We don’t have a firm start date for the 2020-2021 NBA season, but all signs point to a December 22 opening night with training camps opening December 1. The draft is scheduled for November 18, so if these dates hold get ready for the most condensed offseason in the history of pro sports, and there are four key decisions that will shape how the Rockets’ will transpire.
Who do they hire as head coach?
It’s been six weeks since Mike D’Antoni announced he wouldn’t return to the Rockets bench, and with five weeks before the possible start of training camp it would behoove the Rockets to name his replacement as soon as possible. The Houston Chronicle reported Monday night that Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy are at the top of the list with current Rockets assistant John Lucas behind them.
This is the first coaching search conducted by Tilman Fertitta and new general manager Rafael Stone, so it makes sense for them to take their time, and the Rockets didn’t rush to hire D’Antoni four years ago, but he still had a full offseason to assemble a staff and an entire summer and training camp to install his system. His replacement won’t have that same luxury. Things could pretty much remain status quo if Lucas is the hire, but changes will be made if they go outside the organization, and those changes could be significant, so the more time a new coach between his introduction and the start of camp the better.
Where is the luxury tax line?
Without cap space and draft picks the Rockets have very few ways to improve, but they will have their full mid-level exception, which should be worth about $9 million to add a significant player, like P.J. Tucker, who was signed with the mid-level three years ago, or it can be split up to sign multiple players, however, there is a complication.
In January, the salary cap for the upcoming NBA season was projected to be $115 million with the luxury tax line set at $139 million, but that projection came before the pandemic and the revenue losses that came with losing the final month of the regular season and playing an entire postseason without fans. Nothing is final, but the salary cap and luxury tax threshold could remain stagnant from last season, $109 million and $132 million, and that would make life much tougher on the Rockets.
According to the CBA, a team is hard capped at $6 million over the luxury tax threshold if it chooses to use its mid-level exception, so if the tax is set at $132 million a team would hit a salary ceiling at $138 million. That significantly impacts the Rockets. As it stands now, they are on the books for close to $131 million, so under the $132 million tax line the Rockets would be unable to even use their full mid-level exception. They could make a move here or there to create some space, but then they’d have no flexibility to add salary over the course of the season.
Keeping the luxury tax line where it was projected 10 months ago gives the Rockets plenty of room to work going forward, and there does seem to be support amongst teams to leave it there. No one know when the issue will be settled, but it will have a major impact on new Stone’s ability to improve the Rockets roster.
Austin Rivers’ option
Rivers will almost certainly decline his 2020-2021 player’s option for the league minimum. If that happens would he have any interest in returning to the Rockets? Rivers is the their fourth guard, but when you consider the three guards in front of him are over 30-years old and in the case of Eric Gordon and Russell Westbrook, don’t have the cleanest bills of health, the 28-year old is quite valuable especially when you consider how steep the drop-off is behind him.
The Rockets don’t have bird rights on Rivers, but they do have his early bird rights, meaning they can offer him up to $8 million for next season. Which could be more than any other team would offer him when you consider how few teams will have cap space whenever free agency begins. Would he be willing to accept and continue in a lesser role, or would he rather go to a team that will feature him more in its offense?
P.J. Tucker’s contract extension
Will the Rockets extend Tucker’s contract the way they extended Eric Gordon’s before the start of training camp last season? Like Gordon, Tucker has outperformed the four-year $32 million contract he signed with the Rockets in 2017, and he’s made it clear that he not only wants an extension, but that he’s earned one.
Gordon was 30-years old when he signed his three-year extension, whereas Tucker is 35. Complicating matters further is Gordon suffered through his worst season with the Rockets right after getting handed his new deal. Would that scare off the Rockets when you consider they are likely to be in the luxury tax this season and an extension with Tucker could put them in repeater tax territory?