Sam Amick of USA Today broke news late Saturday of an official agreement between the Rockets and forward Trevor Ariza, valued at $32M over four years.
The contract, which follows the expiration of the 5-year, $33M deal Rockets GM Daryl Morey handed Ariza five years ago, leaves the Rockets with just over $10M in cap space. They have 15 hours and counting to decide whether to match Dallas’s 3-year, $46M offer sheet to incumbent small forward Chandler Parsons, filling all their room and then some.
The decision is complicated. There are 240 player-minutes available in a typical NBA game. The Rockets have already lost several members of last year’s rotation, so sorting out what can be expected from what is left is crucial. Here is a glance at the returning talent, on a minutes-per-game basis:
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Throw in Ariza at 35 minutes per game, and the Rockets would have roughly 30 MPG available based on last year’s usage. But let’s be real: the point is to upgrade a rotation. The 33.5 MPG that went to Casspi and Montie are available, and did not overlap — you have to factor in DNP-CDs and injuries, hence why the chart adds up to more than 240 in the first place. The Rockets also need to replace Asik and Lin positionally. What would an optimal 240 MPG usage with Ariza AND Parsons look like?
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Howard and his to-be-determined backup would be in a straight time-share at center, but the rest of the depth chart has some overlap. Lin’s minutes would be divided up between Beverley and Canaan. The scrap minutes behind Harden — early second and fourth quarter — would largely go to Ariza as an oversized 2-guard, a role he has played in the past for Orlando and Washington at times.
Those are the key lineups to look at when making a decision on Parsons. If you believe, as I do, that Terrence Jones can play top-6 minutes on a championship contending team, then you need to focus on one particular lineup combination: the Ariza-Parsons-Jones trio, most likely to be played 2-3-4.
I fully support this lineup, because it has the flexibility to work in different ways. You can play it with Harden and Howard as a finishing unit, or for long stretches against teams that don’t have a star-level point guard on the court for Beverley to defend. You can also go super-small with Jones at the 5 and Ariza-Parsons as the forward combination while Howard and Harden sit, playing with Beverley and Canaan (or perhaps Nick Johnson?) in the backcourt and looking to run second units off the floor.
Because Ariza and Parsons are both above-average three-point shooters used to a volume workload from long range, spacing is protected by these units. Even Jones has shown flashes of being a league-average marksman from distance, which puts the 2-3-4 combination in play. This is not a situation of being too cute with an expensive, oversized lineup that cannot get out of each other’s way on offense (see the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons). These Rockets forwards are dynamic.
I was marginally opposed to bringing Chris Bosh to Houston, largely because of Jones. I believe what the numbers say, and 22-year olds with his production need minutes. By bringing a 40% shooter with a history of defending wings to Houston, they Rockets have a more flexible roster than they would have had with Bosh.
Let’s look at the forwards:
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Yes, there is overlap in size and skills, but there is nothing wrong with that. Having two players of similar physical stature who are both above-average in several different areas — particularly if they both shoot well from distance — is a team-building asset, not a hindrance. Parsons is also a capable facilitator, and should evolve into more than a catch-and-shoot court-stretcher. He is already more dynamic than most of his peers in that category, including Ariza.
Ultimately, the Rockets missed an opportunity to add the star-level player who could have made them Western Conference favorites. Ariza is not that guy. But the roster has impressive upside because it can be matched up to different opponents and opposing lineups throughout a game.
If Parsons is brought back, a tremendous amount of pressure should be on Kevin McHale to maximize what he has.
The Rockets could use another guard, preferably one who can handle the ball and run an athletic, offense-heavy second-unit. (For the record, I think Jordan Farmar would have been perfect for this team before he signed with the Clippers last week.) It is possible Canaan can perform in that role, as he showed flashes during two 15-point games in April, but it’d be ideal to have a veteran in the mix.
They are also reportedly in negotiations to retain RFA spot-up specialist Troy Daniels, who could soak up some minutes at the back of the guard rotation.
If the Rockets do not match on Parsons tonight, they are too thin to compete in 2015. Those 35 minutes would be divided up among the usual suspects, primarily Casspi and Montiejunas. Replacing Parsons, Lin and Asik with Ariza, a rookie or two and the back of their own roster is a recipe for a 48-34 season and a first round loss to the Clippers, Thunder or Spurs. It’s a half-step back.
With Parsons and Ariza, there is hope for a half-step forward. And when you start at 54 wins, any progress puts you within range of true title contention. And right now, as the Rockets wait for the next opportunity to make a big splash on the market, that half-step towards the NBA’s top tier is a pretty good deal.