There was an interesting segment the other night on TNT’s Inside the NBA, discussing the Houston Rockets’ quest for a third star. Howard Beck, formerly of The New York Times, mentioned Rajon Rondo, Dirk, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, and even Lebron James as possible targets for Houston this offseason. None of this is really earth-shattering. Daryl Morey’s belief that this team is still missing a “third star” has been publicly documented. But should the Rockets pursue a third gun and if so, who would be the best target and can any of them even be had?
To begin, it should be clear: when Mr. Morey speaks of adding a third star, that notion is not dismissive of the prospect of internal growth. The likeliest candidates there would be Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Terrence Jones. But having watched the three closely for a sizable sample, can one feel any confidence in expected trajectory? Parsons lacks the physical gifts to do much more than he already is doing. Jones will eventually fill out as a dependable role-player, but he too lacks the physical tools to ever be considered a “star.” For now, simply not being an abomination defensively would be a noble start. And Lin, for his gifts–few point guards possess his combination of quickness, size, and strength–probably lacks the overall composure/confidence to be more than a sparkplug, at least in this setting, on this team. (I still do think that like Steve Francis, if handed the reins to a team, Lin can be its best player, guiding it to a low-40’s record. That will not happen here and I do believe that a change of scenery would be best for both parties.)
Is the acquisition of a third star a wise course of action? The alternative would be dispersing the third max slot between two ‘medium-salaried’ players, as the team is structured now with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik both on the books at roughly $8million (as distinct from each player’s $15million real-money entitlement.) Both sides of the coin hold merit. There is much truth to the logic that a true-max player (along with a minimum salaried player) is the best value contract in the league. The thinking would thus go that fitting as many max salaried players into one’s cap would yield the highest utility from resources spent. In the alternative, the coexistence of three max players can often lead to the marginalization of the third, a noted inefficiency in resource allocation. To illustrate, most would agree that while Miami’s Chris Bosh has been immensely valuable during that team’s title runs, he hasn’t produced to the fullest extent of his capabilities. (The case of Miami is ironically instructive in that it can serve as the blueprint for either side of the argument: the Heat won two titles with three stars; the Heat barely won two titles while having three stars and only did win because they had the potential GOAT.)
The solution to this quandary is ‘fit’, or, synergistic value. The Boston Celtics were able to maximize the utility of each of their stars because each player filled a well-defined, unique niche, complementing the other two players’ strengths and weaknesses. To put it simply, Garnett held down the defense at an elite level, Pierce created off the dribble at an elite level, and Ray Allen shot threes at an elite level. Would having Carmelo Anthony and James Harden together fit this model?
It is my belief that the greatest downside to the Rockets’ early exit from the postseason is that a sufficiently sizable sample of data regarding the team was not allowed to accrue. Subsequently, the danger lies in forming erroneous conclusions on the basis of insufficient data. Illustrative of this point is the case of Dwight Howard: while he produced at the expected rate of a max-player, I do not think he can be depended upon to produce similarly in later situations. (This is not meant as an indictment of Howard, so please don’t let emotions cloud your analysis.) One really does not need to look any further than the games against the Thunder and Clippers this season for a peak into Howard’s expected return against those teams. My point here is that while much is made about the Rockets’ defensive woes (and rightfully so), I also think it is not accurate to say they are set offensively to win a championship. The Rockets’ system and roster suffices to produce one of the league’s best offenses in the aggregate, on the strength of strong production early in games. That all comes sputtering to a halt close and late when Howard is typically rendered useless (unless facing a favorable matchup such as Portland), Chandler Parsons’ physical inabilities become a hindrance, and Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones (if even on the court) collectively wet the bed. Defenses key in on Harden, and…well…you’ve seen what happens. It is my belief that much of the defensive problems can be corrected through proper coaching. This is a different topic altogether. But offense is, for the most part, a personnel issue.
So what to make of the prospects? The prospect of James doesn’t really merit an academic discussion. If he can be had, it will be done. But what of Rondo, Dirk, Bosh, and Anthony? I don’t think Nowitzki either is a realistic target as I don’t see him ever leaving Dallas. Bosh’s future hinges on James. If Lebron goes elsewhere, Bosh certainly leaves the Heat. The Heat, with their roster dismantled, would have no interest in paying Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, and thus, would balk at a sign&trade offer. Couple this with the fact that Lebron won’t be leaving (Cleveland was the only realistic expectation and they still suck) and Bosh–while in theory the perfect fit–is a very, very long shot.
That leaves Rondo and Anthony, the former of whom Beck reported to be “very unlikely” as a Rockets acquisition. Would Melo make sense? I think it’s an absolute no-brainer.
Some readers mentioned that acquiring Melo would kill the Durant 2016 dream, a point with which, while true, I have to take exception. Durant is certainly a worthy goal and given his relationship with Harden, not as far-fetched a target as it would seem. But maintaining the flexibility to sign Durant would mean foregoing later acquisitions for another two more seasons. That means two more years of Dwight Howard’s prime, wasted. (To clarify, once Houston’s foundation is set, it can exceed the cap and dip into luxury tax levels by pursuing players using the Mid-Level exception without fear of sacrificing flexibility. Right now, the Rockets cannot sign players above the league minimum (much less even re-sign Chandler Parsons) because they have an eye towards cap space in 2015.) The Rockets have to splurge now before they run out of time.
I’ve explained at length on these pages why I believe Anthony would be an almost ideal fit on the Rockets. If played at the ‘4’, he would give the team a weapon to counter the superstar power forwards in the West that torture them regularly. We saw against Portland that even the combination of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik–two of the game’s best interior defenders–was not enough to shut down LaMarcus Aldridge. Having Anthony would at least make players of that ilk work at the other end, rather than being able to rest up on defense. The thinking goes that if you can’t stop them, at least make them stop you too. And there isn’t a single power forward alive, or even person for that matter, who can guard Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony would give the team another crunch-time option. He can operate from the mid-range, the area most free when smart defenses tighten up. He’s also surprisingly efficient when spotting up, something he did regularly at the Olympics and would have the opportunity to do here in Houston. (Anthony scored 1.08 PPP when spotting up this year, good for 80th in the league.)
I also don’t think defense would be as great a concern as critics of an Anthony pursuit have made it out to be. To be sure, as a power forward, he wouldn’t be any worse than Jones who is, at least when inside, borderline atrocious. But more than that, the Rockets will have to address their scheme and coaching staff to get at the heart of their defensive problems. Right now, the Rockets don’t even have a coherent scheme, it seems. Adding Anthony’s offense would do more in the aggregate than adding a defensive player and what Anthony lacks can somewhat be mitigated by proper coaching; the opposite does not hold true.
So how would Houston go about acquiring Carmelo Anthony? One of two things would need to happen. They would either need to trade both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin (creating the sufficient cap room on their own) or convince the Knicks to agree to a sign&trade deal. Anthony, of course, would need to desire to come here. The first route would be tricky because it is difficult to envision any team taking on Jeremy Lin unless netting significant assets from the Rockets for the favor. The sign&trade route, however, seems plausible because it does not seem too unrealistic to see the Knicks trading back for Lin for another year of Linsanity to fill the coffers in an expected down year. That route could also prevent Anthony from fleeing to the Bulls, a conference rival.
Understand, this is not a pipe-dream, at all. Anthony to the Rockets is an extremely realistic scenario. Whether it happens, we will have to wait and see, but like last year, we are gearing up for yet another interesting offseason.