There were always bound to be casualties in the free agent war of 2016. So many teams with big dreams and money to blow, but so few impact players to target. The Rockets just may be the biggest losers of this crazy exercise. Houston is always aggressive in free agency and with Dwight Howard opting out, the team had more money to spend than ever before. But so did just about everyone else. After the music stopped on the few big name stars, Houston was left with nowhere to sit and had to sidle up to wallflowers from a bad Pelicans team.
On Friday, the Rockets set their sights on most of the big names. By Sunday they had talked themselves into Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
What went wrong?
- They couldn't even get a meeting with Kevin Durant, despite his friendship with James Harden.
- Al Horford spurned them for Boston.
- Hassan Whiteside went back to the Heat.
- Mike Conley remained with the Grizzlies.
- Kent Bazemore would have been a perfect Rocket, but he chose to stay in Atlanta.
- Marvin Williams re-upped with Charlotte.
Suddenly the Rockets had failed to meet any of their needs and were left with a dearth of stretch fours, shooters and point guards on the market. Surely the agents representing Gordon and Anderson recognized this and were able to leverage the hell out of Daryl Morey. Hence Anderson was able to land a four year, $80 million deal while Gordon laughed to the bank with four years, $53 million. By that fourth year Anderson will be 32 and Gordon 31. Both have troubling injury history. Neither play much defense. What caused the Rockets, usually so fiscally responsible, to sign such albatross contracts? Let's dive a little deeper.
Pressure from ownership - Rockets owner Leslie Alexander was not shy about his disappointment in last year's iteration of his team. The swift fall from Western Conference Finals participant to 41-41 8-seed rankled him, especially since a lack of effort and defensive principles were the main culprits. Morey's leash tightened more and more as the team failed to meet expectations. "I don't like losing, we've lost too many times this season," Alexander told the Houston Chronicle back in April. Alexander reacted by becoming more involved in personnel decisions. Morey long held the cards when it came to coach and player acquisition. But Alexander's influence swayed the Mike D'Antoni coaching decision, while it's widely speculated that Morey wanted Jeff Van Gundy or Frank Vogel. I think it's safe to say Morey wouldn't have locked up Anderson and Gordon for four years if he was operating independently. Instead, he acted like a man that had a mandate from ownership to DO SOMETHING BIG or be sent packing. The money numbers are big, the years are big, but as for the impact on the court? I'm dubious.
Playing with Harden - Starting with Durant as the most glaring example, it seemed big names were turned off by the prospect of sharing the court with Harden. Though two years removed from an MVP runner-up finish, Harden's reputation took a massive hit last season. He was a regular on "Shaqtin a Fool" thanks to his nonchalant defense and tendency to pass the ball to spectators in the crowd. Stories surfaced about him traveling to games on his own rather than taking the team bus. His relationship with co-star Howard deteriorated, leading Dwight to needle Harden a bit on 'Inside the NBA.' No one explicitly came out and said they don't want to come to Houston because of Harden, but free agents need a real good reason to join a team that can't offer them as many years as their current team. Usually playing with a superstar is a carrot to dangle in front of those free agents. Yet teaming with Harden didn't move the needle for guys like Williams, Bazemore, Conley, Horford and Whiteside. Durant seems to love hanging out with Harden, but gave little to no thought about playing with him again.
Morey on the clock - On a podcast appearance with Adrian Wojnarowski, Morey insisted he was in on the D'Antoni hiring. One of the reasons he cited was that D'Antoni would attract big free agents. Well that didn't materialize. Now Morey has made two out-of-character signings that will hurt the team's long-term flexibility and actually make the team's porous defense worse. Houston fans can look forward to Morey saying more things he probably doesn't really believe. Morey has been a revolutionary thinker in the Houston GM role, from his strict adherence to analytics to his disdain for long 2-pointers. Alexander gave him tremendous freedom and Morey delivered by transitioning smoothly from the T-Mac/Yao era to the Harden era by harboring assets, making bold trades and sticking to his principles. After a massively disappointing 2015-16 season, Morey's job security seems to be in limbo. Even if the recent hiring of D'Antoni and deals with Anderson and Gordon were Alexander moves, if they don't work out it's Morey's head that is going to roll.
Panic - Cap space burns a hole in your pocket, especially when all the marquee stars start getting snatched up by your competitors. Sure, Gordon and Anderson make you more efficient on paper, but they were absolutely panic moves. Had they been snapped up by other teams, the next tier of wings and power forwards was bleak. The Rockets quickly lowered their standards once there were no more Bazemore's or Williams' available. That's how Ryan Anderson gets $20 million per year. For four years. Sure!
Where do the Rockets go from here, after the additions of Anderson, Gordon and now former Wizards center Nene? They figure to be a League Pass favorite with D'Antoni at the helm of an offense-geared roster. They may lead the league in scoring (non-Warriors division) but they also may give up 110 points per game. It's difficult to envision coaxing a league-average defense out of lineups that include Harden and Anderson, with no Dwight protecting the rim. The Rockets needed to get better shooting and they've accomplished that with the two former Pelicans. If they can stay on the court they will help the offense immensely by spacing the floor for Harden and knocking down more open shots than they ever saw in New Orleans. The Rockets doubled down on their offense-over-defense identity with the hiring of D'Antoni; the two big signings represent a triple-down, if that's even a thing. Nene at least gives them some size down low and should fit D'Antoni's scheme well. He will be a useful player, though he comes with his own load of injury baggage.
Look forward to 135-130 final scores and some jaw-dropping numbers from both Harden and opposing stars. The vision of Paul Westhead and Don Nelson is alive and well in Houston.
Durant joining the Warriors creates a massive middle class in the Western Conference. D'Antoni's Rockets will try to score their way into a playoff spot, but their ultimate ceiling is much lower than it was this time last year. If this "works" it will be fun. If not, both Morey and Harden could be on their way out.