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So the Rockets are Hard-Capped… Now What?

The Houston Rockets will face a hard cap in 2015-16. David Weiner breaks down the impact of the Montrezl Harrell signing and where the team goes from here.

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Montrezl Harrell Houston Rocket rookie

With the recent signing of Montrezl Harrell to a three-year, $3.1 million deal using a portion of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (MLE), the Houston Rockets finally answered a key question many have been asking over the past two months, ever since they agreed to a three-year, $10 million deal with K.J. McDaniels using a significant portion of the MLE.

That question:  Are the Rockets willing to subject themselves to a hard cap at the “apron” level ($88.74 million) by using the Non-Taxpayer MLE?

The answer:  Apparently, yes.

The Rockets now sit approximately $1.56 million below the apron level.

I addressed many of the factors surrounding Harrell’s situation in my last cap update.  Take a look at that piece for more context.  This article will focus on what the Rockets did to set up the Harrell signing and how Houston will attempt to navigate the hard cap this season.

Setting Up the Harrell Signing

Before signing Harrell, the Rockets needed to make a few moves to create a sufficient amount of room below the resulting hard cap.  This helps explain why Houston and Chuck Hayes decided not to proceed with a partially-guaranteed veteran’s minimum deal.  It may also explain why the Philadelphia 76ers ended up signing Christian Wood, who had previously agreed to a partially-guaranteed deal with the Rockets after going undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft.  With Hayes and Wood on the Rockets’ books, it would have been difficult to give Harrell the deal he wanted.

Exhibit 9s . . . Lots of Exhibit 9s

During all this time, the Rockets still needed to fill out their training camp roster.  But in order to maximize room under a hard cap, Houston preferred to sign their training camp invitees — none of whom has a terrific shot at making the regular season roster — to a particular type of contract containing what is called an “Exhibit 9.”

Regular player contracts, even non-guaranteed contracts, still protect players from injuries suffered while playing for their teams.  A player signed to a (regular) non-guaranteed contract who gets injured in training camp continues to count against his team’s cap until he returns from injury.  An extended injury to such a player could have potentially disastrous consequences for a team right up against a hard cap.

By contrast, player contracts containing an Exhibit 9 (while still providing players with a per diem, lodging expenses and medical insurance) limit a player’s compensation to $6,000 if he gets injured.

However, in order for a team to sign players to Exhibit 9 contracts, it must have at least 14 regular contracts on its books.  But with Harrell unsigned, the Rockets only had 13 contracts once they re-signed Jason Terry.  This is where Daryl Morey and his staff got a little creative.

The Rockets apparently signed Remi Yusuf to a regular non-guaranteed contract, then followed that signing up by signing each of Will Cummings, Denzel Livingston, Chris Walker and Josh(ua) Smith to Exhibit 9 contracts.  Once Harrell signed his contract (giving the team a 15th “regular” contract), the Rockets waived Yusuf.  Had Yusuf not been waived but later gotten a season-ending injury in training camp, he could have counted as much as $947,276 towards the luxury tax and the hard cap determination, as opposed to only $6,000 under an Exhibit 9 contract.  (For what it’s worth, I have a feeling that Yusuf may be the recipient of an Exhibit 9 contract from the Rockets once he clears waivers.)

Impact on Signing Free Agents

Even hard-capped, the Rockets should still have room to add to the roster beyond just “Exhibit 9 guys.”  However, expect Morey & company to be more judicious in their signings than in years past.

The Rockets can sign a player to the veteran’s minimum, either now (for the full two-year veteran’s minimum amount) or later in the season (during which that amount prorates downward based on the number of days remaining in the regular season).

Houston still has about $1.27 million left of its Non-Taxpayer MLE it can use.  Unlike the veteran’s minimum salary, the MLE does not begin to prorate downward until January 10, making the MLE an even more attractive alternative to the minimum after the trade deadline, when several key older veterans negotiate buyouts with their former teams in hopes of latching on with a contender.

The Rockets also have a few small trade exceptions (described in my last cap update) they could use to claim a player off waivers.

With 14 guaranteed contracts spread fairly evenly across all five positions, don’t expect the Rockets to be eager to sign another player to a guaranteed deal.  They will probably bide their time and see if a good enough player “shakes loose” in free agency.

Impact on Trades

Trades are where the hard cap may have its most profound impact on the Rockets.

Even before the hard cap was imposed, Houston was subject to the more restrictive salary-matching rules for taxpaying teams, which limit incoming salary to 125% (plus $100,000) of outgoing salary.  The hard cap adds another layer of restrictions on top of that.

For instance, let’s say the Rockets have the opportunity to trade three players in exchange for one significant player.  Even if such a trade would work under salary-matching rules, the Rockets would still need to fill out their roster to meet the league’s minimum roster requirement of 13 players.  Even signing 1-2 players to veteran’s minimum salaries could push the team above the apron level and could therefore make the trade illegal.

Conclusion

The signing of Harrell has created a hard cap for the Rockets.  While this hard cap has already cost Houston guys like Hayes and Wood, it does not completely cut off any ongoing salary cap flexibility.  Trades and signings can still be made, albeit to a limited extent.  Meanwhile, Houston has locked up a first round-caliber talent to a long-term deal that will likely be a bargain in as little as one year.  This was apparently a trade-off that Morey and his staff felt was worth making.

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Mike D’Antoni: The Rockets isolation offense wasn’t pretty, but it was effective

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Mike D'Antoni Houston Rockets

Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni made an appearance on the Thinking Basketball podcast to discuss his career, and he went into his stretch with the Houston Rockets (2016-2020).

One of the big topics discussed was the isolation sets that the Rockets ran often and why they did it.

“If that one-on-one was not efficient, we wouldn’t do it,” said D’Antoni. “But it was doing, if I’m not mistaken, 1.2-something (points per possession) ridiculous. 1.16, for a long time, was the standard of the best offense an NBA team had. We kind of blew that out of the water a little bit (at) 1.20, but our isolation game was like 1.25, 1.24, so it was like — why wouldn’t we isolate?”

The former Rockets coach admitted it was not the most pleasing offense to the eye.

“People don’t like it,” said D’Antoni. “Aesthetically it’s not good. I don’t love it. I would rather pass the ball around. And if I had a team that didn’t have James Harden, guess what? We’d be passing the ball around… It wasn’t pretty. People can complain. But when you have the most efficient offense in NBA history, or close to it, why wouldn’t you do it? Just because you want to look pretty?”

D’Antoni talked about how good the Rockets second units were in the 2017-18 season because of Chris Paul, citing how often the Rockets boosted their lead or turned a deficit into an advantage when they turned to the bench.

“Chris was just a maestro at running our offense, and doing it a little bit (Steve) Nash-like,” said D’Antoni. “Harden had to do it like Harden did it, but both of them were good. Both of them were perfect.”

D’Antoni said part of the reason for the iso sets was he wanted to maximize James Harden and make him “the best player he can possibly be.”

“James is one of the smartest players — and there are a bunch of them — that I ever coached,” said D’Antoni. “I thought probably two or three years there, he had a complete mastery of the game. He went over 50 I don’t know how many times in a row. We were banged up one night and I said, ‘James, you might have to get 50 tonight for us to even have a chance to win.’ He gets 60 and we win. Stuff like that. He was able to do stuff (that)… just a mastery of the game.”

On how close the Rockets were to winning a title, said D’Antoni, “I thought we had it, the third year until Chris went down. Maybe not. Who knows, because Golden State had hearts of champions. Those guys are hard to beat. But I thought we had a good chance at it, that’s for sure.”

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Why Alperen Sengun will come off the bench

With Bruno Fernando expected to start, here’s the plan for the Rockets second-year center

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Alperen Sengun Houston Rockets

When the Rockets traded Christian Wood, it was crystal clear that Alperen Şengün was the new starting center for the Houston Rockets.

As we’re on the cusp of the Rockets 2022-23 season opener, there’s only one problem — he’s not.

Bruno Fernando is expected to get the starting nod at the five for the Rockets, leaving many to wonder why the second-year center out of Turkey is coming off the bench.

There are a couple reasons why.

First, the Rockets are trying to optimize their prospects, putting them each in the best position to succeed. In the case of Sengun, they want to leverage his passing skillset by making him an offensive hub. That’s difficult to do when you have ball-dominant guards in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., who thrive out of isolation and are trying to make progress leading pick-and-rolls.

Fernando is a much more limited player, but he fits better right now with the starters because he screens/rolls hard and plays above the rim as an alleyoop threat — it’s been fairly apparent in the preseason how the guards use him. While not a great defender, Fernando also is more of a rim protector than Sengun.

Secondly, Sengun needs to adapt more to the NBA game. The Rockets very much believe in his prospects — he’s only 20 years old — and they still consider him the best five on the roster. But the NBA is a much different game than EuroBasket, which is where he spent more of his offseason focus. The days of just dumping the ball into a post player seem to be dwindling in the NBA. He’s got to get quicker, stronger, tougher — but most important of all, he’s got to shoot the ball better from range.

In a culture where coming off the “bench” is considered a demerit (it shouldn’t be), you have to explain the reasons why — but keep in mind, his minutes will still be significant. I expect he will likely get in the 24-26 range this year, an increase over the 20.7 he got last season. He’s still going to have plenty of opportunity to develop.

My two cents: I give the Rockets props for doing this so early. It’s been apparent to me that the Rockets have multiple players who would be considered secondary playmakers, and to maximize their skills, they need the ball in their hands (imagine if the Rockets drafted Paolo Banchero … grateful every day that Jabari fell to #3!). This hopefully allows for that. Playing Sengun off the bench gives you an opportunity to play a variety of ways and also covers up a current deficiency at backup point guard.

I don’t want to watch Sengun follow the guards around — I want to watch peak Sengun running offensive sets.

Overall, I like it — let’s get the season going.

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Rockets extend Kevin Porter Jr. to incredibly team-friendly deal

What’s being reported as a four-year, $82M extension is actually a one-year, $15.8M extension with full club control

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Kevin Porter Jr. signs Rockets extension

Today was the deadline for the Rockets to extend Kevin Porter Jr. The Rockets have had an offer extended to KPJ for some time and the word behind the scenes was it was likely this day would come and go without a deal.

That changed in a hurry Monday morning.

The Rockets and KPJ agreed on a reported four-year, $82 million extension — at least, that was the initial report.

In truth, the deal is not that at all and is more the spin of an agent. Only the first year of the deal, at just $15.9 million, is guaranteed. The Rockets have until June 30, 2024 to decide if they want to pick up the two following years (2024-25 and 2025-26).

It’s clear KPJ accepted the Rockets longstanding offer because it is one extremely team-friendly deal.

“We value the player and the person that Scoot is becoming and are eager to invest in him and his journey,” said Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone.  “He’s expressed how happy he is to be with this organization and has shown his commitment to putting in the work both on and off the court. We are excited for the opportunity to continue to build something special with him.”

In essence, the structure of this contract fully acknowledges the risks associated with betting on KPJ. It’s not the money you’re giving him — it’s the years. If you give him a long-term deal with fully guaranteed money and things go south, that is an unmovable contract — a cardinal sin to give out when your rebuild is going so phenomenally well after the drafting of Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.

This deal reflects that risk and comes close to eliminating it. The Rockets control all the upside. If KPJ pans out beautifully, they can extend him — it’s 100% their decision. If he doesn’t pan out or the roster/core shifts in an unexpected way — such as being in position to draft Scoot Henderson — KPJ could be a large expiring contract next season.

The Rockets basically signed KPJ to the Sam Hinkie Special (contracts you saw with Chandler Parsons, Jae’Sean Tate and KJ Martin), but with much bigger dollar figures.

For KPJ’s part, there is a small win — he’s gets almost $16 million next season and is signed for this season ($3.2M) and next. He doesn’t have to worry about the finances as much while still staying highly motivated to play well. He didn’t fully bet on himself and take this to restricted free agency, but he did still take a deal that incentivizes him to earn it. But this deal isn’t in the same stratosphere as the ones you saw signed by Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole.

The bottom line: There are risks to signing KPJ that were mitigated by this unique contract structure. If you are a fan of the Rockets remaining flexible as they strive to build a contender, you should be thrilled with this. Big win for Stone and the Houston front office.

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KJ Martin reportedly drawing interest on trade market

Rockets have had “ongoing talks” with Phoenix Suns about the third-year forward

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KJ Martin Houston Rockets

According to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, the Phoenix Suns have had “ongoing talks” about acquiring Rockets forward KJ Martin while Portland and Miami are “two other known teams with interest in Martin.”

There has been talk of trading KJ since before the summer when his father, former NBA All-Star Kenyon Martin, reportedly sought a trade for his son. With the Rockets holding multiple picks in the draft, it appeared the writing was on the wall for reduced minutes for KJ.

Martin has looked like a trusted member of Stephen Silas’ rotation so far in preseason. KJ has played in all three games, averaging 11.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 26.0 minutes, hitting 5-11 from deep.

At the same time, Jabari Smith Jr. is the future, Jae’Sean Tate seems to be the coaching staff darling and Tari Eason has exploded onto the scene. Minutes for KJ could be available but they will be hard to come by.

If the Rockets are going to trade KJ, what should be the asking price? My feeling is a “good” second-round pick (one that could be expected to be in the 31-42 range) would be the goal. If the Rockets were offered a lottery-protected first-round pick, I think that would be a steal right now for Houston.

What could make more sense is if the Rockets combined KJ Martin with a player like Eric Gordon, especially given the goals of suitors like the Suns, Blazers and Heat.

 

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Jabari Smith steals show in Rockets preseason opener

The Rockets rookie is legit as we take a look at what else stood out in Houston’s preseason rout of the Spurs

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Jabari Smith Jr Houston Rockets

Finally, Rocketball is back — the Rockets destroyed the San Antonio Spurs 134-96 in the preseason opener Sunday night.

Granted, the Spurs look flat out terrible (the top contender for Wembanyama?) and may finish dead last (and it showed), but there were a number of things that played out in this game that should get Houston fans excited.

But before I get into that, I want to give a huge shout out to everyone who supported RocketsWatch Sunday night. We are watching and discussing Rockets games in realtime this season and the debut was overwhelming. There were over 700+ fans watching the game with Roosh Williams and I in what might be the largest online watch party ever for a Rockets game. The live reactions from the fans were priceless!

Let’s talk about what stood out in this game:

Jabari is the real deal

Going into Sunday night’s preseason opener for the Rockets, the biggest question on the minds of fans was simple — how will #3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. look in his first NBA action?

The answer is good. Really good.

Jabari threw down a dunk out of the gate and then locked in on high-energy defense on the other end and right away you knew — the Christian Wood Era was over. Jabari’s impact was immediate on both ends of the floor. Smith finished with 21 points on 8-15 shooting, including a blistering 5-8 from deep, to go with eight rebounds in 24 minutes.

Jabari described himself as “a lot more loose” than he was at Summer League, when he struggled to knock down his shots.

“It was easy,” said Jabari. “My teammates made it easy for me, finding me when I was open. The rest just came from knocking down shots, running the floor, trusting the offense and trusting my teammates.”

What most impressed me was how quick of a trigger Jabari had on the catch-and-shoot. He would receive a pass out of the post or a cross-court pass in the corner and would instantly let it fly, shooting easily over his defender’s reach. This trait stood out and was very Klay Thompson-esque. In the second half, Jabari hit a pull-up triple in transition (his fourth) that was very enticing, then absolutely slayed those of us in the RocketsWatch room when he took two long strides back from the free throw line to drain another triple.

At that point, it was official — the rookie was clowning the Spurs. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that the Rockets drafted Jabari. This man is going to fit like a glove and will be a ridiculous two-way weapon for the Rockets long term.

https://twitter.com/brhoops/status/1576753965730889729?s=20&t=X5YfCfDU5HwynBnvqoicSQ

Defense. They’re actually playing it. It’s true.

I don’t need to repeat that the Rockets were dead last in defense last year, but… the Rockets were dead last in defense last year. Although, maybe I need to turn that frown upside down.

https://twitter.com/FraudeauxNBA/status/1576358215406989312?s=20&t=X5YfCfDU5HwynBnvqoicSQ

Sunday, however, was a different animal and you could tell immediately. The Rockets were hustling, moving quickly on rotations and closeouts.

“It’s the defense, obviously, that we’ve been concentrating on,” said Stephen Silas. “Our help was good tonight. Our multiple efforts were really good… I’m super encouraged by our intensity on the defensive end.”

Jabari was a big part of that. He made some clear mistakes, sure — I’m not going to say he was perfect — but he seemed to set the tone. Still, it’s not just Jabari — it’s clear to me the mindset of this team is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen the past two seasons. Maybe it’s the Jabari Effect or maybe Lionel Hollins is making his presence felt, but this does not look like the 2021-22 Rockets on this side of the ball.

Tari Eason is pretty much plug-and-play

I had my doubts that Tari Eason would get a ton of run in this game, but Silas played him early (note: Jae’Sean Tate sat this game out). Without having any clear plays run for him, Tari fought and scrapped for 21 points and 10 rebounds (six offensive!) in just 21 minutes. He hit 9-13 from the floor.

“My mentality never changes,” said Eason. “I’m always going to be in the right spot, get after it defensively and be one of the hardest playing dudes on the court. I think that translates at any level and I’m just going to continue to do that.”

He plays like his hair is on fire and has tremendous potential as a two-way demon. Throw him out there when things get stagnant and he’s going to make things happen.

I’ve felt that the Rockets will likely bring Tari along slowly until they figure out what the long-term solution is for guys like KJ Martin, but Operation Patience isn’t going to work if he keeps putting up lines like this. You can’t keep him to the bench or send him to the G-League.

Is Bruno Fernando the backup center?

It sure seems that way. After news broke that the Rockets had signed Fernando to a four-year, nearly $11 million deal, Bruno was the first big off the bench, subbing in for Alperen Sengun.

I’ll be honest — this really surprised me. I expected that Usman Garuba would have the clear inside track to the spot. Fernando also seemed like a good bet to be on a two-way contract, but now with this new deal, Fernando is going to be on the 15-man roster and barring a trade, someone has to be cut (Boban? Favors?) that isn’t expected to be.

But Fernando, who sources say has been terrific in camp, showed why he got that contract, finishing 3-3 from the field and was a +18 in just 11 minutes. He was very effective on rolls, capping a pair of alleyoop passes from Kevin Porter Jr. I would be lying if I said I saw this coming, but it’s a welcome development.

Rotation Notes

It’s only one preseason game, but we still can draw a lot from how Silas sees the rotation.

Bruno looking like a good bet for the backup center role was not the only surprise. KJ Martin and Daishen Nix, along with Bruno, were the first subs of the night. That indicates what we expected, that Nix is in the lead for the backup PG spot over TyTy Washington, who I would guess will run the show with the RGV Vipers early on. I like TyTy as the better bet for this spot long term, but right now the job appears to be Nix’s to lose.

But KJ is a little surprising, given he reportedly wanted out this past offseason with the Rockets slated to bring in a couple bigger prospects (Jabari and Tari) at his position.

Garrison Mathews played only five minutes. The prediction many have made that Silas would play him 15+ minutes this year is not looking so hot.

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