The Houston Rockets bounced back from a disappointing 2015-16 campaign with a brilliant 2016-17 season, winning 55 games behind MVP finalist James Harden’s mastery of Mike D’Antoni’s go-go offense. It came to a crashing halt in the second round of the playoffs, though, as Harden sputtered in the season’s most critical moments and the Rockets fell to the San Antonio Spurs in six games.
After watching his team get eliminated before the conference finals for the ninth time in his 10 season as Houston’s general manager, and watching the Golden State Warriors hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy for the second time in three years, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told ESPN’s Zach Lowe that he planned to “keep improving our roster” in pursuit of the right cocktail to knock off the West’s top team.
“If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive,” Morey told Lowe. “We have something up our sleeve.”
The first card, it seems: doubling down on their commitment to Harden, one year after agreeing to a four-year, $118 million contract renegotiation, by re-upping on a new lucrative multi-year extension. From Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
For the second-consecutive season, the Rockets intend to offer Harden a contract extension long before he could hit free agency, a person with knowledge of the team’s plans said on Tuesday. The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity because the team’s intentions have not been made public.
The Rockets “plan to extend James Harden at the first opportunity,” the individual said. “That is the plan.”
It’s a plan made possible by the new collective bargaining agreement that the NBA’s teams and its players reached back in December, which included a special provision grandfathering Harden and his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate/fellow MVP finalist Russell Westbrook into the new Designated Veteran Player Extension.
These so-called “super-max” deals allow teams to give elite players who meet certain criteria — making one of the three All-NBA teams, winning MVP or winning Defensive Player of the Year — a deal covering up to six seasons from the date the extension is signed that will pay the player up to 35 percent of the salary cap. In Harden’s case, that deal would add an extra four years onto the back end of his existing deal, paying him $168 million during that span with a starting salary of $37.5 million for the 2019-20 season.
Why make a point of locking up Harden through the summer of 2023? For one thing, it ensures that the Rockets retain control of one of the NBA’s most dynamic and excellent offensive players for what you’d anticipate would be the entirety of his prime. (Harden will turn 34 in August of 2023.) In a more immediate sense, though, it ensures that other players know Harden will be in Houston for the foreseeable future … and now, perhaps, we come to the rest of what Morey has up his sleeve.
Marc Stein of ESPN reports that the Rockets are making several key pieces of last year’s roster available via trade to create the “financial flexibility” to go big-game hunting on the free-agent market:
Sources told ESPN on Wednesday that the Rockets have at least four top-tier free agents in their summer sights: Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and the LA Clippers duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
One source close to the situation told ESPN to expect the Rockets to go “hard” after Paul in July. […]
Of the four All-Star targets up for discussion, Millsap is probably considered most likely to leave his incumbent team. Newly installed Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk recently told reporters that Millsap might receive an offer from a team richer than the Hawks could make, despite Atlanta holding Millsap’s Bird rights and thus having the option of paying him more money over more years than any other suitor could. That — plus Tuesday’s big (but not nearly as big as it would’ve been a few years ago) trade of Dwight Howard and the 31st overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the No. 41 selection in Thursday’s draft — would seem to suggest that the Hawks might be eyeing a rebuild, and might not be all that keen on paying through the nose to keep Millsap around through his mid-30s.
There’s been some static over whether or not Lowry wants to re-up with the Toronto Raptors, though both he and team president Masai Ujiri have deflected reports that he has no interest in staying north of the border. Paul has famously been linked to the San Antonio Spurs, who on Tuesday took the first step toward carving enough cap space to add a max-level free agent by getting Pau Gasol to opt out of his contract for next season so that he can come back at a lower number. It seems like a pretty big open question, though, how two established veteran point guards who thrive with the ball in their hands would pair with Harden, who soared last season after D’Antoni moved him on the ball full-time as Houston’s unquestioned lead playmaker.
Stein’s report comes in the wake of reports by Sean Deveney of the Sporting News that the Rockets were “actively shopping” Beverley; by Sam Amick of USA Today Sports that as many as eight teams were in on Houston’s defensive bulldog point guard; and from Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune that the Utah Jazz (who, like Houston, made the second round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by Golden State) were one of 12 teams to make an inquiry with the Rockets about acquiring Beverley.
Beverley and Williams seemed to take the trade rumors in stride, having some fun with the uncertainty on Twitter:
I know right. That would be dope. https://t.co/CjqpACYX2o
— Patrick Beverley (@patbev21) June 21, 2017
Uh Oh lol
— Lou Williams (@TeamLou23) June 21, 2017
Wrong. I love being in houston. For the record. https://t.co/1P8z0wFOlQ
— Lou Williams (@TeamLou23) June 21, 2017
Whether or not Morey — who reportedly just inked a new four-year extension of his own — is actually able to add another All-Star-caliber running buddy alongside Harden to bolster the Rockets’ chances of toppling the Dubs remains to be seen. What does seem clear, though, is that Harden will get to make an awful lot of money as he sits back and watches Morey try.
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