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Rockets Reality Check

The Doc Rivers to the Clippers deal impacts the Rockets's free agent plans but what does it mean when discussing team-building in the Rockets "compete and rebuild" era?

James Harden ponders why nothing is ever good enough for Rockets fans.
James Harden ponders why nothing is ever good enough for Rockets fans.

The Los Angeles Clippers completed a "trade" for Doc Rivers services from Boston recently and although the Houston Rockets are not implicated in any way, shape, or form by this action why not sift through the rubble and find a tangentially related way to discuss this as impacting us. In a roundabout way it does. In the spirit of interjecting us into news that doesn't necessarily concern us I will give in to the Dwightmare temporarily only to indulge us in some alternative planning that involves the Rockets.

People have offered the opinion that the Rivers to Los Angeles kills the ability of the Rockets to land Chris Paul. That's an accurate assumption. Chris wanted a proven coach and a known winner. They're certainly paying for it now, which is a drastic departure from Donald Sterling's MO. Given that it's such a drastic departure from the way the Clippers have traditionally operated I think we need to come to grips with something...

Dwight Howard is now LESS likely to show up in Houston.

How can that be true, Brandon? Well, I'll tell you and it's simple, really. When the Clippers went out and acquired a proven coach known for working a good system with a fantastic point guard and big man, they acquired a guy who can coach the style of basketball Dwight Howard wants to play. When the Clippers shelled out 7 million dollars a year for Doc Rivers they took a bold step towards eschewing their old shrewd practices to be a serious player. More importantly, the league is unlikely to approve of any trade between Boston and the Clippers at this point.

There is no necessity of a sign and trade, no juggling of the roster to acquire Dwight, just a simple straight forward trade option that both LA teams can execute. Yes, there's the idea that you don't want to trade to a team in your conference let alone your division... let a lone your own city but it's also the idea that if everyone can win, you are better advised to go that route. What am I driving at? Since the Clippers are starting to turn into a team that is more NBA and less circus it's easy to imagine a scenario where they swap Blake Griffin and Jamaal Crawford for Dwight Howard.

Both teams will be over the cap but you can execute a sign and trade if one team is able to dump salary in the process. The salaries must be within 125% of each other. If the Lakers really wanted to make demands then they could just as easily try to extract Eric Bledsoe in the trade and work on building around Griffin and Bledsoe. Both teams are within their salary ranges, the Lakers go young, the Clippers establish the best point guard and center tandems along with retaining the bird rights to several players and with their exceptions still in tact.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Rivers calling the shots for the Clippers actually bolstered the Clippers case to acquire Howard. If Dwight truly enjoys being in Los Angeles (Which reports state he does), wants to play with Chris Paul (Which was reported two years ago and resurfaced as "breaking" recently), and wants a coach that'll utilize him (he got one fired and another put on the hot-seat over his demands), then the Clippers are actually an ideal fit for the big man. Now, Dwight has no leverage in Los Angeles since he's on the way out but let's not pretend like the Lakers would pass up the opportunity to receive a return on investment for Howard.

Since we have this reality check offered, let's look at the Rockets, what they CAN control.

Sign alternatives.

This summer's free agent crop is less than inspiring once you tick Dwight Howard and Chris Paul off the list of candidates. After that we're looking at Paul Milsap, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, and JR Smith. Many of these players are not long-term solutions. I'm on record as advocating Al Jefferson for this team because he plays the mid-range and can slide over to the five behind Omer Asik and be at least as effective as Greg Smith.

The question becomes whether or not Daryl Morey is willing to sign anyone from this year's free agent crop to be the answer next to the core of James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin (Yes, I'm considering him part of the core), and Omer Asik. If Morey decides to punt on this year's crop of free agents and cobble together a roster on one-year deals then we'll be doing so banking on the 2014 crop of free agents. That list includes players such as Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki (Come off it, he's retiring a Maverick), Pau Gasol. Not that inspiring a group either (I didn't include players with Early Termination Options because there's no guarantee that most of them would actually exercise it).

Looking at the free agents that we have on the way it doesn't really look like the Rockets have a bevy of great options if they want to maximize the windows on their current core. Something worth noting, however, is that everyone's favorite fantasy (Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge) won't be available on the market until the end of the 2014-2015 season. That would effectively run out the clock on Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin and leave only two years for James Harden and would have seen a pay-raise to Chandler Parsons.

Think differently.

There's probably copyright infringement there but I doubt human resources department across the country are paying Donald Trump royalties when they fire someone, so let's consider something revolutionary for a Daryl Morey run team. Yes, that is stated sarcastically.

We have all this cap space, we like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, we can fluff out a roster and probably parlay our cap space into a couple of intelligent signings and put together a competitive roster from this year's crop of free agents. Bear with me here because here's where I expect a lot of whining. A reclamation project like Monta Ellis and any decent four would be a huge boon for the Rockets. Monta has some public relations issues that could easily be dealt with if he would accept a sixth man role. Popular perception of Ellis is that he's a volume shooter and a player with an attitude problem. Whisperings from some inside information show that Ellis is keen on the city of Houston (Though it's debatable whether or not he would take a pay cut) and it's possible he could be coerced into the bench role. With the Rockets playing at a pace that suits him and under a coach who won't tolerate antics Ellis could be exactly the kind of reclamation project that gets flipped in a deal most perceive as robbery. Ellis is one component, however, since any signing of a player like Paul Milsap, Al Jefferson, or Josh Smith in tandem to hold down the starting four in Houston could be pair with a reclaimed Ellis to create an appealing package for Aldridge or Love. What makes this alluring is there's no sign and trade involved. This leaves the Rockets with a roster that could easily see them to the second round in the Western Conference Playoffs and the option of flipping their free agents later on for their 2014-2015 sweethearts. Rather than praying Aldridge and Love don't get traded before their contracts expire or having to compete in the open market for these players they Houston Rockets then control their own destiny.

It's all about philosophy.

The Houston Rockets have pioneered a form of basketball that seeks to maximize the now and still pay mind to the future. Admittedly I had my doubts when they openly acknowledged such a plan because it was such a deviation from the norm that it didn't seem sensible. Here we sit today having navigated a few futile but "competitive" years and finally saw a playoff berth for the efforts. With that in mind we're on the wrong path when we look at the Rockets this off-season as a straight up signing only. That's not how the Rockets work. The Rockets tend to use their flexibility to facilitate other teams making a trade or to take on more salary and collect more assets for their efforts. Sure, the Rockets could just go for a signing and be done with it but it's just as likely that the Rockets decide to get involved in another team's deal, especially if Dwight is off the table.

What's the point?

What I want you to take from philosophy here is that the Rockets don't seem like the type of team that will stand pat or throw their hands up in defeat. If we've learned anything about Daryl Morey we've learned that he continually has 30 back up plans when we stopped guessing at 3. Is it likely that Daryl can get players to agree to 1-2 year deals to buy time for Love and Aldridge to become free agents? Absolutely. Is it likely that Daryl will allow 2-3 years of Harden's deal to pass without making a significant improvement to the roster? Doubtful. Will he do so knowing Parsons has earned a payday? Well, Parsons either gets dealt before that date or he is paid with the roster pretty solidly set. Is Morey likely to let Asik and Lin (If they're still around) to hit the final year of their deal without having tried to maximize what they contribute? Doubtful again. With the deck stacked so firmly against frittering a few years away it seems unlikely that Morey focuses on bargain bin signings to just get things by. This likelihood gets even less plausible when you consider that Les Alexander has said on many occasions that he has no problem paying for a winner. After the excitement and success of last season I think we can all rest assured that Alexander would be happy to green-light Daryl to make all the signings he needs to and work through it via trades later if it means a more competitive product on the floor.

So there you have it, the counter-point to the write up from a few days ago, a quick look at alternatives for Houston, and some food for thought. Feel free to complain about it in the comments (After all, difference of opinion is fun) or tweet insults at me with @QuestionablyBD in the tweet. I'm also available via e-mail with Enjoy.