Houston’s use of the amnesty provision to release power forward Luis Scola, a beloved player both within the organization and among fans, marks the third above-average starter with whom the Rockets have happily parted for precisely zero assets that will help them win basketball games in 2012-13.
Point guard Kyle Lowry, borderline All-Star, tenacious defender, hungry to continue his rise while playing under perhaps the best bang-for-the-buck contract in the NBA? Off to the Raptors, in exchange for a lottery pick.
Goran Dragic, the man who stepped in as a starter for an injured Lowry in March and put up even better numbers? Gone to Phoenix as a free agent, with Houston unwilling to pay Dragic $34 million over four seasons — less than Boston will pay Jeff Green — without at least getting a team option in the fourth year.
Scola, post-up trickster, elite hair-flopper and reliable gamer? Hit the amnesty wire, bro.
(Also: Samuel Dalembert, useful starter on a cheap and partially guaranteed expiring deal, and the only center left on Houston’s roster? Boom — off to Milwaukee, in exchange for three young players who couldn’t get off the bench by the end of last season and a two-spot climb in the 2012 draft.)
This is team-building taken almost to the level of an academic exercise, with Houston, in theory, having salary commitments to as many as 18 current NBA players at some point this weekend when the team’s offer sheets to restricted free agents Jeremy Lin of New York and Omer Asik of Chicago become official.
The goal has been obvious, whether you’re reading the moves or general manager Daryl Morey’s public comments: acquire a star player.
The Rockets concluded that Dragic, at that price, fully guaranteed over four years, was less a carrot in that process than an obstacle — a good but not great player soaking up cap space on a deal that made him a less appealing trade target. Lowry’s deal, which will pay him just $5.75 million next season, would seem to make him a very appealing trade chip, but the Rockets surveyed the league and decided — rightly or wrongly — that a lottery pick from a team (Toronto) with a decent chance at landing in the lottery next season was an even more appealing trade chip.
Scola is set to make about $20 million combined over the next two seasons and has about $1 million guaranteed on his deal in 2014-15. The 32-year-old is still a productive player, but one in decline, and when news broke via Yahoo! Sports on Thursday night that the team would amnesty Scola, one only had to look at Houston’s and Orlando’s cap sheets to see what the Rockets were up to.
To wit: Assuming the Rockets “lose” out on Asik and Lin, they could maneuver to a monstrous $28 million or so in cap space. They are also armed with shooting guard Kevin Martin’s $12.5 million expiring deal. Let’s be conservative and say the Rockets also send the Magic $6 million or $7 million worth of first- and second-year players along with future first-round picks. Toss that all together, and the Rockets could take back something like $47 million in salary from the Magic in a Howard deal. Guess what? The sum of 2012-13 contracts for Howard, small forward Hedo Turkoglu, point guard Chris Duhon, power forward Glen Davis and shooting guard Jason Richardson is $46.8 million.
And sure enough, ESPN.com is reporting that this is precisely the kind of offer that the Rockets are preparing. Three days ago, the Magic were looking at an offer centered on Brook Lopez, who would come with a maximum contract; draft picks that would fall at the end of the first round; more limited cap relief; and other pieces they might have had to swallow in a precarious three- or four-team sign-and-trade bonanza. Lopez is a fine player, an efficient scorer in the pivot who was durable until a foot injury last season. The 24-year-old may well live up to a max contract if he develops into an above-average defender and rebounder — two things that are sort of important to have at the center position. But if I’m in a full-on rebuild mode, I would prefer not to pay max money to “maybes,” especially if they come with first-round picks that typically yield career arcs like Charlie Ward’s.
That’s not to say Houston’s theoretical offer is easily the best Orlando could get. If the Magic get an indication from Lakers center Andrew Bynum that he’d sign an extension there after a trade, they’d have a young big-man centerpiece locked in for a half-decade. But getting that kind of commitment ahead of time is hard, and if Orlando prefers certainty, this kind of package is hard to beat.
It’s fair at this point to give Morey some ribbing, to caricature him as the MIT genius over-thinking the game with high-level probability studies about what makes a champion instead of just signing and keeping good basketball players. He’s not infallible, and if this all blows up, it would not be a surprise in league circles if he lost his job. But the grounds for ribbing are a little shakier if you also believe that the acquisition of a superstar is the most important ingredient in the construction of a championship. The Rockets team that Morey just detonated was not a championship club and hasn’t been close since the retirement of its last superstar, Yao Ming. Houston has finished ninth in the Western Conference for three straight seasons — just above .500 each time while missing the playoffs — and Morey has positioned it now to either land a star or finally bottom out for a real chance at the No. 1 pick.
What’s interesting here is that Houston could have simply kept Scola, Lowry and all of its young players and opened up max-level cap room next summer. The team has clearly decided the free-agent chase is not the best way to find its superstar. The Rockets for now are going the trade route, banking on their ability to persuade Howard (or Bynum, or whomever) to sign on for the long haul because of Kevin McHale’s coaching, the franchise’s heady environment, Morey’s ability to tweak the roster quickly to Howard’s liking and, most important, the extra year and money only an incumbent team can offer its own free agents. Variations of all those factors helped the Nets re-sign point guard Deron Williams. And the Rockets surely know that Brooklyn, Howard’s preferred destination, will be way over the salary cap next summer; it’s fine to rant about how Howard could still “force his way to Brooklyn,” but you better be able to explain exactly how that is going to happen under the league’s cap and trade rules.
By taking all of these Orlando players in exchange for promising young talent, the Rockets would essentially become a Western Conference version of the team that Howard has already deemed not good enough for him. The Rockets have obviously thought about that and determined that the whole thing is worth the risk. Maybe they’re crazy. Maybe they’re not. For one, Howard likes some of these guys. The Magic acquired Davis in part because Howard requested him specifically, and the star center also has a good relationship with Richardson. Turkoglu’s and Duhon’s deals expire after the 2013-14 season, and both are only 50 percent guaranteed for that season. If ownership is willing to spend, the Rockets could buy out both players and gain immediate cap flexibility — either for a lopsided in-season trade involving another high-priced player, or a huge chunk of cap room for use next summer. (Depending on how many of the Rockets’ young players depart in this theoretical deal/buyout scenario, Houston could have somewhere between $11 million in cap space and near max-level room).
It might work, it might fail, and there were — and still are — safer alternatives available. Houston could just keep all these young guys, sign a couple of stopgap free agents, use the acquired draft picks in the actual draft and see where everything goes. But the Rockets are tired of playing it safe, and they are going all-out for a star. History suggests that a top-10 player is a requirement for the championship, and with the league’s two best players — LeBron James and Kevin Durant — working in their primes on stacked rosters, nudging into the championship picture is going to require a lot of talent.