In the NBA, as in other facets of life, size matters.
Nobody wants size to matter. It poses an unfair advantage to the party who’s been endowed with it. Regardless, it exists, and whoever has it will use it.
Market size, that is. Get your mind out of the gutter.
In free agency, the teams that play in the league’s biggest markets always get first dibs. Look at the Los Angeles Lakers. They don’t even need to properly manage their roster - in time, a LeBron James will decide that donning the purple-and-gold is suitable for his brand.
On the other end of that spectrum, a team like the Memphis Grizzlies has to draft and trade meticulously well. It’s exceedingly unlikely that they’ll net a big name in free agency.
Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the Houston Rockets.
How have the Rockets fared in free agency before?
Houston is a big city. It’s got some cache too. It’s culturally distinct, good rappers are from there - representing the H looks good on an NBA star.
It’s just not quite Hollywood, either.
A look at the Rockets’ history of free agency isn’t exactly inspiring. Up until 2011, the biggest name the team landed in the open market was probably Steve Francis.
After the team had already drafted him, traded him, and watched his production fall off in Orlando. In short, the acquisition didn’t exactly make waves.
Still, something different happened in 2011. Something some may describe as (L)insane.
When Jeremy Lin signed with Houston ahead of the 2011-12 season, it felt like a new bar was set. Lin had been one of the most talked about players in the league in the prior year. His explosion of productivity had many observers projecting long-term stardom for the point guard.
Obviously, it didn’t go that way. Lin was merely a gateway into the Harden era. Still, the fact that the Rockets even landed such a fish made us question what else might be in those waters.
As it turned out, there was a bigger fish afloat indeed. Dwight Howard was probably the franchise’s biggest free agent acquisition of all time.
The rest is history. Howard and Harden couldn’t get along, Howard left, and the team eventually landed Chris Paul. In between, they attracted key role players on the open market like Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza.
On the subject of Paul, the team may have traded for him, but it’s worth noting that in 2017, Paul chose the Rockets. He presented the Clippers with an ultimatum: sign-and-trade me to the Rockets, or I’ll join them in free agency anyway.
Of course, the Rockets were in a different place at the time. Will anyone really choose them in 2023-24?
Can the Rockets make a splash in free agency next summer?
The Rockets’ path forward looks pretty straightforward to many. The team has one more first-round pick before selections start conveying to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Prioritizing development in 2022-23, landing one more lottery pick, and then bringing in the best veteran talent the team can seems like the obvious plan.
If for no other reason than to spite the Thunder.
This creates a paradox. Can the Rockets attract quality free agents after a third consecutive season in the gutter?
In short - maybe, maybe not.
Call me biased, but something about this current Rockets trajectory feels appealing. Jalen Green is a born star - his magnetism ought to attract other talented players. Moreover, Rafael Stone is busy cultivating a reputation as a player-friendly GM.
The Rockets may not be the premiere destination, but if they can show some incremental improvement in 2022-23, they could be an attractive one. The goal next year should be to hit a sweet spot - 28-30 wins should be enough to secure strong lottery odds, but also make overtures to free agents.
Of course, can the Rockets sign major free agents in the summer of 2023 isn’t the only question - should they?
A look at the available players next summer offers some options, but little certainty.
Who should the Rockets target next summer?
Of course, it depends on who the Rockets draft in 2023. Still, if the goal is to get back to competitive basketball in 2023-24, they’ll likely need help in every area.
If they draft a point guard or a big man, they’ll likely be looking for a wing. In that event, Andrew Wiggins feels like the ideal candidate. Khris Middleton could be an option as well. On the other hand, they’ll both be coming from championship-caliber programs: they may be slightly ambitious targets.
With that in mind, Kelly Oubre Jr. could be a nice addition. So could Harrison Barnes, who already has a championship and at 31, may be interested in helping a rebuilding team take the next step.
If the Rockets draft a wing, they could be looking for a big man and/or a point guard. If 2022-23 reveals a dire need for a rim protector at the starting center spot, Kristaps Porzingis could be a game-changer. On the other hand, if Alperen Sengun proves sufficient in that area, a lower-cost option like Nerlens Noel to back him up could be preferable.
Personally, I love Nazir Reid as a target. He’ll be a restricted free agent, so the Rockets may have to overpay a little. They’ll have the cap space to do so. He’s still young enough to fit with this core, he can play the five or the four in a reserve role, and his combination of floor-spacing and rim protection is a skill set that can’t be found on the current roster.
Myles Turner provides the same qualities, but if the team is bringing him in, it would likely signal a pivot away from Sengun.
The point guard market is a little less inspiring. D’Angelo Russell will be on the market. I’d personally steer clear. His ball dominance and defensive limitations make him a poor fit alongside this young roster.
Conversely, reuniting with Patrick Beverley could be interesting. Kemba Walker? Meh. Reggie Jackson? Meh!
On the other hand, Fred VanVleet will be on the market, but he feels a little unrealistic for this team given their developmental timeline.
Landing a major free agent or two may not even be a top priority for the Rockets next summer. If they do the minimum to fill out the roster, make organic improvements with their young players the following season, and enter the following summer with massive cap space again, that’s an acceptable outcome too.
With that said, handing the Oklahoma City Thunder the 20th to 25th pick in the 2024 draft has to have some appeal to Stone, doesn’t it?