Rockets owner Les Alexander chose his words carefully.
"I want to say this without being predatory," said Alexander, taking a few seconds before continuing. "We're in a position now that we're willing to go after it. I think we have a team to go after it. If we can take advantage of some problems, we'd be willing to do it."
The "problems" are the financial woes several teams around the league are experiencing as a result of the economic recession, leading many to believe we may see more talent dumped this summer than in any offseason before it.
If they choose to bite, the Rockets are uniquely positioned to be one of the top buyers for two reasons.
First, the team is doing well financially. Forbes ranks the Rockets as the 6th most valuable NBA franchise and fourth in operating income, thanks in large part to Yao Ming and the Toyota Center.
Secondly, Daryl Morey may or may not have seen the recession coming, but he has positioned the team perfectly to take advantage. The Rockets GM and staff have three very desirable assets signed to below market contracts (Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, Carl Landry) as well as other contracts that expire in 2010, including the $20+ million behemoth that Tracy McGrady has enjoyed.
So while Mr. Alexander doesn't want to sound like a circling vulture, that doesn't stop us from surveying the carnage -- and when we do so, we see there are more teams likely looking to sell than buy.
Small market teams in Indiana, Sacramento and Milwaukee all want to unload salary. With Deron Williams' extension kicking in next season, Utah looks bound to pay luxury tax and is at a crossroads this offseason. The auto industry has hit Detroit hard and the Pistons are working overtime on the phones. Charlotte, the second largest banking headquarters in the United States, has the Bobcats, which have lost anywhere from $20 million to $40 million on an annual basis since they started in 2003. Denver and Orlando both made long playoff runs, but both have suffered major financial losses. Toronto is about to be held hostage by Chris Bosh and will likely deal him.
With so many possible sellers to choose from, here are our top 5 teams for the Rockets to prey upon:
The Problem: It is widely accepted that Clippers owner Donald Sterling (one seriously strange bird) is the worst owner in sports, and without a doubt one of the cheapest. He's holding three contracts that even Jabba the Hut would mock as "bloated": Zach Randolph (6-years, $84 million expiring in 2011), Baron Davis (5-years, $65 million expiring in 2013) and Chris Kaman (5-years, $53 million expiring in 2012) -- all could be had on the cheap. The Clippers won big on lottery night and are virtually a lock to take Oklahoma's power forward Blake Griffin with the top pick, but they have salary to dump.
Camby would be ideal for Houston, but that's not who Sterling really wants to move
Enter Houston: The Rockets could really use the size and versatility of big man Marcus Camby -- his defensive mentality and ability to play at both power forward and center make him an ideal fit. However, his contract expires in 2010 and he will be highly sought after by many clubs. The Rockets would be flat suicidal to consider Randolph. Kaman is too expensive for a backup center and likely too stiff to play the four. Davis seems like an exciting potential grab given how cheap he would come and the hole at point guard in Houston that has existed since the Jimmy Carter Administration, but the Baron's 37% shooting (and abysmal 30.2% from long range) should give any team pause at four more years. The real question is could Camby, Al Thornton, DeAndre Jordan or even the unlikely Eric Gordon be prize throw-ins to any team willing to take on one of those burdens?
The Problem: The Warriors are saturated with fat, regrettable contracts they'll be paying on even after Skynet unleashes Judgement Day. Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Corey Maggette and Stephen Jackson tie up over $40 million annually until 2013, with Ellis and Biedrins going to 2014. This is the core of a team that went 29-53 this season, making their feel-good 2006-07 season a distant memory.
Can a team that takes on Warriors salary get a young big man like Anthony Randolph?
Enter Houston: There are no must-haves on the Warriors, but there are several intriguing players for the Rockets. Anthony Randolph and Brandan Wright are two young big men while Ellis and Crawford are both potentially explosive backcourt scorers with unfriendly contracts. The two primary questions from a Houston viewpoint:
- Is Ellis, at another 5 years and $55 million, considered a negative value contract? After signing his massive extension, the 6-foot-3 guard was injured in a mo-ped accident, missed much of this past year and seemed to fall out of favor with Warrior brass. If you thought Aaron Brooks was a scoring point, you haven't seen Ellis, who draws comparisons to Allen Iverson. He was brilliant in 2007-08 when he shot over 53% from the floor en route to 20+ a night.
- Can young talent be acquired here for taking on a bad contract? Randolph, the 19-year old, 6-foot-10 stringbean raised in Texas shows a lot of promise, but also was blasted by coach Don Nelson for poor practice habits. Trading a youngster with upside may be the only way the Warriors can unload some of those poisonous contracts.
The Problem: New Jersey is a mess right now. The Nets had operating losses of $9.5 million in the 2006 fiscal year. They followed that up with losses of $14.7 million in 2007, $22.6 million in 2008 and $27.8 million in 2009. That's not a good trend. The team's revenue from the arena is extremely poor -- they can't sell tickets, period. Adding to the pain is the fact that the team's move to Brooklyn continues to get delayed, with no clear end in sight. It remains to be seen if part-owner Jay-Z still thinks he can make a run at LeBron James, but if so, 2010 expiring contracts would be highly desirable in Jersey.
Swapping cousins would give Houston a scorer, but is it just more of the same?
Enter Houston: The Rockets explored talks with the Nets before the deadline for Vince Carter, who is owed $33+ million over the next two years, but the rumor at the time was New Jersey wasn't interested in taking back McGrady. That may change as GM Rod Thorn reportedly couldn't give Carter away. They just might have to do that this offseason. Carter put up solid numbers this season -- nearly 21 points a game on 43.7% from the field and 38.5% from long range -- and would give the Rockets a reliable scorer and "true" two-guard.
The Problem: Hornets owner George Shinn doesn't do luxury tax, but in 2009-2010, George Shinn is going to do luxury tax. That is, unless he dumps salary. With Chris Paul's extension kicking in, the Hornets currently have a $76 million payroll on deck, with the luxury tax line expected to be $69-$70 million. The biggest thorn in the franchise's side is Peja Stojakovic, who is a shell of the player the Hornets thought they signed and is on the books for another $30 million guaranteed over the next two seasons. We know the Hornets have tried to cut costs -- they dumped Tyson Chandler for expiring contracts to the Thunder just before the trading deadline, but the deal was rescinded after Chandler's physical.
If it's a defensive big man Houston is after, Chandler would be a boost, but...
Enter Houston: Salary-for-salary deals could take money off New Orleans' books for 2011 and beyond, but they won't help them much with next year's luxury tax, so Morey would have to be creative in working with the Hornets. Houston's "ground" defense in the post is outstanding, but their "air" defense needs work so the 7-foot-1 Chandler, who can play both the four and five, is intriguing for the Rockets. A defensive lineup of Yao, Chandler, Shane Battier, Ron Artest and Kyle Lowry could probably hold some lottery teams in the 40's. Some speculate Paul's name could get thrown out there if it was tied to enough bad contracts, but right now that's fantasy.
The Problem: Two of the hardest industries hit by the recession were banking and real estate, and that's exactly where Suns majority owner Robert Sarver, the Chairman and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation, made his fortune. The bank posted total losses of almost $90 million in the first quarter this year and the stock price dropped over 90% from the value two years previous. So it came as no real shock that Sarver's Suns were trying to trim payroll before the trading deadline, and all the buzz is they will try to do the same this summer.
... if it's offense in the post the Rockets seek, there are few bigs like Stoudemire
Enter Houston: Ideally the Suns would like to move Shaquille O'Neal and/or Leandro Barbosa, but they could blow the thing up and deal away the real prizes. It's not likely that fan favorite and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash gets dealt, but the future of Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix may be toast. A source informed us back in February that Stoudemire was the Rockets top trade target just before the deadline. With Houston's #1 need right now being size in the frontcourt, our hunch based on chatter is this is still being explored. A trade of McGrady, Landry and Brooks for Stoudemire and Barbosa is one both teams would have to seriously consider.
The Rockets are in a position of strength at the bargaining table. They are high on Scola, Landry and Brooks. They're not going to sacrifice that position for just any deal that upgrades their talent level.
"We do have a core to build on," said Alexander. "But if something tremendous comes up, then that changes that."
So Houston brass is likely camped out near the three-point line seeking a triple over a deuce. We can break down the teams we know will be shopping this offseason, but things are going to change quickly -- a player that wasn't expected to be available (Paul? Danny Granger?) could shockingly go on sale at the right price.
The Rockets want to be ready to pounce.
"I think there are going to be some opportunities with some of the challenges other teams have that we might be able to take advantage of," said Morey. "You can't plan for them. You can just be ready to react when they come along."
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