For the fourth time in five years, the Houston Rockets’ season has come to an end at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. And although there have been plenty of painful, bitter defeats in those circumstances, against their biggest rivals, this year’s might just be the most painful of all. That’s because after pushing the Warriors to seven games last year, the last two-plus contests of that series without Chris Paul available, it really felt like this season, the Rockets had a great chance to knock off the defending champions.
James Harden played arguably the best basketball of his career for large stretches of the regular season and carried that over into the playoffs. Paul was able to stay healthy in the postseason, which is never a certainty. Eric Gordon continued to do Eric Gordon things, knocking down three after three and playing the role of third ball-handler exquisitely. Clint Capela – prior to the season-ending series defeat, at least – functioned as a double-double, shot-blocking machine. PJ Tucker was an insanely impactful role player all year long, and took it up a notch in the playoffs. Austin Rivers proved to be a fantastic pickup a couple of months before the trade deadline.
Yet again, however, Houston came up short.
Now, trapped under the weight of two super-max contracts suffocating their salary cap, the Rockets head into the summer with little to no ability to improve their roster unless they’re willing to commit to major changes. Of course, with general manager Daryl Morey calling the shots, we can’t rule that happening out.
After such a gut punch to close the season, we could be looking at an interesting offseason in Houston.
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2019/20
Chris Paul: $38,506,482
James Harden: $38,150,000
Clint Capela: $16,896,552
Eric Gordon: $14,057,730
PJ Tucker: $8,349,039
NON-GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2019/20
Gary Clark: $1,416,852
Isaiah Hartenstein: $1,416,852
Chris Chiozza: $1,416,852
Michael Frazier: $1,416,852
Danuel House (Restricted)
Despite having some relatively well-known names coming off the bench this year, the Rockets’ reserve group struggled mightily to make a difference against their chief playoff rivals and the team they are admittedly obsessed with beating, so one of Houston’s goals this summer has to be to try and shore up the bench even more. Their best course of action might be to go after some pure sharpshooters – and there are a few good ones set to hit free agency – to play off of Harden, Paul and Gordon, because the guys they have coming off the bench now, streaky shooters like Iman Shumpert and Gerald Green, are tough to depend on as marksmen.
If the Rockets want to try and make bigger changes, however, that’s going to require a willingness to hit the trade market. A player like Gordon, for example, could be an interesting trade chip: He’s owed just $14.1 million next season, a pretty team-friendly price when you consider his production, and it’ll be the final year of his contract, making his deal even more attractive in the eyes of prospective suitors. If Houston wants to think even bigger, perhaps packaging Gordon and Capela, two plus-assets and their third- and fourth-most expensive players, in a deal could land them the third piece they’re currently lacking to go toe to toe with Golden State. It would take a good amount of nerve for the Rockets to go through with that and break up a team that has had so much success over the last two seasons, but Morey has never been one to shy away from pulling the trigger on blockbuster trades.
Finally, Houston has to start looking towards a future where Paul, who will be owed $41.4 million in his age-35 season and $44.2 million in his age-36 season, is going to be obscenely overpaid as opposed to just slightly overpaid, and begin to think about how they can remain competitive in those years. Perhaps trying to acquire young players on their rookie-scale deals could be one way to accomplish that, since they can develop them alongside Harden and Paul, and re-sign them using their Bird Rights in a few years.
Regardless, the Rockets have to find a way to take the next step in the playoffs – and it has to come soon – because Paul is already showing some signs of decline, and it’s only going to get worse.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
Patrick Beverley: The Rockets lack a legit backup point-guard option behind Paul. Beverley spent his first six seasons with Houston. This fit couldn’t be more perfect.
Dewayne Dedmon: A floor-spacing, rim-protecting big man like Dedmon could be a nice fit for what Houston likes to do on both ends.
Ed Davis: The Rockets could use some toughness in the paint, and Davis provides plenty of that. Also would be a great addition to the locker room, as Davis is a universally-renowned teammate.
Reggie Bullock: Houston could use more pure shooting off the bench, and Bullock does that very well.
Wayne Ellington: Ditto, Ellington.
POTENTIAL TRADE TARGETS
Kevin Love: The Cleveland Cavaliers are nowhere near competing, so them shipping away their highest-paid player wouldn’t be surprising. Love’s rebounding and shooting would be a welcome addition to Houston’s starting five.
Besides Love, it’s hard to picture another All-Star-level player the Rockets could be targeting whose team would be willing to part with. They don’t have the assets to get into the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. Trading for Bradley Beal wouldn’t make sense, since they already have Harden. Trading for Mike Conley likewise wouldn’t make sense, since they have Paul.
Not saying they can’t find a star to deal for – after all, the Paul trade did come almost out of nowhere – but right now, it’s just tough to predict who it could be.
2019 DRAFT ASSETS
The Rockets do not own a first-round pick in 2019, as they owe their first-rounder to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They also do not own a second-round pick; Houston owes that selection to the New York Knicks.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.