Image from Houston Forward Times
A new series by CouchGm that examines teams that have interesting decisions to make in the near future.
After losing in the second round for the second year in a row (and third time in the last four years), and with Mike D’Antoni’s contract expiring, what comes next?
The Rockets are in a tough spot when it comes to the salary cap. They are pretty much locked-in to the current roster for the next 4 seasons. Harden and Westbrook both have $47M player options for the 2022-2023 season (which they will all but certainly accept) and Gordon is under contract through 2023-2024 (which increases to $21M in the final season). Covington is only under contract through 2021-2022. But those four alone already account for $111M. We don’t know the 2020-2021 salary cap yet, but even if it is flat to 2019-2020 ($109M), they are already over. They also have Tucker for 2020-2021, House until 2021-2022, and Rivers for 2020-2021 (player option).
So that’s 7 guys for next season and zero cap space. So the only tools for adding players will be minimum contracts, the bi-annual exception (BAE, around $3.5M/season for up to 2 seasons),the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE, around $9M-$10M/season for up to 4 seasons), or trades. Explanations of the exceptions and values for the 2019-2020 season can be found here.
Westbrook is basically untradeable with his supermax contract. I was very surprised when the Rockets traded Chris Paul (shorter/better contract) PLUS picks to get Westbrook (longer/worse contract) when Chris Paul is arguably better than Westbrook and certainly a better stylistic fit given that he can actually shoot threes. So the Rockets are stuck with Westbrook until 2022-2023. Harden is also on a supermax, but they wouldn’t trade him anyway. So Gordon, Covington, Tucker, and House are the potential trade pieces, but all are the kinds of 3&D players that they will want to keep around Harden, even if they don’t want to continue playing super-small.
So the choices are continue playing super-small ball or hope that they can find a big that can shoot with the MLE. Some options could be Serge Ibaka, Aron Baynes, Meyers Leonard, or Marc Gasol. The ideal option would probably be Jerami Grant (player option for 2020-2021 with Denver), who can play 3-5. He’s probably the best target independent of their decision to continue super-small or go bigger. In a normal offseason I’d expect him to opt out and get paid more than that, but who knows what will happen this offseason. We don’t know what the cap will be, so we don’t really know who will have cap space and be willing to spend, so maybe he could be persuaded by the MLE this year?
Daryl Morey sure seems to be committed to the supersmall style. Houston’s style has been called “Moreyball,” after all. So even if the Rockets weren’t in salary cap purgatory, I’d still expect them to stay committed.
Which brings us to their search for a head coach. Whoever it is will have to be ready to play small and fast. Who could that be? Dave Joerger had the Kings playing fast before he was surprisingly replaced by Luke Walton. Or what about somebody like Joseph Blair, current Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach who won the G-League Championship as head coach of the Rio Grande Vipers (Houston’s G-League affiliate) in 2019? He could be a candidate since he has familiarity with the organization and his Vipers team shot a lot of threes.
At first it seemed like D’Antoni might return, but now he has said he is going to leave. Rumors suggest Philadelphia and Indiana are interested. Hiring D’Antoni implies that the team intends to play his Seven Seconds or Less style. Would Philly or Indy make sense?
For Philadelphia, I really don’t see it. At least not the way their roster currently stands. They are in an even worse salary cap spot than Houston, since they are over the luxury tax limit. And their star players are Embiid, a post-up center that isn’t a great shooter (career 32% on threes), and Simmons, who can’t/won’t shoot threes at all. Their fit together has been debated plenty. Of the two, Embiid would be more likely to be traded if the Sixers brought in D’Antoni, since a post-up star doesn’t exactly match D’Antoni’s perimeter-oriented style. BUT, Sixers GM Elton Brand was a post-up star himself. I find it hard to believe that he’d trade Embiid and commit to D’Antoni’s style.
But let’s assume D’Antoni is Philadelphia’s choice. Then what? Horford should be a good fit. He has a good reputation on defense and shoots better (career 36% on threes) than Embiid and isn’t going to demand post touches. Richardson and Harris would also work. What’s missing from the roster is a shot-creating guard, like Markelle Fultz was supposed to be. And being in the luxury tax, the only realistic way to get one is to trade Simmons or Embiid, and I already suggested Embiid would be more likely.
If we’re trading away Embiid, it’s got to be for an all-star or near all-star guard. And it’s hard to find one that could work. Lots of star guards are already paired with a star big (or a guy that they hope becomes a star): Murray and Jokic, Booker and Ayton, Lillard/McCollum with Nurkic, Oladipo with Sabonis, Mitchell with Gobert, Doncic with Porzingis, Russell with Towns. Chicago has Zach LaVine and two young bigs in Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen, but the team has been bad and Carter and Markkanen have not been as good as the other bigs listed above, so maybe Chicago would do it? But there is one obvious choice: Bradley Beal. He’s really good and is everything Philadelphia is missing. And trading Embiid for Beal straight-up works. Washington has Thomas Bryant, but, c'mon, it's Embiid. You don't say no to him because of Bryant. The other teams above could talk themselves into believing that the guy they have is as good or better than Embiid (true or not), but not Washington. And Beal trade rumors have been circulating forever. They really couldn't do better than Embiid.
Would a lineup of Simmons - Beal - Richardson - Harris - Horford playing D’Antoni’s style be better than what the Sixers have now? I think so. Simmons is the only non-shooter. Decent defense all around, with really good defense from Simmons and Richardson. Good playmaking, too, from Beal and Simmons. And Beal is the go-to scorer and closer that they lost when Jimmy Butler was traded. I’d like to see it, actually.
Maybe I’ve talked myself into D’Antoni to the Sixers…
The other rumor is Indiana. They are somewhat similar to Philadelphia in that Indiana also has two important players whose fit together is questioned (Turner and Sabonis) and of which one would likely be traded to better accommodate D’Antoni’s style. They have some other tradeable contracts, too.
But Sabonis vs. Turner is the big question if D’Antoni comes to town. Sabonis was an all-star so they’d probably prefer to keep him, but they would also probably get a better return for him than Turner. But Turner is better fit for D’Antoni since he can shoot threes (career 35.7% on 2 attempts per game) better than Sabonis (career 32% on 1 attempt per game) and Turner is more of a rim-protector (career 2.1 blocks per game vs 0.4 blocks per game for Sabonis). Seems like an ideal big for a D’Antoni team.
But who do you trade Sabonis for? Probably a stretch-4 or a combo forward. (Or sign, hello again, Jerami Grant.) Would be awfully nice to have Bojan Bogdanovic back to fill that role. Maybe somebody like Harrison Barnes or Gordon Hayward? Aaron Gordon? Or a younger guy like Jonathan Isaac or PJ Washington? It’s easy to find the players that could fit better for D’Antoni, but hard to make the trade. Sacramento probably wouldn’t want to put Bagley and Sabonis together, I doubt Boston trades Hayward, and Orlando has Vucevic already, so they probably wouldn’t want Sabonis, either. Maybe Charlotte would, but since they jumped into the lottery their first round pick is #3 instead of #8 (their pre-lottery position). It would be easier to imagine Charlotte trading Washington and #8 for Sabonis than Washington and #3.
So I don’t buy Indiana as much as Philadelphia (before writing, I was thinking it would be the other way around). But I have a better idea.
I’m starting a new rumor: Mike D’Antoni is going to coach the New Orleans Pelicans.
This would be a lot of fun. New Orleans already has a point guard that likes to push the pace and can throw passes all over the place in Lonzo Ball. Ball, by the way, is also a solid defender and now that he has changed his shooting form is an improving three point shooter (39% on catch and shoot threes, per stats.nba.com). Plus all-star Brandon Ingram and former all-star Jrue Holiday. Shooters JJ Redick and Josh Hart. And, oh yeah, Zion Williamson. Plus they are one of the few teams that could have some money to spend in free agency, so hello again Jerami Grant! (Obviously I like him.)
Ball - Holiday - Ingram - Grant - Williamson plus Redick and Hart on the bench. Looks like a perfect D’Antoni lineup. And in the draft they could be in a great position (#13) to draft a player like CouchGM-approved Saddiq Bey.
The west is going to be tough again, but the Pelicans were hot before the season stopped. And this team sure would be fun to watch running and gunning for D’Antoni. I mean, who doesn’t want to see more of this?
Hey Mike, go coach the Pelicans.back to blog