“What if” is going to haunt the Houston Rockets — fans, players, management — all summer long. What if Chris Paul hadn’t injured his hamstring? What if they could have just hit some threes in Game 7? What if a couple of bounces, a couple of calls had gone the other way, could that have swung momentum?
The other question they will grapple with all summer:
What do they have to do to take that one more step?
The Rockets have some guys they need to re-sign this summer — Paul is at the top of the list — and they need to extend Clint Capela. Looming over all their decisions is the man who casts the largest shadow in the league:
Should Houston go after him? Do they need LeBron? Not everyone in the organization thinks the answer to those questions is “yes.” The Rockets had the second-best offense and sixth-best defense in the NBA last season, outscoring teams by a league-best 8.5 points per 100 possessions. They have the presumptive MVP in James Harden. Clint Capela developed into an elite rim protector who can get boards and buckets, too.
Making the math work on LeBron to the Rockets is hard. First off, it’s nearly impossible for Houston to sign LeBron as a free agent at his max (and he suggested he’s not taking a discount). Basically, it would involve trading away Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene while taking no salary back (which would require sweeteners, it’s going to take at least two firsts added in to get a team to take Anderson), stripping the team down Harden, Paul, Capela, and then James. The rest of the team would be minimum guys and rookies. That’s going to beat the Warriors?
The more likely way is for LeBron to tell Cleveland he’s leaving, but he will opt into the $35.6 million he is owed next year if they trade him to Houston (what CP3 did with the Clippers a summer ago). The math works sending Gordon and Anderson back to the Cavs, but why would Cleveland do that? It would leave Cleveland with a team of Kevin Love, Gordon, Anderson, whoever they take at No. 8 in the draft, and the rest of the current roster — and a $75 million luxury tax bill. That’s a lot of tax for a roster that might not even make the playoffs in the East. There are other ways to construct this trade, but the Rockets are not deep with good young players that fit into these kinds of deals (most went to the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade). It’s going to be hard to convince the Cavs to play along.
LeBron to the Rockets is not impossible, it’s just highly unlikely.
More likely, the Rockets will bring back who they have and try to add depth, so they don’t wear down in the fourth quarters of Games 6 and 7.
That starts with re-signing Chris Paul, who is a free agent. He wants to stay, but the Rockets should have concerns about the back end of a long deal. The future Hall of Famer is eligible for a five-year, $204 million deal that would take him to age 37. Paul’s high-IQ game should age well, but him at a max salary the final couple of years of this contract could be an anchor. Maybe Paul will agree to four years and a partial guarantee of the last season (Houston would love that), or he might demand as much cash as he can get. The Rockets will ultimately have to pay the man — they gave up too much to get him, too much of their success hinges on Paul to let him walk.
The Rockets also need to extend Clint Capela, and that’s going to get expensive. The Jazz gave Rudy Gobert four years at $96 million with his extension, and that seems like it will be the ballpark for Capela. Maybe it will get up to $100 million. However, as seen in these playoffs, he’s invaluable to this team in terms of defense and rim protection, plus he can score. The Rockets are going to have to pay him, too.
After that it’s about re-signing some guys — Trevor Ariza proved his value in the Warriors’ series, Luc Mbah a Moute — and from there rounding out the roster to give it a little more depth.
The Rockets are a serious title contender, but to win rings takes some luck, too. Luck followed the Warriors this season, which along with their talent was enough. The Rockets didn’t get the breaks, but when teams are this close to the title they should reload and go at it again. This is a team on the cusp, and the priority of the Rockets’ offseason should be keeping the core of this team together. As is.
Then hope just a couple more “what ifs” go their way next season.