The Houston Rockets are in an interesting position heading into the 2017 offseason. They are coming off of a 55-win season and second-round elimination in the playoffs, yet aren’t truly viewed as a contender.
That is for two primary reasons: first, the Golden State Warriors are on completely another level than the other 29 (or 28 depending on your view of the Cleveland Cavaliers) teams in the league. Second, the Rockets haven’t proven they can maintain sustained success in the playoffs with their current squad.
However, the offseason presents an opportunity for the Rockets to improve their roster and retool for another run to the Western Conference finals next season in hopes of challenging the Warriors.
As it currently stands, the Rockets don’t have much cap space to work with (they could have up to $11.7 million), but one or two trades could open up significant cap space for general manager Daryl Morey.
As I’ve explored and written about previously, a trade of Ryan Anderson and/or Lou Williams would give the Rockets an opportunity to attract a big-name free agent.
In this part one of a two part series, I will explore some potential targets for the Rockets at their biggest need: good defensive wing players. We will discuss wings that are realistic targets for the Rockets, not assuming they trade both Anderson and Williams.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some potential wing players the Rockets should target. It’s clear that Houston needs another defensive minded player, especially on the wing. With Trevor Ariza turning 32 before the 2017-18 season (and being in the final year of his contract), the Rockets need to look for a both a backup and eventual replacement for Ariza. Fortunately for the Rockets, there are several defensive wings that will be free agents this summer.
Players that the Rockets should target include Thabo Sefolosha, P.J. Tucker, Justin Holiday, James Johnson, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Jonathan Simmons. Those players bring varying levels of three point shooting in addition to their defensive prowess, something the Rockets will surely be looking at.
Also, the price tags will vary on the above players, with players such as Sefolosha and Holiday commanding significantly less money than say, Johnson and Simmons due to their age and recent play.
Johnson is coming off the best season of his career, averaging 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 34 percent on three-pointers. Johnson was also very good defensively, posting a defensive box plus-minus of 2.2 and a defensive real plus-minus of 1.94.
Simmons is coming off a successful playoff run that saw him play an increased role for the Spurs as a result of the injury to Kawhi Leonard. Simmons averaged 10.5 points per game in the playoffs while shooting 35.1 percent on three-pointers.
Simmons also played very good defense, especially against James Harden in the second round. However, it’s unlikely the Spurs will let Simmons walk (he is a restricted free agent), so the Rockets should focus on the players that are unrestricted free agents and more likely to come to Houston.
Sefolosha, Tucker, and Holiday would all be good targets for Houston that should be relatively cheap. Sefolosha was a very good defender last season, posting a 3.1 defensive box plus-minus and a 2.26 defensive real plus-minus. Plus, Sefolosha hit 34.2 percent of his threes, which isn’t a very good percentage by any means but is enough to make defenses respect him on the perimeter.
Tucker is a similar player to Sefolosha, a tough, physical defender that has become a (semi) capable three-point shooter. Last season Tucker posted a 1.6 defensive box plus-minus and a 1.78 defensive real plus-minus while shooting 35.7 percent on threes.
Finally, Holiday is the worst defender of the group, and would most likely be the cheapest of the group. Holiday shot 35.5 percent on three-pointers last season, but had a defensive box plus-minus of -0.8 and a defensive real plus-minus of just 0.25. However, Holiday is a player the Rockets should still target because he is 28 and should be relatively cheap compared to the other players discussed.
In the end, the Rockets must add another defensive piece to their roster for next season. In the playoffs, the Rockets need to be able to sustain above average defensive play in addition to their elite offense. By targeting some of the players mentioned above, the Rockets can become a better defensive team while not significantly sacrificing on the offensive end.
In part two of this series we will explore players the Rockets could (and should) target if they make a trade or two to clear up significant cap space. However, if the Rockets don’t open significant cap space, they can use their modest amount to target some defensive wings.