The Lockout still isn’t settled but it’s looking like we’re taken care of. In the spirit of optimism and faith that the agreement won’t fall apart at the eleventh hour it’s important that we look over the good guys’ roster. What impact will the lockout have on the team coming together, what are our options moving forward, what directions the franchise can move in, and what exactly the front office’s theory could be moving forward.
Join me on this magical journey looking into just what lays ahead, how this roster can adapt to adversity, and some more confusing issues swirling around the amnesty clause!
Scheduling after the NBA lockout is a major task for the NBA. The season will go to 66 games, include two preseason games, hopefully have a trade deadline in March, and feature a gambit of back-to-back-to-backs (One to three for each team in the league). The composition of these 66 games is the most interesting aspects to me. The Rockets will face their Western Conference adversaries in 48 games out of 66 (73% of games). 18 of 66 (27%) will be against the Eastern Conference. The Rockets have 16 of their 48 games within their division (24% of their games). Last year the Rockets finished last in their division.
Think of that, if you will. The Rockets play roughly a quarter of their schedule against a division they went 5-11 against last season. The lockout positively impacts veteran players by allowing longer time to heal from injuries, aches, and pains, and gives them the benefit of a shortened season (As the Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics show this strategy GENERALLY works). We have 32 more games against the Western Conference. Houston finished 25-27 against Western Conference teams last season, subtract our division record of 5-11 (31% winning percentage) and the Rockets were 20-16 against our fellow Western Conference team. That’s good for a 56% winning percentage against our non-divisional opponents. That now only accounts for 48% of our games, less than half. So we’re roughly over .500 against non-division opponents but we are woefully inadequate within our division.
The Rockets were 18-12 against Eastern Conference teams, teams we will see 18 times this upcoming season. That’s a 60% winning percentage against the Eastern Conference. That gets diminished in a shortened schedule. Analyzing the slate the Rockets have coming up we have to look at raw numbers. Our roster is in tact from last season and adding a guy like a Nene will not significantly tilt the records in favor of the Rockets. I say that because as it stands, Nene has the benefit in Denver of defensive support (to an extent) and when it comes to centers, he is above average at best. Assuming no roster changes for the Rockets (retention of Hayes), the numbers as they stand, project to a Rockets record this season of 34-32, another mediocre season.
Is this condemning for the Rockets? Not necessarily. They’re uniquely situated in that they have 10 players under contract, only one over the age of 30, and the only loose ends they have are three unsigned draft picks. Chandler Parsons is committed overseas and Donatas Motiejunas is as well. Marcus Morris should be signed promptly and there is the pursuit of a guy like Nene. As it stands right now, the Rockets are tasked with finding ways to integrate whatever free agents they pursue, one rookie PF/SF, Johnny Flynn, Terrence Williams, and Hasheem Thabeet into components of this roster. Out of ten players under contract the Rockets have to find a place for 3 of them, sign one more to bump our total of new integration to 4, and whatever free agents signed (Presumably up to 3) into a rotation of sorts. What this says to me is that the Rockets could potentially have to integrate 4-5 players, learn a new offensive system, and decide whether or not to move forward with either rebuilding or trying to swing a deal.
A record of 34-32 only becomes an option if other teams do not benefit from the layoff. The Rockets have youth on their side which means quicker recover on the three straight game set ups but they also have a new coach, a new outlook, new players to integrate, and a long, hard look in the mirror to deal with. The amnesty waivers would have to provide a very intriguing class of free agents to the market. The clause is available for 6 years, which means it’s wildly unpredictable that it will create a wealth of available players.
Further, it cannot be understated that a player is still owed (at least some) money from their amnestied contract, and could reasonably offer their services at a discount to another club when they become available. Houston has to reconcile that in this new CBA player movement is something that is restricted more so than it was before. That sign and trades yield less to a player than staying with their current team. The moves teams over the luxury tax line can make are limited which is intended to create more of an opportunity for small market teams to attract talent but it’s not a given that it will produce such a result. That earlier notion of making a decision about whether or not to rebuild or swing for a deal plays a role really only after the onset of the season. The trade deadline’s delay to March plays happily into the Rockets’ hand. Houston can opt to see what the amnesty clause provides, evaluate some of their young talent, and decide to deal as the season goes on if they decide to cash in their chips.
When the front office brought in Kevin McHale I took it as a positive step towards committing to guys like Hasheem Thabeet and Jordan Hill. Bringing in a coach who will put up with rebuilding pains and develop young big men is a drastic departure from our old coach. McHale has a history of developing size, which the Rockets desperately need since big men don’t seem keen on coming to Houston, nor do teams seem keen to give us some of theirs. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement seems keen on rewarding teams who run their franchise properly by giving them more leverage in negotiations with their agents.
The Rockets are staffed with young players and they are buoyed by veteran presence in Luis Scola and Kevin Martin. Luis Scola is the team’s only over 30 player and is coming back off of knee surgery and his first slate of missed games in his career. Kevin Martin is a dynamic scorer on a contract I’d label fair with his skill set. The Rockets are overstocked at Scola’s size and position and Kevin Martin provides potent offense but not much else. The move from Adelman to McHale to me hints towards the front office putting some faith behind Patrick Patterson, Jordan Hill, and Hasheem Thabeet. What this also tells me is that Scola will be available. As it comes to Kevin Martin, I get the feeling the front office is looking for more two-way basketball, which very well could be good news for Terrence Williams.
This discussion does open the door for the conversation broken open by my colleague Patrick about tanking versus swinging for the fences. My take, as made painfully aware, is that the Rockets are stocked with young players, have a coach with good rapport amongst young players, have players who can make their veterans expendable in the interest of developing talent, and are tasked with facing the reality that teams just don’t tend to deal for what we have to offer.
In economics if you have nothing to exchange you generally must become a producer to enter the market. The Rockets need to acknowledge that it’s time to become a producer. If that involves selling a couple of dependable pieces cheaper than you would like, you take what return you can get and start work. This franchise won’t see significant improvement around players that are supremely average. Luis Scola is a wonderful talent for us, but on the greater NBA stage, he’s your decent PF. Kevin Martin is an offensive dynamo, he’s not really much else and that relegates him to a sub-tier of SG in the NBA.
The Rockets cannot make improvements drafting at number 15 or hoping that other teams collapse with the draft picks we’ve picked up. Gem trades are rare. The moves the front office has made (Acquisition of draft picks, Dragic, Flynn, Thabeet, a big man coach, removal of an offensive oriented coach for a more well rounded coach, and acceptance of their trade futility) seem to signify a willingness to abandon a failing philosophy.
The Rockets seem inclined to reduce their cap space and begin looking towards the draft. This is only proper if you want to build long term. Ask the Clippers if they regret doing poorly when they selected Blake Griffin. How about the Wizards drafting a point guard who could come to dominate the game? I doubt many of these clubs with the young players the NBA (And specifically the Rockets) covet are lamenting the fact that their bad seasons are a (distant, sometimes) memory.
I know where I stand, my fellow fans. A bad season or two is fine by me so long as I know we have a direction. This limbo situation cannot continue. If we had a franchise player through the draft, I would be satisfied with a year or two of poor play while it all comes together. You know as well as I do when Oklahoma City was the whipping boy of the NBA for two years everyone took notice when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden came together to let the league know they arrived. Wouldn’t you like that feeling too? I know I would.