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How the Rockets can take advantage of the restricted free agency market this summer

This underutilized type of free agency provides untapped potential going into 2022-23.

AP Photo/Ross D Franklin

While the postseason churns on for the remaining teams, the rest of the league has already moved on to their offseason plans. For teams like the Houston Rockets, the NBA Draft and free agency is what fans will have their eyes set on once it’s clear that they won’t be participating in May and June. A bevy of household names should be available to negotiate with this summer. Among that list is an intriguing set of names in the restricted free agency (RFA) group.

RFA is often undervalued in my opinion. A team that’s rebuilding, such as the Rockets, should exercise all options as they attempt to turn their team back into a competitor. Of course there’s a catch to RFA, so I’ve laid down a framework of things to consider down below.

Salary Cap Situation

Houston is looking at a $115 million payroll going into 2022-23, provided that John Wall picks up his $47.3 million player option (he’d be insane to decline it). The team can also choose to exercise its option on Jae’Sean Tate (at $1.8 million, it’s likely).

Salary Dump Candidates

  1. John Wall - $47.3 million
  2. Eric Gordon - $19.6 million
  3. Christian Wood - $14.3 million

The issue with restricted free agency is that a club usually has to overpay to secure their target. Clearing Wall’s salary would go a long way into creating the room to sign anyone outright. While the team didn’t have luck finding a trade partner this past season, it is more likely that another team would welcome his expiring contract as opposed to when it had multiple years attached to it.

Gordon showed that he still has value in this league. He provides shooting (41 percent from three in 2021-2022) so it wouldn’t be hard to find a suitor for him this offseason. While Houston would be wise to employ some veteran leaders on the roster, there's plenty of those that can be added to the end of the bench in free agency.

I can see how the decision to cut ties with the talented Wood after only two seasons may be contentious... However, when you consider that the player(s) brought in to replace him could result in better rim protection, more youth, and less drama, the hesitancy to end this relationship can be alleviated.

And finally...

Ideal Targets

There are three target archetypes the Rockets should try to pry away from other teams.

  • The high upside player and likely someone who was drafted in the lottery. They have the potential to be a perennial All-Star if given an expanded role, à la James Harden.
  • Role players on playoff teams with high payrolls. These guys can be had due to budget restrictions.
  • Mo Bamba. He falls somewhere in between the previous two options.

High Upside

Deandre Ayton

There’s a case to be made that at least 25 teams across the league would be better off if this guy was their starting center. The Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat are sleeping well at night with who they currently position at the five. Arguments can be made for the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves as well depending on if they decide to make any big trades this offseason. And then there’s the Phoenix Suns, who somehow, in the midst of an incredible run that very well may still result in a title, has failed to secure Ayton going forward.

The fact that Phoenix let it get this far and was willing to hand out extensions last year to Mikal Bridges, Landry Shamet and Chris Paul, but not Ayton, gives a glimpse of hope for teams hoping to poach him. It wouldn’t be the first time Suns’ management has allowed a young integral star get away over some dollar bills (e.g. Joe Johnson).

Ayton was reportedly seeking the five-year $172.1 max to stay in the land of the sun. That didn’t happen, and now if they want to keep him, they will be forced to match whatever another team offers him, albeit it cheaper than what they could have originally given him.

How does Houston get him?

Well, the money is a good start (roughly four years/$127.9 million). He’ll be offered the same rate by anyone who can make the space for him, so the real deciding factor will come down to how well he’s recruited. Houston needs to sell him the dream. Tell him how he's the next in a line of great Houston bigs. Convince Hakeem Olajuwon to take him to his big man camp. Show him how great of a tandem he can be with Jalen Green along with whatever top pick the Rockets take in the draft. If Houston has to resort to dirty macking, they should do it. It’s imperative that he knows how bad this team wants him because it’s clear that he’s not a top priority in his current situation.

Miles Bridges

Bridges isn’t quite at the same level as Ayton, but the former 12th overall pick has shown improvement with more consistent playing time over the years. He could step in and become a legitimate number two scoring option for Houston if the franchise is willing to bet on his incredible athletic prowess and ability to further develop.

The Charlotte Hornets aren’t likely to let the young forward escape. He’s viewed as a cornerstone along with LaMelo Ball, but that shouldn’t stop teams like Houston from doing their due diligence and chasing the talent. The key here is to make competitive offers that won’t cripple cap flexibility, while also finding the threshold that will make the team with the right of first refusal sweat out their decision.

Anfernee Simons

Landing the soon-to-be 23 year old may also be lofty aspirations due to all of the cap room that the Portland Trail Blazers were able to create this season. The young combo guard was given the opportunity this season to show off his playmaking ability with Damian Lillard out for most of the year due to injury and CJ McCollum being sent to New Orleans. Simons excelled at shooting (41 percent from three) in a featured role while keeping the Trail Blazers pesky, even with a stripped down roster.

Depending on how Houston addresses their point guard position this summer, Simons could make for an electric duo along with last year’s main floor general, Kevin Porter Jr. Taking a swing on his upside could be redundant given KPJ’s skillset, but based on the strides Simons has made since people questioned if he’d ever be NBA-ready, I’d say it’s something to look into.

Role Players

Nicolas Claxton

Claxton might bring back memories of the last rim-running big for the Rockets, Clint Capela. Between that and the poor free throw shooting, he’s not a perfect player, but he did show that he was the most serviceable big for the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs this year. The switchable Claxton could serve as an upgrade on defense and be used to balance the deficiencies of Wood and Alperen Şengün.

The Nets might not be able to afford keeping him, but given their roster construction, they may not be able to afford losing him either. It’s worth a shot trying to pick these players off from other teams as long as the offers are something the front office can live with. Houston must avoid the same mistakes that Brooklyn coincidentally avoided earlier in the mid-2010s when they went on an RFA offer spree (Tyler Johnson four year/$50 million & Allen Crabbe four years/$75 million in 2016 and Otto Porter Jr. four years/$106.5 million in 2017). Brooklyn was lucky that the other teams matched these contracts because as history shows, that would have went poorly.

Thankfully for Houston, none of these role players should command contracts that come even close to those.

Juan Toscano-Anderson

This isn’t a sexy pick, but JTA could make for some Jae’Sean Tate insurance if he somehow isn’t a Rocket going forward. JTA has been a serviceable bench player when called upon for the Golden State Warriors these past two years. The good news is that there would be more Kenyon Martin Jr. minutes in play here as JTA would serve as his backup.

The Warriors are facing $170+ million between only eight players going into 2022-2023. Offering JTA a little more may be worth it to make the former rivals weigh how much they’re willing to spend on a bench player.

Caleb Martin

Another low radar guy here. Is there much of a difference between him and his twin, Cody? The answer is no, not really, but it is a little funny that the Hornets might have released the slightly better brother.

The reason Martin makes this list is because he showed an ability to acclimate to #HeatCulture flawlessly. The Miami Heat have been able to plug him in as either a consistent rotation player or even just a spot defender at the end of quarters while playing his role to a tee. He’s a ball of kinetic energy and snatching a guy from a championship contender at little cost could bode well for Houston.

Mo Bamba

Bamba gets his own category because out of all of the “high upside” guys, he’s probably the most attainable. Houston doesn’t have overwhelming size. Bamba could step in and get the opportunity to prove that he can be an anchor defensively.

Things didn’t go exactly how the Orlando Magic planned when they took Bamba sixth overall in 2018, but this past season gives a reason to give him a serious look. He was able to stay on the court for 71 games this season (69 starts) while posting career highs across the board. He did all this while sharing center responsibilities with Wendell Carter Jr. Orlando appears to have opted for Carter Jr. as their starting center going forward so it’s very much up in the air if they’d be willing to bring Bamba back after having a logjam at center for years.

The point here is that Bamba can be had, and had at a solid number at that. If he continues to trend towards being able to stay on the court, he has the the ability to become a reliable three-and-D center for the Rockets.

Deciding Factor

Ultimately this will all boil down to GM Rafael Stone’s vision and the path he’s willing to take to construct the rest of the roster. It’s unlikely to expect the front office to be ultra aggressive in free agency if the team decides to build organically through the draft with their haul of picks. That being said, leave no stone unturned.

While I do advocate for Houston to offer Ayton a max contract, I don’t believe any of the other guys listed above should receive that same level of compensation. But if Houston plays their cards right, the minutiae of restricted free agency can work in their favor.