As Rockets continue offseason moves with Ryan Anderson trade, closing gap on Warriors remains an issue
There are a couple ways to look at Houston's latest move, but we'll have to wait and see what it all adds up to
Earlier this summer, I asked Rockets GM Daryl Morey how he felt about losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. He smiled and said: "Judge our roster on April 15th" -- a clear indication that Morey would not be done tinkering with his team until the final day of the regular season. Since that time, the Rockets have signed James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony, and Ryan Anderson and this year's second-round pick, De'Anthony Melton, to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight.
There are a couple ways to look at this from the Rockets' perspective.
First and foremost, they've been trying to get off Anderson's contract for quite a while. They would've liked to package him in a deal that brought back a more established player, but there just weren't any takers for a guy who is borderline unplayable as a defensive liability yet is owed north of $41 million over the next two years. Beggars can't be choosers, so Houston took its lumps and got what it could without having to give up a first-round pick.
But what, exactly, did the Rockets get in Chriss and Knight? In theory, they got a backup point guard in Knight, who averaged just under 20 points per game as recently as 2015-16. Problem is, Knight has fallen off a cliff in the two years since, starting just five games in 2016-17 before missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
Even if Knight does return enough to form to provide some supplemental scoring on a Houston team that should provide him some wide-open looks at the basket, what the Rockets are missing most after the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute isn't scoring. It's defensive length and versatility. Knight, at 6-foot-3 and statistically one of the worst defenders in the league the last time he played, provides neither. (To be fair, all the Suns live in the statistical cellar; Chriss looks even worse).
From a financial standpoint, Knight's contract is slightly more palatable than Anderson's (Houston now owes Knight just under $31 million, or $10 million less than Anderson, over the next two years), but it looks nearly as untradeable. The hope in this deal is that they shave a little cap room with the Knight savings while buying low -- like, super-duper low -- on Chriss, who was the No. 8 overall pick just two years ago.
To say Chriss' young NBA career has been a disappointment would be an understatement. There are times when you can legitimately wonder if he's ever played basketball in his life. But there's no denying his "athletic upside." (Side note: Am I the only one who wants to run for the hills when someone uses that description to hype a guy who just isn't very good at basketball?)
It's not the first time Morey has tried to buy low on a disappointing, but-still-young lottery pick. In 2010, Houston traded for Jordan Hill, who was taken No. 8 overall the previous year, and Terrence Williams, who was taken No. 11 overall in that same '09 draft. In 2013, Morey traded for Thomas Robinson, who had gone No. 5 overall the previous year. If you had to Google those guys' names just now, that should tell you how well they worked out.
Will Chriss, at 6-foot-10 with a nose for blocking shots, 3-point range and the theoretical ability to switch onto smaller players on the perimeter, be any different? If he is, Houston just got a steal. But again, if you've watched Chriss play at all and have any kind of eye for what you're watching, you know it's pretty hard to imagine Mike D'Antoni trusting him in the type of high-stakes games Houston expects to be playing in come May and June.
All told (as far as players with actual NBA experience), the Rockets have added Carmelo, James Ennis, Michael-Carter Williams, and now Knight and Chriss to a team that was one win -- or one Chris Paul ripped hamstring, however you want to look at it -- away from making the NBA Finals and very likely winning it all last season. You could argue they are deeper than last season as all five of those players could, in a perfect world, get rotational minutes.
But none of them are as good as Ariza. I would argue none of them are as good as Mbah a Moute, either. Houston might win 55-60 games on the strength of two stars and a 10-deep rotation, but the NBA playoffs are about quality of players, not quantity. You win and lose series with your top seven guys, maybe eight, and the only two from that bunch who would, as of now, project to get true meaningful playoff minutes are Anthony and Ennis, and even they could very well be on the bench when it counts most. Bottom line here: The Rockets have added five new NBA players this summer, and there's a very good case to be made that all together they still don't add up to the two they lost.
Again, there are money considerations. They did get younger. Maybe they waive and stretch Knight (though they could've just done that with Anderson and kept Melton, who actually might end up being the best player in this trade). But these are all future talking points. The Rockets were right there last year. Chris Paul isn't getting any younger. The time is now. They are a famously analytically driven team that has talked itself into three of the analytically worst players imaginable in Carmelo, Knight and Chriss, and MCW isn't exactly an advanced statisticians dream, either.
For all these moves, so much of what the Rockets will or won't be this season will depend on Carmelo, and let's be honest: At this point in his career, any team that thinks it's getting closer to a championship by adding Anthony is operating on a wing and a prayer. He is a downgrade from Mbah a Moute and a monster downgrade from Ariza. Ennis, on the other hand, at least fits the profile as a physical, 6-foot-7 defender who shot better than 35 percent from three (on a relatively healthy two attempts per game) in 45 games with Memphis last season. That can work.
If Melo somehow has a career shooting year to at least somewhat make up for the defensive mess he'll cause on probably two-thirds of his possessions, and all these other guys can make plays here and there and perhaps add up to one meaningful stretch per game, I suppose you can see how this Houston team might be as dangerous as last year's squad, even if in a different way. After all, they still have James Harden, Paul and Clint Capela. When those three were in the lineup last year, the Rockets were 54-7 including 3-2 against the Warriors in the conference finals. They're still going to be really good.
But "really good" is not what Houston is trying to be. There are only two hurdles left to clear that it cares about: the Warriors, and whoever it would then see in the Finals. It's championship or bust in Houston, and when you really take a step back and look at this summer, for all the Rockets' reaching, it's hard to see how they've gotten closer to that goal ... until, that is, Morey goes out and pulls off another deal, perhaps this time for a true difference maker, at or before the trade deadline, which is entirely feasible and maybe to be expected. Until then, stay tuned, because Morey won't rest until Houston has beaten Golden State.
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