The Rockets pulled off something rare last season. Houston traded for a star in James Harden, and they did it as late in the off season as possible. Harden barely had time to step off the plane before his debut game against the Detroit Pistons, having been traded a mere three days prior. With a roster overflowing with serviceable players and a trigger-happy general manager in Daryl Morey, are the Rockets still due for one big move this off-season? Let’s weigh the possibilities.
While nothing is likely to come of it, NBA veteran Royal Ivey is reportedly working out for Houston and San Antonio. He’s bounced around the league for his entire nine years, moving from the Hawks to the Bucks, to the Sixers, to the Thunder. He’s never distinguished himself particularly well, and the Spurs and Rockets are likely just testing the waters. He would, however, be the 20th player under contract for Houston, the 19th being Ronnie Brewer, another journeyman known for his defense.
The most likely scenario involves the Rockets cutting their undrafted rookies, B.J. Young, Robert Covington and Jordan Henriquez. All are on the books for a mere $490,180 and only Covington has any (the first year) guaranteed. Letting them go and tucking them away in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s D-League affiliate, is just the type of more the Rockets prefer. That would allow them to learn Houston’s system, and likely be available in the future, should they show promise or should the Rockets later need players.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t resolve the logjam. With Brewer, Houston would still be one over the roster cap of 15. A potential Ivey signing moves them to 17 players, even after dropping the rooks. With players like Marcus Camby, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams and Aaron Brooks all collecting minimum salaries, there would be some very hard decisions to be made. Training camp will likely be brutal for both the players and the team. With this degree of competition for the fifteenth spot on the roster, position, long term fit, chemistry, and marginal advantage all must figure into the Rockets’ basketball calculus. Some players (Camby, Garcia, Casspi, and rookie Isaiah Canaan) all have guaranteed salary, while the rest of the new hires do not. Even this may be a major part of Houston’s thinking.
If things become too difficult, there’s always a nuclear option of sorts. If another team could use them, Houston can try to package a few of these players together for some minor reward. Trying to bundle young prospects in exchange for Philadelphia’s Thaddeus Young has got to be on Morey’s radar. The Sixers are attempting to be truly terrible, and Young is one of the two best players on the team. With the promise of young players and perhaps a draft pick, Houston might be able to upgrade the forward position off the bench while helping the Sixers in their quest to grab the top draft pick this coming year.
If a package for a player they actually want is off the table, Houston might simply try to snag a second round draft pick from a team that simply needs vets to fill the bench. Not every team is laden with 20 players, and many of them have thoughts of contention. If Houston must lose four players anyway, they’d prefer to get something back, and not be on the hook for their salaries. Of course, even that may be too high a price, depending on what’s available later this summer. The Rockets may settle for simply moving the contracts in exchange for a lower number of players. In fact, trading them for nothing may be on the table, just to lower the potential cap and luxury tax hit.
The biggest reason to suspect a trade at 11:59 in the off-season is the continuing Ömer Aşık situation. Aşık has been quiet since reportedly demanding a trade immediately following the Dwight Howard signing. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s accepted his role, however. Howard reportedly wants Ömer on his team, but if Aşık wants out and the right deal materializes, Dwight’s likely to accept another quality starter next to him. Daryl Morey has shown that he’s willing to be patient and wait for the right deal to come along before making any moves, and that’s why last year’s Harden trade is relevant. Both Morey and Thunder GM Sam Presti were willing to wait until the last moment to get a deal done. Don’t be surprised if Morey has been fielding and rejecting calls about Ömer Aşık all summer, only to package him with some players at the bottom of the bench in October.
Solving multiple roster questions in one fell swoop is the kind of grand move we’ve come to expect from Houston. True, another last minutes bolt of lightning this summer would defy all probability. Experience suggests that the summer’s moves are all but done, and that the Rockets will simply cut some players and head to battle in October. But with the history Morey has, and with the unusual situation the Rockets find themselves in, we always have to brace ourselves for lightning to strike again.