Free agency wasn’t an hour old before Trevor Ariza turned his back on the best team- record wise- in the Western Conference during the 2017-18 season, the Houston Rockets. Ariza committed to another Western Conference team, a lottery dweller and the perpetually confused front office of the Phoenix Suns. For the Suns, it was a huge get. The veteran Ariza won a title with the Lakers and is a perfect floor spacer and three point shot maker and he can defend. He is 33 years old so there are only so many jump shots in the Ariza legs. The money the Suns offered him was numbing considering the market. Very few $15 million salaries were tossed around so of course he jumped before they took it back.
But it feels as if something is wrong in Houston. When you are in the Western Conference Finals and lose to the NBA champs your first thought isn’t to leave and get paid. It is to stay and get your title, you were this close. If nothing else, the culture demands you stay, take less money and join immortality. But that is not what is happening.
Let’s start with the bad feelings. After Ariza bolted, Clint Capela took a meeting with Magic Johnson. Capela and his pick and roll game and defense was a reason the Rockets took off last year. Capela’s improvement was significant. If not for the incredible year by Victor Oladipo, Capela would have won Most Improved. But there he was talking with Magic Johnson when he knew Magic didn’t have the money to sign him to an offer sheet that would make it impossible for the Rockets to match. It was a political move by team Capela, a message/threat to Daryl Morey. Look at what may happen if you continue to lowball me. I’ll sign the qualifying offer and next season as a free agent take the Lakers max salary contract (if Kawhi is elsewhere). The fact that Capela is publicly announcing he is interested in someone other than the Rockets (or even if it is Capela into his feelings and touching the wound), is the same mediocre summer thing for the Rockets. Players are unhappy.
Luc Mbah a Moute, a 6-8 defender who helped the Rockets close the gap from barbaric defense to not-so-bad defense, left the island and signed with the Clippers who are a vague playoff contender, 8th seed at best. He was willing to forgo a title shot to play in Los Angeles where he used to play for Doc Rivers with the CP3-Blake Rivers bunch. He took the Clippers mid-level exception and said goodbye to Houston and MVP James Harden and Chris Paul.
What’s going on in Houston with the culture? Why do players who made an impact for them in 2017-18 want to go to a team that may not make the playoffs?
It’s not the money. Players routinely sign for less. They barter money for wins and titles, particularly older veterans like Ariza and Mbah a Moute. No one ever looked at the Rockets as a Strength In Numbers culture, not with the way GM Daryl Morey is always chasing superstars. But what about team loyalty, particularly when you are the second best team in the league? Unless you think the team isn’t loyal to you or you think this team cannot beat the Warriors so may as well take care of me.
According to multiple reports, the Pacers had a good deal to bring back Lance Stephenson and then LeBon James threw some texts Lance’s way about needing him and that was that. So what is Chris Paul doing? How could the President of the Player’s Association have these so public divorces?
Remembering history, it is the same Chris Paul that was clueless that DeAndre Jordan hated playing with his dictatorial tough love self, so much so, Jordan bolted to Dallas before the entire team forced Jordan to renege.
Houston is supposed to have leaders. But those leaders can’t stop player defections. So do the leaders on the Rockets matter? If Carmelo Anthony is the Rockets big get haven’t they failed the off-season?
Carmelo is a descending player. An offensive star in his heyday but he is nothing special anymore. He had the same stats last year as second year player Bradon Ingram except Ingram averaged more assists than Carmelo. Surprise, surprise. Good luck D’Antoni trying to do what he couldn’t do in New York, get Carmelo to be a playmaker.
Plugging Melo into the Ariza role means the Rockets defense is going to be atrocious. His offense isn’t much better. Carmelo’s offensive rating hadn’t been in the 104 territory since his first two NBA seasons. It was 104 last year. The Russell Westbrook excuse doesn’t hold water either. Harden and Paul dominate the ball as much as Westbrook.
Anthony was the 43rd ranked power forward last season (Real Plus-Minus). His All-Star days are way behind him. I’ll re-emphasize: has anyone forgotten how much Mike D’Antoni hates Carmelo? When he was fired from NYK he was actually happy to be away from Carmelo whose game didn’t fit into the D’Antoni shoot it or move it philosophy.
No one in their right mind thinks Carmelo can impede Kevin Durant? No one in their right mind thinks D’Antoni will have the guts to tell Carmelo to come off the bench? No one expects Carmelo to do anything but grind the Rockets into a 5th seed. The Rockets lost on defense and are possibly replacing it with a waning offensive player. It is not equal.
It’s bad math, this hotter than hell Houston Rockets summer. I suppose there is a moral to the story though.
Being the Warriors is hard.