As NBA free agency began two summers ago Tilman Fertitta and the Rockets made a statement. After winning 65 games and pushing the Golden State Warriors to the brink in his first season in charge, the Rockets owner showed his level of commitment to putting a championship level basketball team on the floor when he re-signed Chris Paul to a monster four-year, $160 million deal. The Rockets were, as they put it, running it back. Problem is saying you’re running it back and actually running it back are two different things, and Fertitta has himself to blame after a second straight early playoff exit.
The same night Paul announced his new contract with the Rockets it was reported Trevor Ariza had surprisingly agreed to a deal with the Phoenix Suns. In his second stint with the Rockets, the versatile Ariza had proven to be an indispensable shooter around James Harden and versatile defender in Jeff Bzdelik’s switch everything defense scheme, so it was surprising the Rockets allowed him to go, especially when you consider he signed a one-year deal with the Suns for $15 million.
Ariza told SportsRadio 610 on December 19, 2018 that he expected to be back with the Rockets, but that changed when Daryl Morey told him the team was moving on. While $15 million would’ve been an overpay, it would’ve been for just one season.
Instead simply bringing back Ariza, the Rockets signed journeyman James Ennis to the minimum before the ill-fated Carmelo Anthony experiment. Without their defensive stabilizer the Rockets started the 2018-19 season 11-14 and that poor start had them battling uphill for the next four months. They wound up finishing fourth in the West and were dispatched in six games by the Warriors a round earlier than the year before.
Fertitta was incensed after the game six loss at Toyota Center, but a lot of the blame rested on his shoulder. The decision to allow Ariza to leave had nothing to do with basketball, it was all about money and it has started a trend over the last two seasons. Instead of doing everything imaginable to surround James Harden with a better supporting cast, the Rockets have taken the opposite approach and done everything imaginable to finish under the luxury tax threshold.
The cost-cutting measures continued that summer. In August, the Rockets attached second round pick De’Anthony Melton in a deal with Phoenix in order to get off Ryan Anderson’s albatross of a contract. Melton won’t be a star in the NBA, but in his second season, he proved to be a valuable rotation player for the Memphis Grizzlies. In return, the Rockets took back Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss. Neither helped the team win games, but they did save the team a lot of money.
Anthony’s time with the Rockets proved to be a disaster and within a month the team elected to part-ways with their high-profile free agent signing, but instead of releasing him, they him on the roster for close to three months even though he wasn’t in Houston or had any connection to the team. Why? They didn’t want to just eat the rest of his salary, and there were serious ramifications for doing this.
In late November, the Rockets signed Danuel House to a non-guaranteed contract. He played well over a five-game stretch, which included an 18-point night in Dallas on November 28. There was one problem. Because the Rockets wing play was so shaky at the start of the season, Gary Clark, who was on a two-day contract, was forced into action. He played so well that the Rockets kept him with them and in early December his NBA 45-days were running out. The team needed to convert his contract in order to keep him around, but to do that they needed a roster spot. They could’ve just waived Anthony or Michael Carter-Williams, but they were on fully-guaranteed deals, so instead, the Rockets waived House, who wasn’t guaranteed anything.
Two days later he was signed a two-way deal and immediately excelled as a starter, but as the clock struck midnight on his 45-days he and the team could not agree on a contract, so the Rockets sent him to the G-League where he wallowed for close to two months even as Anthony remained on the roster.
Fertitta told SportsRadio 610 he had no issues with paying the luxury the night before last season’s trade deadline, but instead of adding payroll, the Rockets subtracted. They saved some money by trading Knight, Chriss and a first-round pick in order to add Iman Shumpert, Wade Baldwin and Nik Stauskas. Then, in an incredible display of salary gymnastics, Daryl Morey got the team below the luxury tax line by making a flurry of cost-cutting moves.
Morey pawned Stauskas and Baldwin to Indiana, attaching a second-round pick to them, and he finally found a taker for Anthony’s contract in the Chicago Bulls. To top things off, they just gave Ennis, who was in their rotation, to Philadelphia.
It’s not like the Rockets don’t spend at all with Fertitta running the show. In trading Paul for Russell Westbrook, the Rockets are taking on an extra year of Westbrook’s massive contract, and they did agree to a contract extension with Eric Gordon before this season started. They’ll make the big moves but in doing so they cut corners on the small ones.
Shumpert entered free agency after last season, and instead of bringing him back, the Rockets let him go. From a basketball sense that was fine. Shumpert wasn’t overly effective in his short stint in Houston and he wound up going unsigned until the fall, but the Rockets could’ve just given him a one-year deal for around $6 million or so. Why do this? There are two reasons:
He’s a veteran who has won a championship and knows what he’s doing, so he could still help you on the floor, however, biggest reason for bringing him back is that he would’ve given you another salary to trade in an attempt to try and improve before the deadline.
Of course, the Rockets did make a move that made them better before the February trade deadline when they sent Clint Capela, a recipient of a big contract during the Fertitta era, to Atlanta, acquiring Robert Covington from Minnesota. The trade was agreed to about 36 hours before the trade cutoff, and the Rockets could’ve added another player and more salary, but didn’t which allowed them to save money on the deal.
The Warriors paid over $50 million in luxury tax fees last season after getting a bill of $32 million the season before. The Cleveland Cavaliers exceeded the tax line in all four seasons of LeBron James’ return, accruing a total bill of over $130 million. In three seasons as the owner of the Rockets, Fertitta won’t have doled out a single penny in luxury tax payments.
Harden, Westbrook, and Gordon are now 31-years old and P.J. Tucker is 35. As another seasons ends short of the ultimate goal, the Rockets championship window is closing. Tilman Fertitta can go on tv and say his only goal is to win a championship, but his actions indicate otherwise.