Chris Paul is legendary for his basketball IQ. His commitment to mastering even the minutia of game-management tops perhaps any other player in basketball. He will almost always take a two-for-one opportunity because he knows that the math suggests that two bad shots are better than one good one. He loves needling his man on defense, poking and prodding only when the refs aren’t looking, which he can tell likely through the tingling of a spider sense only he has. There is no game situation for which Paul doesn’t at least know the correct decision. And, few in which he fails to execute it.
All of this is to make one simple point: Chris Paul probably would have known the score at the end of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. J.R. Smith didn’t, and it cost LeBron James a win he rightfully earned on the court. The Cleveland Cavaliers proved in that game that they could remain competitive with the Golden State Warriors on James’ grace alone. But, no single play has better encapsulated what James is struggling through on this roster than that one. And, no better play does a better job of explaining why he is going to leave than J.R. Smith’s yet to be named mistake.
And no team did a better job during these playoffs in proving to James why he should join them than the Houston Rockets. Even without Paul, they fought Golden State to the bitter end. They were able to do that precisely because their players don’t make idiotic mistakes like Smith did. That, and the fact that they have far more talent than the Cavaliers. Add James to the mix and they would be the favorites to win the NBA championship next season. But there are several ways they could actually get him. And the one that they ultimately used would play a big role in determining how favored they would be.
Method 1: Opt-in and trade
This is the choice most expect James to take if he decides that he wants to play in Houston. He wouldn’t have to leave any money on the table. His player option for next season is worth essentially what a one-year 35% max would be for a 10-year veteran. So financially speaking, he has no incentive not to do this unless he wants long-term security. He usually doesn’t, though. And even if he did, this deal would give Houston full Bird Rights on him for a long-term extension next offseason.
This option is tricky because it requires buy-in from three parties: James, the Rockets and the Cavaliers. Plus, it has to happen before July 1st. That is when James would have to exercise his option and reach free agency. That means that James could not meet with the Rockets before making this decision. He could only be recruited by players. James is notoriously thorough in vetting new teams. It seems unlike him to choose a franchise sight unseen. But Paul did it, and it worked out well for him. The friendship between those two is strong enough that James would probably trust him in his evaluation of the franchise. Securing James’ approval seems easy enough.
Finding a balance for Houston and Cleveland is the hard part. That’s because it’s unclear who would have the leverage in such a situation. It would be easy to say Houston, because Cleveland would be risking losing James for nothing. But the Rockets aren’t an asset-rich team. They might even struggle to make an asset-neutral trade that works under the salary cap.
The primary reason for that is Ryan Anderson. He has two years at around $40 million left on his deal. Therefore, he would have to be involved in the trade to make it work financially. The Cavs won’t want that contract, however. And accepting it alone is probably worth two first-round picks. The Rockets would gladly send those picks — either to Cleveland or to a third team that would take Anderson. But once again, that just gets the Cavs back to neutral. Something would have to entice them beyond the salary filler of Nenê, Chinanu Onuaku and Zhou Qi. Draft picks are the obvious remedy to that. Teams can trade them up to seven years out. And the Rockets have no Stepien-rule limitations once the draft concludes (and they send their 2018 pick to the Atlanta Hawks).
But Cleveland is going to ask for Eric Gordon, and the Rockets will be pushed into such a tight time-frame that whether or not they acquiesce would be a matter of who blinks first. Signing James after July 1st becomes far more difficult for them, so if the clock ticks they may simply yield on that demand and ask for another player back. Kyle Korver would certainly fit.
But either way, Houston would be able to make this trade and keep the core of its team intact. James, Harden and P.J. Tucker would be under contract for a combined total of around $74 million. Chris Paul will be re-signed likely for a longer deal, but at less overall money. Let’s say he costs them $25 million per year over four years. That gets them to $99 million. A new contract for Clint Capela probably costs around $25 million per year to start as well. That takes the Rockets up to the tax and apron at $124 million. If they have Gordon, that total jumps to around $137 million. If it’s Korver, it’s closer to $132 million.
That would be around the payroll that the Cavs had this season before the Rockets even filled out their roster, but Houston wouldn’t be subject to repeater tax penalties yet. It’s also worth noting that Houston would still have the Bird Rights of Trevor Ariza, so they could theoretically keep him if they were willing to pay him. The could also choose him over Capela and sign-and-trade their young center to another interested party for more assets back. They would then have to fill out their team with minimum salaries and perhaps the tax-payer Mid-Level Exception, but the idea here is pretty simple. The Rockets would be able to add James without breaking up most of their team, provided he was willing to do so before free agency actually began.
Method 2: Sign-and-trade
Look at the salary figures thrown out above. After the minimum contracts that it would take to fill out the team, the Rockets would be looking at a payroll the in 140 millions with James. But if James wanted to join the Rockets via a sign-and-trade, they would have to cut that number to around $126 million. Once a team makes a sign-and-trade, they are committed to remaining beneath the tax apron for one full season. They are hard-capped.
So let’s say Houston makes the same trade here that they do in the above scenario, Gordon not included. The Rockets would have $35.3 million committed to James, $30.4 million to Harden, $13.5 million to Gordon and $8 million to Tucker. That would leave them something like $39 million under the hard cap to finish the team, and that is before minimum salaries are introduced. It also leaves Paul, Ariza and Capela unsigned.
In this scenario, Capela probably has to be axed. There is no way that Paul and Capela can both fit under that salary umbrella, and Paul is a higher priority. Houston would probably like to get Paul and Ariza signed for around $30 million combined in the first year to leave themselves some hard cap wiggle room here, and that might be possible if James is coming to town and the Rockets give out longer contracts than they’d prefer. There might not be a more modern team in basketball than one headlined by LeBron, Harden, Paul, Gordon, Tucker and Ariza.
And the Cavaliers would love to take Capela on in a double sign-and-trade. The Rockets would just have to reroute Anderson’s salary elsewhere. That wouldn’t be a hard sell, and could likely do so for less if the Cavs played along to get Capela. Let’s say the Rockets sent two first round picks to dump Anderson and their other contracts to Atlanta, and Capela would go to Cleveland here. The Cavs might agree to send back Cedi Osman as well, giving the Rockets a critical young depth piece.
But Capela was excellent in the playoffs, and the Warriors have shown what can happen when you’re forced to sign minimum salaried centers.Losing him would be a tough pill to swallow, but if James decides he has to meet with all interested suitors before making a decision, there is no other way. Well, there’s one, but it would require the most sacrifice.
Method 3: Outright free agency
If the salary cap is set at $101 million this offseason, the Rockets would need to get to $65.7 million in committed salary just to be able to afford James. Functionally, though, they would have to save even more than that. They need to save around $20 million beyond that to pay Paul, and another $7 million for Clint Capela’s cap hold. So functionally, they’d have to cut their salaries down to around $38.7 million to pay James his max.
Harden costs around $30.4 million, and Tucker costs around $8 million. That’s $38.4 million, right below the maximum number that they could hit. Except they’d only have two players under contract in this scenario. And five once James, Paul and Capela were taken care of. They’ll still have seven minimum cap holds left that occupy space. That total will be the rookie minimum for next season, which is set at $831,311. That’s $5,819,177 million in dead space. So that money needs to be made up by either Paul, James or both if the Rockets want to keep even Tucker.
Even if we’re generous and assume that they would make up that difference, depth would still be seriously lacking on this already expensive team. Remember, that $7 million figure for Capela is not his contract total. It is his cap charge. Once James and Paul are taken care of, the Rockets would then have to give him a new deal. If it starts at $25 million per year, they are already nearing the tax at $119 million. They could then use the Room Mid-Level Exception to add another bench piece. But Gordon would have to be traded in the cap purge. Ariza’s cap hold would have to be renounced. So unless he took a serious discount and signed for that Room Exception, he’d be gone as well.
There is no advantage to James joining the Rockets this way. It would only have to happen if the Cavaliers refused to cooperate on any sign-and-trade. Dan Gilbert might be petty enough to make that declaration, so this might be an option the Rockets have to explore.
And if there’s a mythical fourth option that I’ve missed, you can bet Daryl Morey will find it. The Rockets are not going to sit on their laurels this offseason. They are going to try to add a big fish. James is the biggest out there, and it’s hard to find a better fit for him than the juggernaut Houston has already built.