that amount.  (Thornton is in a similar situation on his one-year deal, getting paid nearly $1.2 million, with only $947,276 of that coming from Houston.)

There are also reports that the Rockets have extended a contract offer to Terry, presumably also a one-year veteran’s minimum deal.  While Terry may still be negotiating for a second year on his deal, that concession could be costly to the Rockets, both this season and next.  Terry’s minimum salary (like Hayes) is nearly $1.5 million this year; however, for two-year minimum deals, the team is on the hook for the player’s full salary (and the cap hit would match that salary).  Signing a two-year deal with Terry would cost the Rockets an extra $1.38 million this season in salary and luxury tax than what they’d pay for a one-year deal, let alone the salary commitment for 2016-17.

Shortly after the draft, it was reported that the Rockets had reached an agreement to sign undrafted free agent Christian Wood to a contract.  Presumably, it is a two-year minimum deal with a partial guarantee.  Although his rookie minimum salary would be $525,093, for purposes of determining whether the Rockets are over the luxury tax threshold or the apron level, his cap figure will be the two-year veteran’s minimum salary ($947,276).

Because the Rockets are over the luxury tax threshold, each veteran’s minimum signing will cost owner Les Alexander at least an extra $1.42 million in luxury tax (or more, if an older vet is signed to a two-year deal), on top of the player’s actual salary.

The Curious Case of Montrezl Harrell (and the MLE)

Montrezl Harrell Summer League Rockets

Montrezl Harrell is worth a portion of the MLE, but at what cost to the Rockets’ cap flexibility?

Probably the most intriguing roster move may relate to what the Rockets do with Harrell.  As a high second round pick, Houston ideally would like to sign him to a three- or four-year deal paying above the minimum salary using the MLE.  Some players drafted shortly after Harrell have received some relatively sizable contracts, such as #33 pick Jordan Mickey (four years, $5 million, presumably with over $3 million guaranteed) and #36 pick Rakeem Christmas (four years, $4.3 million, with $3.15 million guaranteed).

Unfortunately, while Houston still has more than enough remaining of the Non-Taxpayer MLE to give Harrell a similar deal, the Rockets are dangerously close to the apron level, where they would be hard-capped if that MLE were used.  Assuming that Terry, Hayes and Wood are all added on minimum deals, the Rockets would only have enough space to pay Harrell about $665,000 in Year 1 of an MLE deal without salary being cut elsewhere.  This would also limit the Rockets’ ability to add any more salary, even for 10-day contracts and other minimum salary signings.  The hard cap is truly a HARD cap.

For these reasons, it seems that the likeliest course of action (barring a trade involving Harrell or otherwise freeing up a meaningful amount of salary) would be to sign Harrell to a one- or two-year rookie minimum deal.  However, Harrell does not have to accept a two-year minimum deal if he does not want to.  He could instead opt to accept a one-year non-guaranteed contract for the rookie minimum — the required minimum tender for the Rockets to retain his NBA rights — and become a restricted free agent next summer.  This was the same strategy used by McDaniels last year with the Philadelphia 76ers, and that strategy clearly paid off for K.J. this summer.  But McDaniels had the benefit of assured playing time on a horrendous Sixers team, whereas Harrell will likely be relegated to the D-League for most of this season, with no assurances of NBA playing time on a talent-laden Rockets roster.

With Harrell not being signed to an MLE deal, the Rockets would be free to sign as many minimum contracts as they wish in order to fill out their training camp roster and would be free to make trades taking back additional salary (although they will likely be limited to the 125% matching rules for taxpaying teams).  Of course, any additional salary would still be subject to payment of the luxury tax.

To Extend or Not to Extend?

Another key issue on the table for the Rockets this off-season: whether or not to extend the contracts of Jones and/or Motiejunas.  Each is eligible for an extension of their rookie contracts, which can be up to four (new) years in length and at up to the maximum salary (based on the new increased salary cap), although odds are that each would get less than that on an extension.

As Bobby Marks wrote about recently, Jones and Motiejunas could be two of the most highly coveted free agents next summer.  With the vast majority of teams expected to have copious amounts of cap room, and with the league mandating a minimum team salary at 90% of the new salary cap, teams will be spending like drunken sailors, out of both desire and sheer necessity.

Terrence Jones Donatas Motiejunas

Both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are due lucrative new contracts next summer

But even with the imminent threat of them being poached in free agency next summer, it is not expected that the Rockets will take the extension route with either player.  If allowed to hit free agency, each would have a much lower cap hold than what he would likely get on an extension or in free agency ($6.22 million for Jones; $5.72 million for Motiejunas).  Having those lower cap holds gives the Rockets greater flexibility if they want to pursue another star free agent, such as Kevin Durant in 2016, or other avenues for roster improvement.  The Spurs recently used this strategy (electing not to sign Kawhi Leonard to an extension last summer) in order to gain the cap flexibility to sign Aldridge this summer.

Don’t be surprised if the Rockets explore trade scenarios for at least one of Jones or Motiejunas, perhaps for a future draft pick or a power forward with more years remaining on his contract.  It is unlikely that Houston can afford (or is otherwise inclined) to re-sign both to large new contracts when both play the same position.  On the other hand, the Rockets may just as well be inclined to let both play out the year and go with whichever player best distinguishes himself.  Or hell, they could re-sign both.  There are options galore on that front.

Conclusion

It has been a pretty wild off-season thus far for the Houston Rockets.  With the addition of Lawson, they are positioned as a top title contender this season.  While the likely inability to lock up Harrell on a longer-term deal is not ideal, it is a small price to pay for avoiding a hard cap and being able to add to the roster and to make in-season moves.  And with a roster lined with veterans on reasonable contracts and first round picks on rookie scale deals, the Rockets have plenty of flexibility going forward, whether via trade, free agency or otherwise.

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Jabari Smith steals show in Rockets preseason opener

The Rockets rookie is legit as we take a look at what else stood out in Houston’s preseason rout of the Spurs

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Jabari Smith Jr Houston Rockets

Finally, Rocketball is back — the Rockets destroyed the San Antonio Spurs 134-96 in the preseason opener Sunday night.

Granted, the Spurs look flat out terrible (the top contender for Wembanyama?) and may finish dead last (and it showed), but there were a number of things that played out in this game that should get Houston fans excited.

But before I get into that, I want to give a huge shout out to everyone who supported RocketsWatch Sunday night. We are watching and discussing Rockets games in realtime this season and the debut was overwhelming. There were over 700+ fans watching the game with Roosh Williams and I in what might be the largest online watch party ever for a Rockets game. The live reactions from the fans were priceless!

Let’s talk about what stood out in this game:

Jabari is the real deal

Going into Sunday night’s preseason opener for the Rockets, the biggest question on the minds of fans was simple — how will #3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. look in his first NBA action?

The answer is good. Really good.

Jabari threw down a dunk out of the gate and then locked in on high-energy defense on the other end and right away you knew — the Christian Wood Era was over. Jabari’s impact was immediate on both ends of the floor. Smith finished with 21 points on 8-15 shooting, including a blistering 5-8 from deep, to go with eight rebounds in 24 minutes.

Jabari described himself as “a lot more loose” than he was at Summer League, when he struggled to knock down his shots.

“It was easy,” said Jabari. “My teammates made it easy for me, finding me when I was open. The rest just came from knocking down shots, running the floor, trusting the offense and trusting my teammates.”

What most impressed me was how quick of a trigger Jabari had on the catch-and-shoot. He would receive a pass out of the post or a cross-court pass in the corner and would instantly let it fly, shooting easily over his defender’s reach. This trait stood out and was very Klay Thompson-esque. In the second half, Jabari hit a pull-up triple in transition (his fourth) that was very enticing, then absolutely slayed those of us in the RocketsWatch room when he took two long strides back from the free throw line to drain another triple.

At that point, it was official — the rookie was clowning the Spurs. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that the Rockets drafted Jabari. This man is going to fit like a glove and will be a ridiculous two-way weapon for the Rockets long term.

Defense. They’re actually playing it. It’s true.

I don’t need to repeat that the Rockets were dead last in defense last year, but… the Rockets were dead last in defense last year. Although, maybe I need to turn that frown upside down.

Sunday, however, was a different animal and you could tell immediately. The Rockets were hustling, moving quickly on rotations and closeouts.

“It’s the defense, obviously, that we’ve been concentrating on,” said Stephen Silas. “Our help was good tonight. Our multiple efforts were really good… I’m super encouraged by our intensity on the defensive end.”

Jabari was a big part of that. He made some clear mistakes, sure — I’m not going to say he was perfect — but he seemed to set the tone. Still, it’s not just Jabari — it’s clear to me the mindset of this team is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen the past two seasons. Maybe it’s the Jabari Effect or maybe Lionel Hollins is making his presence felt, but this does not look like the 2021-22 Rockets on this side of the ball.

Tari Eason is pretty much plug-and-play

I had my doubts that Tari Eason would get a ton of run in this game, but Silas played him early (note: Jae’Sean Tate sat this game out). Without having any clear plays run for him, Tari fought and scrapped for 21 points and 10 rebounds (six offensive!) in just 21 minutes. He hit 9-13 from the floor.

“My mentality never changes,” said Eason. “I’m always going to be in the right spot, get after it defensively and be one of the hardest playing dudes on the court. I think that translates at any level and I’m just going to continue to do that.”

He plays like his hair is on fire and has tremendous potential as a two-way demon. Throw him out there when things get stagnant and he’s going to make things happen.

I’ve felt that the Rockets will likely bring Tari along slowly until they figure out what the long-term solution is for guys like KJ Martin, but Operation Patience isn’t going to work if he keeps putting up lines like this. You can’t keep him to the bench or send him to the G-League.

Is Bruno Fernando the backup center?

It sure seems that way. After news broke that the Rockets had signed Fernando to a four-year, nearly $11 million deal, Bruno was the first big off the bench, subbing in for Alperen Sengun.

I’ll be honest — this really surprised me. I expected that Usman Garuba would have the clear inside track to the spot. Fernando also seemed like a good bet to be on a two-way contract, but now with this new deal, Fernando is going to be on the 15-man roster and barring a trade, someone has to be cut (Boban? Favors?) that isn’t expected to be.

But Fernando, who sources say has been terrific in camp, showed why he got that contract, finishing 3-3 from the field and was a +18 in just 11 minutes. He was very effective on rolls, capping a pair of alleyoop passes from Kevin Porter Jr. I would be lying if I said I saw this coming, but it’s a welcome development.

Rotation Notes

It’s only one preseason game, but we still can draw a lot from how Silas sees the rotation.

Bruno looking like a good bet for the backup center role was not the only surprise. KJ Martin and Daishen Nix, along with Bruno, were the first subs of the night. That indicates what we expected, that Nix is in the lead for the backup PG spot over TyTy Washington, who I would guess will run the show with the RGV Vipers early on. I like TyTy as the better bet for this spot long term, but right now the job appears to be Nix’s to lose.

But KJ is a little surprising, given he reportedly wanted out this past offseason with the Rockets slated to bring in a couple bigger prospects (Jabari and Tari) at his position.

Garrison Mathews played only five minutes. The prediction many have made that Silas would play him 15+ minutes this year is not looking so hot.

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How a potential return of high schoolers to the NBA Draft impacts the Rockets

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2024 NBA Draft

So the opportunity for high school players to jump straight to the NBA is set to return.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the NBA and Players Association are “expected to agree on moving the age eligibility for the NBA Draft from 19 years old to 18, clearing the way for the return of high school players who want to make the leap to the NBA.”

According to the report, the new age limit “would go into effect as early as the 2024 NBA Draft.”

How does this impact the Houston Rockets?

It’s tough to say right now, but looking strictly at Houston’s own picks, it doesn’t help. Granted it’s a sunk cost, but the Rockets still owe first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder from the ill-fated Chris Paul-for-Russell Westbrook trade in 2019. Houston owes picks in 2024 and 2026 to OKC — both are top-four protected. They also owe a top-10-protected first-round pick swap in 2025.

The first draft that sees these new rule changes — often referred to as the “double draft” — will be loaded as both the top high schoolers and top one-and-dones will likely make themselves eligible, theoretically creating an abnormally deep and stacked draft.

The Rockets, for their part, plan to make several changes in the summer of 2023 after (hopefully) adding another top pick in the Draft and leveraging their massive cap room. That’s when they will flip the switch and making winning the top priority. They do not want to send OKC a top draft pick in 2024, but if they fall just short of the play-in or playoffs, they will still send the Thunder a very good pick if it’s the double draft.

The good news: Brooklyn. The Nets owe first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and swaps in 2023, 2025 and 20276 to Houston — all unprotected. So for the Rockets to really benefit from the double draft, they need Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Nets to implode sooner rather than later.

A look at the picks the Rockets have over the next five years and ones they owe:

Houston Rockets Draft Picks Chart

Even though the year for the double draft is not set, the fact that it could be as soon as 2024 could make it tougher for the Rockets to acquire a 2024 pick for Eric Gordon, even if lottery-protected. Forced to guess, I think the best the Rockets will be able to do is net a 2023 lottery-protected pick from a strong team needing a boost at the deadline. Rockets GM Rafael Stone has held out for more so we will see what happens here.

All in all, the news today is mixed for the Rockets. It likely increases the value of a pick the Rockets already gave up to OKC, but it could make a pick they own from Brooklyn more valuable to use or trade. Look for the 2023 offseason to be when the Rockets really show their hand as they hope to make enough significant changes that they are catapulted into playoff contention.

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Houston Rockets Prospects Power Rankings – Volume 1

The Rockets are loaded with young prospects so let’s take a look at how they rank in order of importance to this team’s future

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Houston Rockets prospects

It’s hard to believe, but Houston Rockets training camp opens later this month and the 2022-23 NBA season is right around the corner. Like a highly-anticipated second season of a popular show, the Rockets present a surprisingly-large amount of storylines that could go in a number of directions.

The reason for that is simple: Houston, after using seven first-round picks in the last two drafts, is stocked with young talent. The upside, however, varies for each one. Here’s how I currently rank the Rocketss most valuable prospects for the future heading into camp.

12. Bruno Fernando

We don’t talk about Bruno.

11. Daishen Nix Daishen Nix Houston Rockets

I like Nix. I love what he’s doing in the G-League. I think he’s a solid point guard who is built like a tank. He has reshaped his body and clearly he’s putting in the work. He hit 30-76 (39.5%) from three in the G-League last year, which is a big improvement over his G-League Ignite season before the draft. But hitting less than 60% from the stripe for a guy who makes a living off of creating contact and getting to the line is a big issue. He’s got to make the leap from G-League dominator to Big-League contributor.

10. Usman Garuba

Garuba is capable of moving up the rankings quickly — if he’s healthy. The problem is he rarely was his rookie season, even missing Summer League in July. He’s representing Spain in EuroBasket, coming off the bench in a limited but important role. Garuba is smart and energetic, but I need his defense to shine, not just be solid. He will have every opportunity in camp to earn the backup center role. I admit I’m a little lower on him now than I was after the 2021 draft (where he was likely my favorite of the four picks, relative to position) but I still hold out hope he can be a valuable role player.

9. KJ Martin

We really don’t know what KJ Martin thinks, but we do know his father, former NBA star Kenyon Martin, wants his son out of Houston. In a way, I don’t blame him. Since the 2022 Draft, the writing is on the wall that his role could be reduced as the season goes on. Martin is a great cutter, unbelievable athlete and an improving shooter. His game is limited, however, and he will need to be playing off of great players to carve out a role as an energy athlete. Does that make him a trade candidate? Let’s see what the future holds here but my feeling is he won’t be a Rocket beyond this coming season.

8. TyTy Washington TyTy Washington Rockets

My hunch is that Washington ends up playing heavy minutes in the G-League. With KPJ starting and Nix in line ahead of TyTy for the backup role, meaningful minutes early in his rookie season are likely only to be found in the Valley. But I love what TyTy brings to the table — outside of consistent rim pressure, he can do a little bit of everything and has a good feel for the game. I expect him to be the backup, if not higher, by 2023-24. If he does go to RGV, we’ll be watching those games.

7. Josh Christopher

I try not to ever let Summer League performance impact my outlook on a prospect too much, but I confess I did just that with Jaygup. I thought he played very selfishly in Vegas when focusing on setting up his teammates would have gone a long way. He’s a tough dude with a legit NBA body for his position and has a scoring mentality. However, for a guy who drew Jrue Holiday projections from Rockets GM Rafael Stone, Christopher’s defense was fairly terrible in his rookie season. He’s got to get a better understanding of how to defend in schemes off the ball. He’s young and that part is fairly normal — that should come with time.

6. Jae’Sean Tate

I’m not sure the 26-year old Tate falls under the “prospect” category, but this is only his third season in the NBA and both the front office and coaching staff love him. Tate brings intangibles and is a valuable role player on just about any team. Can he develop a consistent three-point shot? He’s 31% from distance and that’s not going to consistently draw a defense and create space out there on the floor. This is a big thing holding him back. Given that he’s undersized, he has to improve there to unlock the next step.

5. Kevin Porter Jr.

This is the single most important season of KPJ’s career. I know it’s cliché but it’s very true in this case. We already know Porter Jr. is one of the better isolation scorers in the league and is tough for any one player to stop. We also know he showed improvement off the ball last season, hitting over 48% of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. But for me, success for Scoot this season in Houston won’t hinge on his scoring ability but rather how he, as the starting point, gets the Jalens and the Jabaris and the Senguns involved and puts them in positions to succeed. With a contract extension (if not signed before the season) hanging in the balance, I can’t overstate how important this season is for him.

4. Alperen Sengun Alperen Sengun Turkey

Sengun’s so happy and so are we watching him play. The man is an old-school human highlight reel. He might be the funnest player to watch on this team and his passing just wows you on a consistent basis. With Christian Wood gone, the starting center position is all Alperen’s. It’s up to Stephen Silas to leverage his unique skills on offense and allow him to conduct the show in a secondary role at times. My big concern with Sengun — and it’s admittedly large — continues to be his defense. It’s not a lack of will but simply a lack of athleticism and measurables that really hold him back. He needs to improve there to separate himself as a true starting center rather than an offensive spark off the bench, but the offensive upside here is really high.

3. Tari Eason

Eason checks nearly every single box for me. He’s built like Kawhi with a strong frame, huge hands and a long wingspan. There’s tremendous potential here as a defender, but he’s also a two-way player: He can create, he has shown improvement shooting the ball and he gets to the line. There’s no liability on either end of the floor, which is why I rank him this high. The only real question is his understanding of the game. If he takes to learning schemes, understanding sets on both ends and playing within the structure of an offense, the ceiling is much higher than just a role player here.

2. Jabari Smith Jr. Jabari Smith Jr. Houston Rockets

Jabari struggled making shots in Summer League and, surprise, surprise — that’s all some needed to project him as a disappointment. Let them run with that. This is a 19-year old who might end up being 6-foot-11, can shoot lights out and plays the game with a rare passion on both ends of the floor. While “The Locksmith” is earning that nickname, his defensive impact seems to be felt way beyond just a single assignment. Finding his way offensively will take time, however. I could go on and on about how high I am on Jabari — give me every share you’re selling. In my book, he and Jalen Green are the only locked-in core pieces in Houston at the present moment.

1. Jalen Green

Green already has an elite skill. His first step and electrifying athleticism will make it almost impossible for defenders to hang with him. In theory, he can get his shot off anytime he wants. If it becomes truly efficient? Look out. We could seriously be talking about a generational scorer here. Where he has to improve is, however, is everywhere else: Defense (both on and off the ball), handles, strength, physicality, playmaking. If his work ethic is the real deal, and it appeared to be in his rookie season, he will improve in those areas. Franchise cornerstone potential.

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Rockets to add Willie Cauley-Stein

Rockets bring backup center into a crowded Houston roster to compete for minutes at the five

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Willie Cauley-Stein Houston Rockets

The Rockets are set to sign center Willie Cauley-Stein, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Cauley-Stein is expected to compete for the backup center minutes against the likes of Usman Garuba, Boban Marjanović and Bruno Fernando in training camp. Alperen Şengün all but has the starting center spot locked up.

A former high-lottery pick, Cauley-Stein was taken 6th overall by the perenially-dreadful Sacramento Kings in the 2015 NBA Draft. However, the seven-footer never met expectations placed on him after a strong freshman season at Kentucky. In 422 games over seven seasons, WCS is averaging 8.7 points, 5.9 boards and 0.8 blocks in 22 minutes a night.

It’s definitely not an earth-shattering move. Cauley-Stein was released by the Sixers last season in a move to create space to sign DeAndre Jordan, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But the Rockets need options that differ from the strengths/weaknesses of Sengun and WCS has potential as a rim-running big.

There is a current issue, however: The Rockets are already at the offseason maximum number of 20 players, so they will have to release someone before making the signing official. Marquese Chriss, Trey Burke and Sterling Brown all seem like potential candidates.

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Houston Rockets

Interviewing Rockets legend Mario Elie

ClutchFans interviews the Rockets great as he tells stories from behind the scenes of Houston’s 1994 and 1995 championship runs

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Mario Elie Houston Rockets

When I started ClutchFans in 1996, Mario Elie was a big reason why. His toughness and grit was a big attraction and I even wrote a regular piece called “Super Mario’s World” that jokingly pretended to be from The Junkyard Dawg’s point of view.

So it was pretty crazy to me to get the chance to be part of an interview of the Rockets legend on Thursday.

Mario joined Lachard Binkley, host of the ClutchFans Rocket Fuel podcast, and I to discuss his career, how he worked on his game overseas, his championship runs with the Rockets, where Hakeem Olajuwon stands among NBA greats, the matchup with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as well as his thoughts on the current Rockets — as well as several other topics.

Mario didn’t pull any punches so it was a dream to get his insight on the championship Rockets. You can subscribe to Rocket Fuel on Apple and Spotify.

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