Houston Rockets – Turning James Harden and Jeremy Lin into Champions

By bringing in James Harden and Jeremy Lin last off-season, Daryl Morey turned the Houston Rockets into a nationally (and internationally) relevant team again, not to mention a playoff franchise once again. By leaving quite a lot of cap space for the 2013 and 2014 summers, his future goals are even bigger.

At the moment, the Rockets are putting their eggs in the cart filled with Harden (signed till 2017, making $13.6 million next season and $14.9 in the one after that), Lin ($8.3 million in each of the next two seasons), Omer Asik (on the same contract as Lin) and Chandler Parsons, on his rookie contract until 2015. Lin also offers the international reach the Rockets lost when Yao Ming retired.

But the Rockets aren’t in the business of just making the playoffs and getting knocked out after a round or two, like the Atlanta Hawks have been in recent seasons. Morey, who has been with the team since 2007, wants to take the franchise to the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, and knows that he has the right kind of time window in the next couple of years, with some big opportunities in the free agency window to attempt that.

In 2013, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard seem to be the biggest names possible to go after. Howard might leave Los Angeles with all that’s happened this season, but it’s more likely he’ll stay with the Lakers, despite his relationship with Kobe Bryant and possibly failing to make the postseason in 2013. It just doesn’t make sense for him financially.

And then there’s Josh Smith, more likely (or almost certain) not to stay with his current team, the Atlanta Hawks. Smith will like to get a max contract, even though he’s not an elite player in the NBA. A very good one, who deserves more than the 0 All-Star appearances he has up until now, and a very good defender when his heart is in it. But what if Smith doesn’t come? Or maybe he shouldn’t be the one the Rockets pursue in any case?

Just because you have money doesn’t mean you must spend it, or at least not all at once. Quite a few teams are gunning for 2014, just like they did in 2010, when LeBron James became a free agent. Who is coming in 2014? LeBron James, again. This time, the Rockets are planning to have a good enough team to draw his interest.

The Rockets have a chance to make short time moves instead of committing a lot of money to someone who might not be worth it, not as much as LeBron James is. One name that comes to mind is Pau Gasol, although that means some kind of trade, and possibly breaking up a nucleus, something the Rockets don’t want.

Gasol isn’t someone the Lakers desperately want to hang on to, and clearing his $19.2 million contract from next season is something they might like to have, and it might not take so much to get him, at least when it comes to key players. Gasol might give the Rockets the kind of experience their young players need – championship, finals, playoff experience. Harden has been to the finals, but it’s not the same thing, not to mention giving them for one season that Power Forward they really want, waiting for the bigger prizes in 2014.

It’s gambling, really. Gasol might never be even close to his best with his current injury problem. Andrew Bynum, a free agent this upcoming season, might not return to be the dominant big man he was just a year ago for the Los Angeles Lakers, but if he looks healthy enough, maybe trying to give him a massive one-year contract (unlikely Bynum will accept) is the right way to go in hopes of improving, remaining competitive but not giving up your future cap-space.

In all likelihood, Morey will make a move for Josh Smith and possibly get him as well. There are other, smaller moves that can’t even be calculated at the moment. The development of Thomas Robinson might answer some needs for the Rockets, and they also have Terrence Jones, who might be a bit more productive with more minutes on the floor. The important thing to remember is not breaking up what’s worked so well, and that there is more than one or two “traditional” options out there for the Rockets to proceed on.

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