Splendid, outstanding, magnificent, lit (as I am told the kids say). Take your pick of a descriptive which spells out “things are pretty dang good.” Then slap it next to the Houston Rockets’ last couple decades.
Since Les Alexander purchased the Rockets in 1993, the franchise ranks fifth in win percentage, brought home back-to-back championships and appeared in the Western Conference Finals two other times.
Over this stretch, the franchise has hosted four Hall of Famers as featured players and currently pays two more all-time greats destined for a golden jacket.
It’s a series of accolades which may not outweigh the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat or Golden State Warriors, but it’s been a pretty damn good sustained run. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the team’s sustained competitiveness has been the franchise’s decision making.
The final say on all things red and yellow will rest with a new owner soon, restaurateur and cool seeming rich guy Tilman Fertitta. The prompt and orderly sale of the Houston Rockets means there’s a new decider in town.
Chris Paul’s Contract
Chris Paul opted in to the final year of his contract to facilitate his trade to Houston, but now it’s time to make money, and lots of it. Houston’s new owner has two options: to give Paul a big payday or deciding there’s not enough ball for he and Harden and and letting Paul walk.
Houston plays out the season and delivers Chris Paul the Cadillac offer. Fertitta decides the team’s finances are solid enough to have two super-max extensions on roster and offers a five year maximum extension using Bird rights for $200 million dollars:
Paul's Bird rights go with him in the trade. Could be eligible to re-sign with the Rockets in the summer of 2018 for 5-years, about $205 mm— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) June 28, 2017
Fertitta and the Rockets would offer this deal under one of two assumptions. One, Houston says “F it” to salary cap considerations and affirms their trade. Paul is an elite player necessary to be competitive, and if he can give two more years of elite play, then a five-year contract is what it takes. Two, Houston believes Paul has the durability to outlast the point guard curse of attrition.
Fertitta can pull the trigger before the offseason if Paul is willing. This scenario would save Houston money and cut a year off the massive super-max extension Paul will be searching for.
Rather than waiting until free agency, 6 months after trade Paul could also extend for 4 years, $150 million— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) June 28, 2017
This would be the team-friendly option, requiring Paul to play ball and for the Rockets to convince the future Hall of Famer that it’s the best way to secure Paul and Harden more help in future seasons.
Letting Paul walk. It’s nearly unfathomable and can’t even be close to the current discussion. Perhaps Fertitta doesn’t see an upside to signing a 33-year-old point guard to a $200 million, five-year contract. He’d rather make Paul a short-term offer and chase free agents if Paul walks.
You can’t fault a guy for wondering if the super-max deal could be the Albert Pujols of NBA contracts.
This scenario could also be brought on by injury, team chemistry or even gasp not enough basketball for two point guards. Is there still only one ball? Can someone check on that?
Clint Capela Extension
How high do you go if you’ve got James Harden and Chris Paul both inked to super-max contracts already?
Current estimates put the 2018 luxury tax threshold at $123 million. Between contracts for Harden, Paul, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, you’re already at $93 million in the 2018-2019 season. That’s without having Clint Capela or Trevor Ariza on the books anymore.
It is yet to be seen what course Fertitta will chart, but it’s difficult to see someone who just spent two-thirds of their estimated net worth on a basketball team being interested in paying the luxury tax immediately.
If the Rockets are unable to unload Anderson, set on keeping Harden-Paul-Gordon and unwilling to pay the luxury tax, then there’s simply not room for Capela to walk in the door with a $18 million a season demand. Expect Capela’s agents to be asking for at least that when they sit down to the table with any franchise, including the Rockets.
Capela’s future as a lob-catching, defense-first center is full of variables of course. The value of big men like him fluctuates season-to-season. One year Bismack Biyombo pulled down 4 years and $72 million and the next Nerlens Noel is getting $4 million for a single season. The value of big men in 2017 seems more reliant on which teams have cap space then what a player can produce.
Harden’s favorite lob target has found the perfect role in Houston and improved every season, but NBA franchises can’t ignore how the NBA’s current style of play puts an artificial cap on the usefulness of a player like Capela. Even coach Mike D’Antoni realized this and commonly had Nene on the court at the end of playoff games due to his larger offensive repertoire.
Capela’s future is inextricably tied to Fertitta’s willingness to pay the luxury tax. Even if a new deal for Capela doesn't put the team over it will be the margin which pushes the team that far when all the roster moves are done. The new boss is going to have to decide if he’s interested in paying the tax or if he’s even interested in keeping Capela.
Fixing the Toyota Center atmosphere
There is no chance the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs fear playing in the Toyota Center right now. Something has to change.
Being owner of the team gives Fertitta control on everything from ticket prices to seat assignments. As a longtime owner of front row seats, he must be acutely aware of the home atmosphere deficit Houston currently faces against peers like Oklahoma City.
This past season, the Rockets publicly admitted this shortcoming by offering $1 playoff beers before the opening tip in an attempt to fill seats when the game started. It didn’t work.
There needs to be another attempt to fix this problem, and fans should expect a new owner who has been a fan to recognize this and seek a solution.
It’s not that passionate Rockets fans don’t exist, or even that they’re not in the arena. The issues delivering a meager atmosphere appear to be deeply systemic. This is a business reality, not a basketball reality.
Fertitta is going to need to make a decision. Can the Rockets catch fire with promotions or events to get fans in the stadium earlier and keep them rowdy all game? Or should the Rockets seriously consider changing their ticket allocation practices including season tickets and corporate seat blocks?