With all the discussion these past few days with regards to the prudence in offering Trevor Ariza the full MLE, the doomsayers’ reminiscence of Stromile Swift led me to thinking. There are particular episodes which are most often cited, but viewing the team’s transactional history as a whole even more greatly underscores how cruel free agency has been to the Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets’ free agency history
Below I have included the notable offseason free agent acquisitions for the Houston Rockets from each season since the last title in 1995. (I feel that everyone will agree that this is a fair and objective starting point for any analysis of the team’s plight.) I have not included midseason pickups nor CBA/D-League fillers (more on this later.) I have also refrained from including Kelvin Cato, Moochie Norris, and Matt Maloney because although each was a disastrous signing, the two former were not obtained via free agency, while the antecedent clause disqualifies the inclusion of the latter.
Mark Bryant – Bryant was signed to start at power forward but if I recall correctly an early injury prevented that. He averaged 8 points and 4 rebounds in 71 games which came as a surprise to me because I don’t remember him having any impact at all. He was gone the next year.
Kevin Willis, Brent Price – While a good signing in theory, Price contributed nothing to the team in his tenure due to injuries. Kevin Willis on the other hand was far and away the most valuable free agent signing in the post championship era.
no free agent acquisitions
Scottie Pippen, Antoine Carr – Carr was injured much of the season and gave the team next to nothing. Scottie Pippen was the most disastrous acquisition in Rockets history not only for his lack of production but because his subsequent trade to Portland spawned the Kelvin Cato legacy.
Shandon Anderson – Anderson was initially signed to a modest contract but with the understanding of later compensation. He was a huge disappointment and was later signed (to a monster deal) and traded to New York for Glen Rice.
Maurice Taylor – Like Anderson, Taylor was also initially signed to a modest contract with the understanding of later compensation. He was initially productive, but his later re-signing was disastrous and was one of the worst contracts in team history.
Glen Rice* – Glen Rice wasn’t a free agent but rather was acquired in the Shandon Anderson trade. I have included him because he was the punition for having promised Shandon Anderson a raise. He gave the team nothing. Even more importantly, unloading him the following season (presumably to avoid the newly instituted luxury tax) cost the team a first round draft pick.
no free agent acquisitions
Jim Jackson, Eric Piatkowski, Adrian Griffin – Piatkowski and Griffin gave the team next to nothing. Jim Jackson was a solid contributor and easily the second best free agent signing after Kevin Willis.
Bobby Sura, Charlie Ward – Ward gave the team nothing. Sura was huge for one season but his body broke down and he was unable to play through the contract.
Derek Anderson, Stromile Swift – Derek Anderson was signed to supplant David Wesley in the starting lineup and was absolutely pitiful. Stromile Swift was one of the biggest disappointments in team history and is probably the poster boy for advocating the exercise of discretion in utilizing the full MLE.
Bonzi Wells – terrible.
Steve Francis – Gave the team nothing. Contrary to popular opinion, this move did hurt the team as trading him later in the year necessitated relinquishing Memphis’ high 2nd round pick.
Brent Barry – Gave the team nothing and looks ready for retirement.
Summary of the Houston Rockets’ free agency decisions
I did not include Eldridge Recasner, Sam Mack, Matt Maloney, Eddie Johnson, Moochie Norris, Chuck Hayes, and Von Wafer because while each was a major contributor, my intent was not an exhaustive critique of Rockets player personnel transactions. To do such a task proper diligence would require also factoring in to the ratio the numerous D-League and midseason minimum signings who contributed nothing such as Stanley Roberts and Rod Strickland. My intent was to analyze the team’s spending of its major resources and its overall success rate in these acquisitions.
Not including Glen Rice, in the past 14 years, the Houston Rockets have made 17 off-season free agent acquisitions. Of these, by my evaluations, only 2 were wholly successful (Willis, Jim Jackson). Depending on your perspective, Bob Sura can also be considered a successful acquisition, but I withheld him as he did not finish through his contract. Even more importantly, his unavailability triggered the trading of Mike James for Rafer Alston which may have impacted the team’s later playoff success. Such a trade might have been avoided had the resources initially spent on Sura been allocated towards a different point guard. Note that this is not a value judgment on Sura but rather on the overall success rating of the signing. I think Bob played great for us, but had the team been successful in landing Brent Barry (at that age), Derek Fisher, or Antonio Daniels, there would have been significant implications in their later success, in my opinion. Of course, this was not management’s fault as no one could have predicted Bob’s injury, but the intent here is not to assign culpability. The purpose is to assess the impact of each acquisition. Some will also note that Sura was signed for significantly less than the respective asking prices of Brent Barry, Daniels, and Fisher. However, the counter-argument could be presented that had the team offered one of these three close to the full MLE rather than allocating the funds towards Sura, their later success would have been impacted. I realize that this analysis on the Sura acquisition is a bit sketchy and I am willing to consider him a successful signing if convinced accordingly.
Kevin Willis was far and away the most successful signing in the post championship era. Not only was he productive on the court, but he had liquid value in translating to two first round draft picks in his trade to Toronto. The point here is in assessing the team’s ability to create a continuous flow of assets by which to remain competitive. For example, the Stromile Swift and Steve Francis signings had negative value in later trades. Ironically, the two picks which Willis was traded for later became Mirsad Turkcan and Bryce Drew. Even when the Rockets did something right, they somehow managed to screw it up.
Continuing the analysis, 4 of the 17 acquisitions signed contracts for equal or greater amounts than is being given to Ariza (Pippen, Taylor, Anderson, Swift). All 4 were complete and utterly disastrous signings.
The implications are not an attempt to foreshadow anything regarding Ariza. For one, I think this was a very good signing and more importantly, this is Daryl Morey’s first major free agent acquisition (though the 3 he has made in Wells, Francis, Barry were failures.) It was only the thought of Ariza which triggered this inquiry. What I think the value in this is, in combination with the team’s well documented draft day follies, is in understanding why the team hasn’t been relevant for 12 years. Up until now, they simply have not created assets. Even worse (depending on your perspective) is that they have hit absolute homeruns in a handful of transactions (the Francis trade, drafting Mobley, winning the #1 pick, landing McGrady) which have made them good enough to always ensure relative mediocrity. They haven’t had the luxury of stockpiling high lottery picks for quick recoveries as has been afforded to the other red headed step children of the league.
Trevor Ariza should be a major cornerstone for the team in its rebuilding era, but overall, free agency has not been kind to the Houston Rockets.