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The Rockets' Free Agents to be: To sign, or not to sign -- that is the question

While I do not want to look too far ahead into the offseason, the Houston Rockets are going to have to make some very interesting and difficult decisions once this season ends (hopefully with a parade and a trophy, but we'll get to that later).

As you all know, Ron Artest is in the last year of his contract and he's trying to avoid the Bonzi Wells syndrome (that being to reject a $60M guaranteed contract and end up playing for pennies in China, only to be released.)

Crazy Pills is currently making right about $8.5M this year.  That said, it is conventional wisdom that he's long been underpaid given his talent and on-court production.  He's also only 29 years old and will not turn 30 until the beginning of next season.

Right now, RonRon is averaging a cool 16.8 ppg to go along with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a whole lot of toughness each game.  A lot of this is skewed by the games where Tracy McGrady was still hobbling around and since Tracy's absence became final, Rawn has stepped it up statistically in all areas of production.  His defense has also been fantastic (even on Kobe Wednesday night - Artest locked him down.  He just pissed him off in the process.  Oops.)

Now, I think it is safe to say the Ron Artest trade has been successful for the Rockets.  Artest's defense and effort cannot be questioned.  If anything, he cares too much at times.  Unfortunately, Artest has been sporadic and he's been prone to being a ball-stopping black hole on the offensive end.  Which I can live with at times because that's part of the bargain you get with him.  We simply have to accept that this is part of who he is -- just like Tracy getting 3 point happy.

When June rolls around, the Rockets are going to look at a Big Three of Yao Ming(signed through 2010, with an option for 2011 at $17.6M - Yao isn't going anywhere and we will sign him long-term); Tracy McGrady (injured and just had career-threatening microfracture surgery; he will not be on the Rocket payroll after next year when he collects an absurd $23.2M); and Ron Artest (contract expires... he's an unrestricted free agent).

What to do?

Step 1:  sign Ron Artest, Mr. Morey!!

The question is what is the right value for Crazy Pills.  We want him here, and I think *he* wants to be here, too.  But he also will want some security and a bit of a raise.  The problem with that is the salary cap is going to shrink next year.  There will not be extra money just floating around.  This is where McGrady will continue to hold back Rawn even from the trainer's room. 

Is a 3 year contract (with a team option for year 4) at a value of $32M ($44M over 4 years) acceptable to everyone?  Would that be an insult to Artest?  Would that be an amount the Rockets can even afford to pay?  I honestly have no idea, but in my trial-and-error effort to find a reasonable contract for Crazy Pills, this is what I settled on.  We do own his Bird rights I believe, but we also would face the luxury tax.  Now isn't exactly the time to be paying a luxury tax if you are Les Alexander...

Wait... that's not our only issue!

The Rockets also absolutely, positively need to address the Luis Scola situation.  While Scola is not going to be a free agent after this season (his contract does not expire until 2010), we can all agree that Scola is drastically underpaid given the production he gives the team each and every single night.  Scola may play for the pure love of the game, but I can guarantee his agent is not so charitable.  Please resolve this before it becomes an actual issue!

Morey cannot allow Scola to go into 2009-10 as a lame duck PF.  (Also factor in that Carl Landry just signed a 3 year deal averaging right at $3M before this season started.)  Of course, I have no idea what would be a reasonable and acceptable contract for Scola.  As much as I love the guy, he's not going to be an all-star.  He's going to be 29 years old as of next month.  But he's a rebounding and hustle freak who is the best pure power forward the Rockets have had since Otis Thorpe.

Is a 3 year extension (to go through 2013) for $18M the right amount?  I sure hope so.  At least with my basic math skillz it seems to be the right balance of risk/reward.

Step 2:  Luis Scola needs to be taken care of.  ASAP!

(And if for some reason we do not sign Luis Scola long term, I am going to be very, very, very angry.  Almost as angry as when the Rockets traded Robert Horry back in 1996.  A monumentally dumb decision at the time.  And dumber still today.)

But wait, there's still more!

There's this guy, you see.  He's young and raw.  But he already has many nicknames (as well as "former teams").  He is Von Wafer.

Lee and I had an e-mail exchange on Tuesday about this issue.  I am afraid that Von has played himself into a megabucks multi-year deal.  A deal the Rockets simply cannot afford to give him right now.

As much as I like Von Wafer and think he is a vital asset to this team, I also do not think he is the type of player that should ever be given a multi-year contract.  He plays better when he's playing for his job.  That said, this is the NBA, and the NBA wouldn't be much of anything if it were filled with 30 competent GMs (again - be thankful we have Mr. Morey working for our team.  He's like a genius or something.)

I am deeply afraid Michael Jordan or some other halfwit executive with access to a blank check is going to give The Baron a 3 year/$10M deal just based on his combination of youth, explosiveness and productivity this year.  Ignoring that Hot Grease is still a work in progress and is among the streakiest shooters I have ever seen.  The Rockets cannot (and will not) match any deal of the sort.

Step 3:  sign Von Wafer.  If reasonable.

Lee and I tried to bounce around a few numbers to see what might be worthwhile to both Vanilla Wafer and the Rockets' management.  Say, 2 years at $4M with a team option for year 3 that would bump it to $6.5M?  Anything more would be wasteful spending.  Yet our resident Boy Genius (Morey, not Von) just doesn't do wasteful spending.  This is a good thing.

As for the others?  Well, the Rockets have already made my year in evicting Rafer Alston and releasing Luther Head.  Now they just have to extract value from another team for Tracy McGrady's expiring knee/contract.  We may have to wait until next February's trading deadline to see any results on that front.  It will happen though.

Of course, the Rockets are in good shape for many years to come.  In just two years, Morey put together a team that has more talent, depth and a balance of youth and veteran experience than any Rockets team I have ever followed.  That includes the 1994/1995 Rockets (who were nowhere near as deep as this team, they just had the advantage of an Olajuwon who was the best player in the world at the time.)

Oh, and Step 4:  Beat Charlotte tonight.  Baby steps to the playoffs.