- Gregory Shamus/Getty
- The Houston Rockets are considered a possible landing spot for LeBron James this summer, but they would have to clear several hurdles to get him.
- The Rockets have almost no flexibility to sign James and re-sign Chris Paul to their max salaries, and neither player has said they would take a pay cut.
- The Rockets would have to trade for James, but creating an appealing deal would be difficult.
The Houston Rockets are among the possible destinations for LeBron James in free agency, but their path to adding the league’s best player is complicated.
The Rockets only have about $80 million in salary on the books for next season, with the salary cap projected at about $101 million. They are seemingly not too far from having the cap space to sign James.
However, several of their big-name players are free agents and have massive cap holds – money temporarily put on the books when a team can go over the salary cap to re-sign those players. Chris Paul has a $35 million cap hold and Trevor Ariza’s is $11 million.
As Tim Cato outlined for SB Nation, even if the Rockets decided to renounce all cap holds, including Paul’s, and successfully traded every player but James Harden, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon, they still wouldn’t have the cap space to sign both James and Paul to their max salaries.
The lack of cap space isn’t due to mismanagement; the league’s economics make it tough to have three max players at the same time (Harden is set to make $30.4 million next season). Even the Golden State Warriors had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green playing on less-than-max deals when they signed Kevin Durant.
James and Paul are in difficult positions, too. They have not indicated a willingness to accept pay cuts, but even if they wanted to, as leaders of the players union, it would look bad for them to take less than they could get to play together.
That makes a trade the Rockets’ best path, and it would require a few things. First: James would have to opt into the final year of his current deal. Second: the Rockets would have to put together a package to send to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that may be tough.
The key player in a hypothetical Rockets-Cavs trade would be Rockets forward Ryan Anderson. The Rockets signed Anderson to a four-year, $80 million deal in 2016, the summer of the unprecedented cap spike when teams spent freely.
Now that contract has become burdensome for them. Anderson saw his role diminish in 2017-18, averaging just 26 minutes per game, his lowest figure in eight years while scoring 9 points per game, his lowest since his second year in the league.
Last year, the Rockets desperately tried to trade Anderson’s contract while attempting to land Carmelo Anthony but were unable to find any takers. According to Kelly Iko of Rockets Wire, the team is once again trying to trade Anderson this offseason.
The Rockets would need to send at least $28.4 million in a trade to take James’ $35.6 million salary for 2018-19, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Anderson, who’s slated to make $20.4 million, would be the best chip to allow the Rockets to facilitate that trade.
The problem for Cleveland is that Anderson is currently a high-priced player with limited value. As Pelton noted, the Rockets would have to involve a third team to take on Anderson’s contract, but that may also be difficult. Few teams have salary-cap space as it is, and taking on Anderson’s remaining $41 million over two years isn’t particularly appealing.
The Rockets could try to build a deal without Anderson, but that may be unappetizing for them. To make up the needed amount of money they would have to send to Cleveland, that would almost surely mean the Rockets would have to trade Eric Gordon (due $13.5 million next season) P.J. Tucker ($7.9 million next season), plus every other remaining contract on their roster.
Gordon and Tucker were two of Houston’s best players last season and would rob the team of the depth that would appeal to James in the first place.
Additionally, in any deal, the Rockets would likely have to trade future draft picks. That’s not unexpected, but would be a blow to the Rockets, nonetheless. Draft picks are key assets for championship-contending teams, either to trade in deals to improve the team or to develop around their stars.
All of this might be worth it to Houston to build a team around James, Paul, and James Harden, three of the NBA’s top 10 or so players. But if James chooses Houston as his next team, the Rockets will have to get clever to land him, and it will come at a cost.