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Houston Rockets Salary Cap Update: 2016 Offseason Pre-Draft Edition

After a disappointing 2015-16 campaign, the Rockets are poised to have significant cap room this summer. David Weiner breaks down their cap situation as they move into the offseason.

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Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander

One year ago at this time, the Houston Rockets were battling through the Western Conference on their way to a conference finals series against Golden State.

Man, how things can change in one year.

Last summer, the Rockets had grand designs of building a championship-contending roster much better than the team that had just lost to the Warriors, who were clearly better than Houston. They were going to get back a (presumably) healthy Donatas Motiejunas. They re-signed both Patrick Beverley (a key piece missing from their playoff run) and Corey Brewer (an integral part of that playoff run). The Rockets even had a potential sign-and-trade deal lined up to acquire free agent LaMarcus Aldridge from Portland, but Aldridge ultimately chose to sign with San Antonio.

Fast forward about a year, and the Rockets look like a team in turmoil. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired just eleven games into his three-year contract extension. His replacement, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, did not fare much better, “leading” the team to a mediocre 37-34 record. James Harden and Dwight Howard could not get along and never truly meshed on the court. Brewer and Terrence Jones had utterly disappointing seasons. Motiejunas’s back injury lingered longer than expected, hampering his development. Even a February trade deadline deal of Motiejunas for a first round pick was voided after Motiejunas “failed” his physical in Detroit. As for the Rockets’ own first round pick, … more on that below.

The 2015-16 Houston Rockets season may go down as among the most disappointing, aggravating and just plain awful seasons in Houston sports history. For us diehard Rockets fans, this season felt like a long series of gut-punches. While getting a lone playoff victory over Golden State was nice and all, many felt that Houston’s elimination from the playoffs (4-1) was like a mercy killing.

With the season now ended, it’s time to once again take a look at the team’s salary cap situation and where the Rockets can go from here.

Player Salary, Exceptions and Available Cap Room

The Houston Rockets currently have the following player salary commitments, cap holds and salary cap exceptions available for the 2016-17 season:

Player salary commitments: Howard ($23.28 million – player option), Harden ($16.78 million), Trevor Ariza ($7.81 million), Brewer ($7.61 million), Beverley ($6.0 million), K.J. McDaniels ($3.33 million), Sam Dekker ($1.72 million), Clint Capela ($1.30 million), Montrezl Harrell ($1.05 million), Michael Beasley ($1.40 million – non-guaranteed), and Andrew Goudelock ($1.02 million, non-guaranteed).

Cap holds: Jones ($6.22 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights), Motiejunas ($5.72 million – Rockets hold full Bird rights), Jason Terry ($980,431 – Rockets hold full Bird rights), and Josh Smith ($980,431 – Rockets have only Non-Bird rights).

Other Salary Cap Exceptions: If Houston operates over the salary cap this summer (an unlikely scenario but at least possible if Howard opts in to his contract), the Rockets will have access to the Mid-Level Exception (MLE), either the Non-Taxpayer variety ($5.628 million, the use of which would impose a hard cap at the “apron” level – currently projected at $112 million) or the Taxpayer variety ($3.477 million), as well as to the Bi-Annual Exception ($2.203 million). In the much more likely event that the Rockets use their available cap room this summer, they could instead have the Room Exception of $2.898 million at their disposal.

Given these salary commitments and exceptions, and based on the currently projected 2016-17 salary cap of $92.0 million, the most cap room the Rockets could create (barring trades … yeah, I know) is about $44.22 million. This assumes that Howard opts out of his contract and would involve renouncing rights to all free agents and waiving Beasley and Goudelock. If Howard opts in, that figure drops precipitously to $21.49 million. However, expect Howard to opt out and for the Rockets to hold onto Beasley and at least attempt to hold onto Motiejunas. So, adding their salaries/cap holds, that cap room figure comes out to about $38.19 million. Regardless, expect the Rockets to explore trades that could open up additional room.

So… What Happens Next?

As the Rockets prepare for the NBA Draft and the subsequent free agent season, there will be some internal maneuvering for GM Daryl Morey and his staff to do.

Most immediately, the Rockets need to hire a new head coach. With several prominent names still in contention (among them, Jeff Van Gundy, Frank Vogel and David Blatt), Houston is casting a wide net in their coaching search. This approach should benefit the franchise in gaining as much outside knowledge as it can while also establishing favorable long-term relationships around the basketball world. There is some thought that the Rockets might hold off signing a new head coach until after free agency begins, in order to allow a marquee free agent like Kevin Durant to join with Harden in hand-picking his own coach. But the likelier scenario is that the Rockets – perhaps with some input from Harden – hire “their guy” without putting that decision squarely in the hands of its prospective star players.

Kevin Durant Houston Rockets

Houston’s Plan A is to pursue Kevin Durant

Houston will need to decide whether to extend qualifying offers to Motiejunas ($4.43 million, more than he’d otherwise receive based on his prior salary due to meeting the “starter criteria” of starting 82 games over the course of the past two seasons) and to Jones ($3.53 million) in order to make them both restricted free agents and to give the Rockets the ability to match any offers from other teams. More on those decisions below.

In preparation for the eventuality that their pursuit of big name free agents to fill all of their cap room doesn’t play out as hoped for, the Rockets may also once again explore the possibility of bringing over one or more of its “draft rights held” players from overseas, led by everyone’s favorite tease, 2009 second round pick Sergio Llull. Houston’s courtship of the now 28-year old Llull (a 6-3 combo guard who has developed into one of the top guards in Europe) fell apart last summer, and Llull ended up signing a long-term contract extension with Real Madrid. However, reports are that the extension actually lowered Llull’s NBA buyout, thus far one of the biggest impediments to his NBA debut. After years of flirtation, most Rockets fans won’t be holding their breath for a Llull signing. But in a summer where free agent deals will hit astounding levels, having exclusive NBA rights to a player of Llull’s caliber may be helpful, either to sign him outright or as a trade asset.

Another international prospect who might help next season is Alessandro Gentile, a 6-7 scoring wing taken with a 2014 second rounder purchased by Houston. But with Ariza, Brewer, McDaniels and Dekker all under contract for next season, it is hard to see a role for Gentile without one or more trades clearing the Rockets’ glut at small forward.

Draft Day Maneuvering

The Rockets will enter the 2016 NBA Draft armed with the 37th and 43rd picks, about $2.96 million in remaining cash to spend before July 1, as well as an assortment of young players, draft rights and future picks to trade. However, unlike in years past, the prospects for a significant draft night trade – something that the Rockets are known to actively seek – will be fairly low.

Because Houston remains subject to a hard cap through June 30, the Rockets cannot exceed the 2015-16 “apron” level as a result of any draft night trade. With the Rockets a mere $242,000 or so shy of the apron, unless a trade involves Houston dumping salary, most trades will be prohibited. Of course, a trade could be agreed to in principle, with the actual consummation of that trade not going through until following the July Moratorium.

Houston will be without its own first round pick (15th overall), which was sent to Denver in the Ty Lawson trade. The protections on that pick were unique in that the top-14 protected first rounder in 2016 immediately converted to a 2017 second round pick if the Rockets missed the playoffs, rather than the more common carryover of owing a future first round pick (a restriction that often has lingering negative effects on a team’s ability to trade future draft picks). So while the Rockets could have kept a pick in the 12-14 range had they missed the playoffs in the last week of the season (owing only Portland’s second rounder next season), they instead convey their pick and move on.

As for the draft slots Houston currently holds, the Rockets could go in a number of directions. They could elect to use both picks on players to add to their roster for next season, as second round picks count $0 against the cap until signed, and there is expected to be a lot of roster turnover this summer anyway. They could instead use one (or both) of those picks on an international draft prospect, as this year’s draft is expected to have one of the deepest international crops in recent memory. The Rockets could also look to move up in the draft – something they often try to do – although don’t expect a package of #37 and #43 to move them too far up the draft board (last year, Minnesota traded the 31st and 36th picks to move up to pick #24).

Also, don’t be surprised to see Rockets owner Leslie Alexander once again allow Morey to spend his remaining cash allotment this season on an additional second round pick to stash overseas (as the team has done in recent years with Furkan Aldemir and Gentile). With several teams holding multiple picks in this year’s draft (led by Boston, with an astounding eight picks), the odds of multiple second round picks switching hands on draft night is fairly high.

Internal Free Agent Decisions

The Rockets have several key decisions to make regarding their own free agents that could impact what they do in free agency.

Dwight Howard: The first domino that must fall for the Rockets to execute any big summer plans is Dwight’s decision of whether or not to opt out of his contract. His $23.28 million player option year is likely more than he will get on an annual basis as a free agent. But Howard will turn 31 years old in December and will likely want to lock in a longer-term deal before his skills decline much further. There is also the possibility that at least one team (among the many expected to be flush with cap room and have no one else to spend it on) will offer Howard a huge contract paying him as much as $25-30 million per season. However, don’t expect the Rockets to be one of those teams. While the door cannot be completely closed to the possibility of Howard’s return to Houston on a more reasonable multi-year deal, it is becoming increasingly more evident that if (or when) Dwight opts out of his contract, he will be moving on to another team.

Terrence Jones Houston Rockets Free Agent

Terrence Jones likely lost millions after a disappointing 2015-16 season

Terrence Jones: Few players did more to hurt their free agent stock than Jones this past season. Once thought by many to be lining up for a huge contract (Zach Lowe wondered whether Jones could possibly get offers in the $15 million per year range!), Jones suffered through a disappointing season filled with poor defensive focus and more strange injuries. He ended the season as the fifth power forward on the depth chart. Although Jones will have a cap hold this summer of $6.22 million, the Rockets will need to extend him a one-year, $3.53 million qualifying offer in order to make him a restricted free agent. The extension of such a qualifying offer once looked like a no-brainer but is now seriously in question. It will be a surprise at this point if Jones is a Rocket next season.

Donatas Motiejunas: Motiejunas represents a very interesting case for the Rockets. At 7-0 with both post skills and three-point range (a combination held by only a handful of NBA players), D-Mo will undoubtedly have his share of suitors in free agency. But his back injury has turned out to be a more serious red flag than many anticipated. Detroit – once thought to be the Rockets’ biggest competitor for Motiejunas this summer – voided its trade for D-Mo after its doctors expressed reservations about the long-term prognosis for that back. Motiejunas came away from that experience with a resentment for Detroit, so there may not be a future for that relationship. Although D-Mo will have a cap hold this summer of $5.72 million, the Rockets will need to extend him a one-year, $4.43 million qualifying offer in order to make him a restricted free agent. Expect the Rockets to extend that qualifying offer and to hope they can execute other moves in free agency before having to worry about matching an offer sheet for him.

Jason Terry: Despite some purported interest in a coaching gig, Terry recently expressed a desire to play another year or two before retiring. As one of the few stable veteran voices for the Rockets last season, it is scary to consider how awful Houston’s locker room would have been without him. And while his production on the court wasn’t too far from that of the prior season (his shooting percentages dipped a little and his defense was once again atrocious), it may be time for the Rockets to part ways with the venerable Terry.

Josh Smith: After spurning the Rockets (and their larger contract offer) for a veteran’s minimum deal with the Clippers, it was all downhill for Smith. The Clippers ended up paying Houston to take Smith off their hands. A solid defender and gifted passer, Smith still showed enough to get a couple of chances in the Rockets’ lackluster power forward rotation. But with several power forwards under contract for next season, don’t expect to see Smith back.

Michael Beasley: Beasley was one of the few pleasant surprises for the Rockets this past season. After an MVP season in China, Beasley came in and immediately became Houston’s second-best offensive weapon. He fulfilled his role as a bench chucker, pouring in several long two-point shots that only Harden seemed permitted to take, as those two were likely the only two players on the roster capable of shooting a high enough percentage of them to make that shot worthwhile. Beasley has a non-guaranteed salary of $1.40 million for next year (which becomes guaranteed if he is not waived by August 1). Especially since Beasley could easily get an MLE-sized deal (or more) in free agency, expect Houston to hold on to him, either as an offensive weapon off the bench next season or as a trade chip this summer.

Andrew Goudelock: Goudelock was brought in to replace Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton as a backcourt scorer off the bench. However, as a late-season addition, Bickerstaff never showed enough trust in Goudelock to play him over Terry. His situation became even more odd during the playoffs, when Bickerstaff elected to make Jones (a fifth power forward) active over Goudelock (a third point guard and just the fourth “true” guard on the Rockets’ roster) for Games 2, 3 and 4 against a Golden State team with plenty of backcourt depth. With Bickerstaff out, it is possible that Morey likes Goudelock enough to keep him around for next season on a $1.02 million non-guaranteed deal (which becomes guaranteed if he is not waived by August 1). But if the Rockets need the extra $472,000 or so in additional cap room that can be created by waiving Goudelock, they probably won’t lose too much sleep over waiving him. If no one claims him off waivers, the Rockets can still re-sign him to a vet minimum deal.

#Pursuit of Outside Free Agents

At the center of the Rockets’ plans to return to NBA prominence is the pursuit of one or (more likely) two star free agents.

The headliner of the 2016 crop of free agents is Durant. (With Lebron James most likely staying put in Cleveland, we’ll exclude him from this group for all intents and purposes.) Durant’s free agency has been talked about for years, with rumors of his possible interest in playing with Harden in Houston circulating as long ago as 2013. While it is a long shot that Durant will actually elect to sign with the Rockets, his talent is prodigious enough that pursuing him as Plan A is still worth it.

Hassan Whiteside Houston Rockets

Hassan Whiteside could be a free agent that the Rockets pursue

Another free agent who could be high on the Rockets’ wish list is Al Horford. Capable of playing power forward or center, Horford would be a suitable replacement for Howard. Horford’s combination of long-range shooting (he can hit long two-point shots at a clip high enough to get them in the Rockets’ offense) and all-around good defense make him an intriguing possibility.

As nine-year veterans, Durant and Horford will each be eligible for a max starting salary worth a little over $25 million (with an actual max figure to be determined during the July Moratorium). One complication to signing either to a long-term contract is that each becomes entitled to a much higher starting salary in 2017, when they become ten-year veterans assigned a larger percentage of the salary cap as their max salary. While Horford may take the long-term security of a deal this summer, many believe Durant will seek a two-year deal (with a player option on Year 2) similar to the deals Lebron has signed with Cleveland each of the last two summers in order to cash in next summer.

A slightly more “affordable” Howard replacement (as in a starting salary of closer to $20 million) could be Hassan Whiteside. A talented center who squandered the first several years of his professional career underachieving compared to his tremendous natural talent, there is some concern that Whiteside will revert to his old ways once he secures a lucrative long-term deal. But as a premier rim protector, Whiteside could be worth the gamble.

Paying Kevin Durant

Most expect Durant to re-sign with Oklahoma City this summer. With Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder provide Durant with a competitive enough roster to justify his staying put. But re-signing with Oklahoma City does not necessarily guarantee Durant the most long-term salary.

The jump in the salary cap (and, by extension, the max salary) this summer means that any team with enough cap room can offer Durant a starting salary equal to what the Thunder can offer. And with another huge jump in the cap expected next summer, a team like the Rockets could conceivably use newly available cap room to re-sign Durant next summer to a long-term deal as lucrative as anything Oklahoma City could give him.

Conclusion

After a miserable season, the Rockets must now turn their attention to repairing their roster – as well as their basketball culture – via the draft, trades and free agency. Morey and [whoever the next head coach is] will need to come up with a variety of alternative plans to return the Rockets to respectability, let alone title contention. It remains to be seen whether Plan A (where Durant comes to save the franchise), Plan [X] (another rebuild) or any plan in between ends up being the path they take.

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Podcast: Houston Rockets options with the #3 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft

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Houston Rockets 2024 NBA Draft prospects Zaccharie Risacher Stephon Castle Reed Sheppard Donovan Clingan

The offseason is now underway.

The forecast looks good for the Houston Rockets, but… there’s pressure as well this offseason because there are a handful of other West teams that might have rosier futures. Ime Udoka wants to win and win big. As we are about five weeks away from the NBA Draft, what are the Rockets looking to do this summer?

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Rockets shockingly landing the #3 pick and their options in this draft, including Reed Sheppard, Donovan Clingan, Zaccharie Risacher, Stephon Castle, Matas Buzelis and others. They also discuss the possibility of some big game hunting in Houston.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Podcast: Steven Adams, Mikal Bridges and Trade Possibilities for the Rockets

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Houston Rockets Trade Deadline 2024

The Houston Rockets already made one deal, acquiring center Steven Adams from Memphis for a handful of second-round picks, but we still have several days left before this Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline.

Are more deals on the way?

Rumors of interest in Mikal Bridges have swirled, with the Rockets holding precious (and unprotected) first-round picks from Brooklyn. They also could use some help inside this season, which Adams can not provide. Shooting is always in demand.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Adams trade, its impact on the Rockets in 2024-25 and beyond, the Mikal Bridges rumors, the Brooklyn picks, other trade possibilities and options for Rafael Stone moving forward. Also discussed is the play of Houston’s core 6 prospects: Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and Jalen Green.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Rockets trade for center Steven Adams

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Steven Adams Houston Rockets

The Rockets made a surprise trade on Thursday, sending the contract of Victor Oladipo and three second-round picks to Memphis for center Steven Adams.

The deal came together quickly and the Rockets had a small window to get it done, hence why this trade was made with a week to go until the trade deadline.

The Price

When you consider that Memphis did this for cost savings primarily and that Adams would not play for any team in the league this season, the price seemed a little high to me. The Rockets gave up the OKC second-round pick this year, which is no big loss, but they also give up the better of Brooklyn’s or Golden State’s second-round pick this season. That’s a pretty good pick (likely in the late 30’s). They also give up the better of Houston’s or OKC’s second-round pick in 2025. If things go as planned for the Rockets, that pick should be in the 45-55 range.

But they didn’t sacrifice a first-round pick, which would have been brutal, and they were not going to use all those seconds this season. So it’s just a matter of opportunity cost — who else could they have gotten for this package?

My understanding is they (particularly Ime Udoka) are very high on Adams.

The Rockets also did this move for cap purposes as well. By moving out the Oladipo contract, which was expiring, and bringing in Adams’ deal, which is signed for $12.4M next season, the window for the Rockets to put together a trade package for a star player is extended out until the 2025 trade deadline. They continue to wait to see which players, if any, shake loose here and become available. They want flexible (see: expiring) contracts that they can combine with assets and this gives them another year to be in that position.

The Trade

It’s not often that the Rockets acquire a player I had not considered beforehand but that’s the case with Steven Adams. The Rockets sorely need a big with size that provides more traditional center strengths, making Clint Capela, Robert Williams, Nick Richards or Daniel Gafford potential candidates, but Adams was overlooked for a few reasons.

First, the 30-year old big man is out for the season after knee surgery cost him the entire 2023-24 campaign, so the Rockets won’t get any benefit from this trade this season. Secondly, Adams is not your traditional center either when it comes to rim protection.

But what Adams does do, he’s really good at and he has some of the same strengths of Brook Lopez, who the Rockets tried to sign in the offseason. Adams is quite possibly the strongest guy in the league and a legitimate 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He’s an outstanding screen-setter, something that could really benefit the likes of Fred VanVleet, Amen Thompson and Jalen Green. He was also an elite rebounder last season, finishing 6th in the league in caroms at 11.5 a game despite playing just 27.0 minutes a contest.

After watching Jonas Valanciunas absolutely bully the Rockets inside on Wednesday, it should be apparent by now to everyone that this was a pretty big need.

In 2021-22, the Memphis Grizzlies finished #2 in the West at 56-26. Their top two players in Net Rating that season were Dillon Brooks (+11.0) and Adams (+8.3), key cogs in a defense that held opponents to 108.6 points per 100 possessions. They’re both now Houston Rockets.

So this adds another trusted vet to Ime Udoka’s rotation.

The question is will the 30-year old Adams return to form after the knee injury? Adams sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a year ago, which cost him the end of that season and the playoffs. He tried rehabbing it and it never got better, so surgery became the option just as this season was kicking off.

I like to think the Rockets did their due diligence on that, despite the short time it took for this deal to come together, but that’s unclear.

If he does bounce back, then Udoka has a big man he can turn to reliably in situational matchups or on nights when the younger bigs struggle. He wouldn’t be Boban or even Jock Landale in that scenario — he’s going to play, so the frontcourt depth in 2024-25 should be better. In the end, they got a starting-caliber center who will have no problems coming off the bench, and that’s what they were looking for.

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On the KPJ trade and future of the Rockets

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The Houston Rockets are back to being a professional NBA team once again.

The Rockets finally ended the Kevin Porter Jr. era on Tuesday, coughing up two second-round picks in order to unload his contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, getting back the contract of Victor Oladipo and third-year forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The move puts an end to a long investment and very rocky tenure with KPJ.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Porter Jr. Experiment, the price paid to move him, Houston’s potential trade options moving forward, the new culture and the current state of the Rockets young core.

ClutchFans Podcast: On Apple | Spotify

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Heavy investment in Kevin Porter Jr raises serious questions about Rockets front office

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Kevin Porter Jr. Rafael Stone

Soon-to-be-ex Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr was arrested last week for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, resulting in a fractured neck vertebra and a deep gash above her right eye after an attack at a hotel in New York. He allegedly woke her up by punching her repeatedly, strangled her and did not stop hitting her until she ran out of the hotel room screaming for help and covered in blood.

“This is a serious domestic violence case,” said assistant Manhattan district attorney Mirah Curzer.

First and foremost, I wish the victim healing. I don’t know what to say about the nightmare she went through. She and her family will forever be impacted. As for KPJ, if this is true, he doesn’t belong on the Rockets or in the NBA at all. He belongs in jail.

Secondly, this can’t be overlooked and just swept under the rug: Why did the Houston Rockets bank on and invest so heavily in this guy?

Kevin Porter Jr. being accused of crimes of this severity should not be shocking – at all. Before he even came to the Rockets, he had a long list of serious problems. He was suspended multiple times in high school. In 2019, he had a “conduct issue” significant enough that USC suspended the 5-star recruit indefinitely. He fell to the end of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft because of his behavior liability. He was accused of punching a woman in the face in Cleveland. He also had a gun and marijuana charge later dismissed after getting into a car crash. He went into a tirade and got into a nasty confrontation with both the Cleveland coach and GM, resulting in the Cavs severing ties immediately and dumping him to the Rockets for nothing.

You could make the argument that initially giving Porter Jr. a second chance in Houston was praiseworthy, but the Rockets experienced KPJ’s anger management and immaturity issues firsthand on several occasions.

Former Rocket Austin Rivers said this week that this isn’t the first, second or even seventh issue with Porter Jr. and that Rockets “higher-ups” confided in him that they had no idea how to handle him.

“I remember talking to guys in the Houston Rockets organization, higher-ups, [and] they were having issues then,” said Rivers. “They were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with him.’ And that’s when he just got there from Cleveland!”

Porter Jr. was routinely a nightmare for Rockets coaches to deal with. On several occasions, he confronted and cussed out members of the coaching staff, saying they didn’t have the “credentials”, per source, a reference to the fact that him playing heavy minutes at point guard was a decision they did not control.

Once at a night out, Porter Jr. had a disagreement with a DJ over music choice and he snapped, smashing the DJ’s laptop to the floor. He needed to be restrained and removed. Rockets personnel and several of Porter’s teammates witnessed the incident.

Curzer also dropped a bombshell at the arraignment in saying that Porter Jr. has a history of abusing his girlfriend, who he had only been dating since early last year, his second season with the Rockets. Curzer specifically cited an incident in which KPJ allegedly rammed his car into hers.

There were dozens of maturity issues visible on the court to anyone paying attention. He refused to check out of games. He got into an argument on the bench with assistant Lionel Hollins. On numerous occasions, he would visibly shut down when he wasn’t passed the ball. I invite you to watch this video from a game against Memphis on March 20, 2022. Just listen to the Grizzlies broadcasters, particularly starting at the 1:40 mark, talk about what they are witnessing here:



Privately, people around the league would say they were baffled by the Rockets continued fascination with Porter Jr. Nobody could understand it.

That fascination starts with Rockets general manager Rafael Stone, who by every account over the last two years was the driving force behind the investment in Porter Jr. It has been no secret. Trading for him in January 2021 was seen by some with the team as his “Harden acquisition”, code for a signature move that makes an executive’s career, much in the way landing James Harden did for Daryl Morey in 2012.

For example, former Rockets head coach Stephen Silas never considered Porter Jr. to be a point guard, per sources — playing him there was a Stone mandate because the GM believed that is where his future lied.

John Wall also told us as much publicly when he explained the phone call he got from Silas about coming off the bench. He said Silas told him “This is what the GM wants,” adding again that Silas said, “Man, you don’t deserve that. You should be the starter. This is just what they want to do.” Wall was upset because he believed KPJ should have to earn the spot.

“I have a hard time finding anybody outside of the Rockets front office that believes that Kevin Porter Jr. is a starting point guard in the NBA,” said ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon in December.

There were plenty of warning signs about KPJ to the public too.

After Porter Jr. got into a heated argument in which KPJ “physically shoved” Rockets assistant coach John Lucas and quit on the team in the middle of a game against Denver in January of 2022, leaving the arena at halftime, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix famously wrote that the Rockets should “Cut Porter Jr. Waive him. Release him. Whatever. Eat what’s left of the $1.8 million he’s owed this season and the $3.2 million he’s got next and move on.” It became a source of mockery for Porter Jr’s fans, a line they would bring up after each game he hit a few threes or handed out some assists.

In February of this year, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, one of the most connected reporters in the league, flat out warned us that he was hearing awful things about the Rockets culture and locker room. He was blunt in what the Rockets needed to do — waive Kevin Porter Jr. outright and bring in a new coach and GM.

“Just cut him. That’s it,” said Givony of Porter Jr. “And you’re sending a signal to the league that we’re going to do things differently from here on out.”

“When you talk to people around the NBA about Houston, you just don’t hear good things about their culture, about that locker room. You talk to people that are on that team, and they are like, ‘We are a mess’,” said Givony. “Do people want to work with this organization? But you can change that fairly quickly if you come in, get rid of the bad apples and you change the coaching staff, and all of a sudden, you’re Houston. It’s the third-biggest city in America. There’s a history here of you actually being good.”

Porter came to the Rockets for “free” (in exchange for a top-55 protected second-round pick, which was designed not to convey), but he proved far from it as the Rockets continued to pour investment into him. Over the last 2-3 seasons, no Rockets player got more developmental capital than Porter Jr. – not Jalen Green, not Alperen Sengun, not Jabari Smith Jr. The Fertittas paid John Wall $85+ million over two years to sit at home so the team could groom Porter Jr. to be their future point guard.

Then they doubled down. With restricted free agency on the horizon and a seemingly non-existent market for KPJ’s services, the Rockets gave Porter Jr. an extension a year sooner – a contract that was presented as a four-year, $82.5 million deal. The deal was more team-friendly than that, putting team options in it after years 1 and 3. Going from the potential disaster that was initially reported to a deal they could escape after one season felt like a “win”, but the biggest question was why they wanted him long-term at all. The unprecedented nature of a contract that size with that kind of club control clearly showed the Rockets knew there was unique and significant risk here.

After KPJ signed the extension, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko summarized the Rockets view of Porter Jr. – “As has been [their] stance for months, the Rockets have maintained the notion that Porter is a priority and is considered a huge part of their core, along with Green and Jabari Smith Jr.”

The Rockets actions to kick off the 2022-23 season showed exactly that – that he was a priority. They benched Sengun to start the season, in large part to give KPJ a “lob threat” and defender in the starting lineup. They gave him the superstar “Harden Locker”. They introduced him last in the starting lineups. They treated him as the star and empowered him to be the self-proclaimed “Head Honcho” of Clutch City.

But the extension proved unwise and foolish. Porter Jr. never even made it to the first year of it. With over $80 million on the line, he snapped again. The Rockets signed him to one of the team-friendliest deals ever and still managed to both overcommit and overpay as Stone now scrambles to attach real assets to it to get another team to take it off his books.

Is it fair to question the judgment of the Rockets front office? Absolutely and without question. Whether you look at their ability to value character, evaluate risk, scout basketball, build culture, manage assets or allocate development resources, they failed at every level here. Why didn’t they act sooner? Why did they double down? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Why did everybody in the league see it but them?

“We value the player and the person that [Kevin Porter Jr.] is becoming and are eager to invest in him and his journey,” said Stone after rewarding him with the extension less than a year ago.

The question you have to ask yourself now is, with all they knew and witnessed about Porter Jr. both on and off the court — why were they eager at all?

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