May 6, 2020

How Will the Rockets Build Their Frontcourt Rotation in 2020-21?

The Rockets made a season-defining shift in early February, jettisoning center Clint Capela to Atlanta in order to land forward Robert Covington in a four-way trade. The deal was consequential on a pair of fronts.

For 2019-20, trading Capela marked the final step in the Rockets’ small-ball revolution. Houston no longer has a traditional center in their rotation–22-year-old Isaiah Hartenstein didn’t play in Houston’s last 10 games before the COVID-19 suspension–leaving Covington and P.J. Tucker as Houston’s lone rim protectors. The results were encouraging in the 14 games following the Capela trade, but the consequences of dealing the young center will extend far past this season. 

Houston will continue to ride its small-ball lineups through the playoffs if the season resumes, though it remains in question whether Tucker at the five is a long-term strategy for Daryl Morey and Co. And positional questions aside, the Rockets are still slated to lose a wealth of frontcourt depth in the offseason. Veterans Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll will all be free agents after 2019-20, as will young forward Bruno Caboclo. How will the Rockets restock their frontcourt moving into the next decade? Let’s dive into their options.

2020 Free Agents

Houston won’t exactly be big spenders in free agency. Russell Westbrook and James Harden will both earn over $41 million in 2019-20, and Eric Gordon’s deal is slated for nearly $17 million. Add in P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and Danuel House’s deals, and the Rockets will only have the mid-level exception and minor trade exceptions at their disposal. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t options for the Rockets to repair their frontcourt. 

Let’s start with a few appealing candidates, though ones that will likely be out of Houston’s price range. Aron Baynes has been Phoenix’s defensive anchor for most of the season, and he’s shown the ability to stretch beyond the arc in 2019-20. But expect Baynes to earn an eight-figure yearly salary, out of Houston’s price range. The same goes for Pistons forward Christian Wood, who would have been quite the effective rim-runner to replace Capela. 

The veteran market may be more fitting for Houston. Markieff Morris and Willy Hernangomez are serviceable–albeit unexciting–options. Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk could both be Houston targets after spending 2019-20 in Miami. Perhaps Houston takes a flier on Nerlens Noel, though it may target a big with more offensive skill.

No single move will vault the Rockets atop the Western Conference power rankings. But for a team that has spent the season searching for rotation players, any of the aforementioned names could be legitimate assets in 2020-21. 

Trade Candidates

This is the most interesting route for the Rockets given their cap inflexibility. Houston could dangle future picks or young assets in pursuit of a forward or center, though Eric Gordon makes sense as the most likely trade bait. With a $17 cap hit in 2020-21, Gordon could be a perfect salary match for an impact player. So who could Morey chase on the trade market? There are some intriguing potential options.

Kevin Love has long been rumored as a possible third All-Star in Houston, and he would certainly receive plenty of open looks alongside James Harden and Russell Westbrook. But his contract may prove to be cost prohibitive. Love will make $31 million next year. He’ll earn $28.9 million in 2022-23, his age 34 season. LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t exactly a cure-all, but he could be more of a match for the right price. Aldridge’s expiring contract in 2020-21 could be viewed as a positive for the Rockets. They could ride the veteran for one final season, then reshape their roster in the summer of 2021 with Harden and Westbrook as the only big money contracts on the books. The same would apply to players such as Cody Zeller and Bobby Portis, though it’s certainly questionable whether those players are worth dealing Gordon.

There is one desirable option for the Rockets that jumps out. Indiana has spent much of 2019-20 managing the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner dynamic, and it’s not clear whether the twin towers experiment will last long-term (especially if Victor Oladipo inks an extension). Sabonis may be the better player, but Turner would be a delightful fit. The Texas product has canned 209 threes at 36% since 2017-18, and he led the league in blocks per game in 2019-20. Would Gordon and a first-round pick land the 24-year-old center? Perhaps the price is a bit steeper, but Turner would likely be an ideal center next to Houston’s MVPs. If Morey looks to make another splash this summer, he could look to the Eastern Conference. 

Homegrown Talent

Given the Rockets’ economic constraints, it wouldn’t be a shocker for Morey to eschew the free-agent market altogether in order to keep current pieces of Houston’s rotation. Austin Rivers will likely be a priority in free agency, and one or two of the Green, Caboclo, Carroll and Sefolosha quartet could be back in the fold. What other options do the Rockets have? Perhaps Hartenstein can develop into a reliable five with another year of seasoning. He’s shown impressive offensive talent, and his defensive shortcomings are fixable. And perhaps a rookie finally enters the fold. The Rockets have their first round pick in 2020, and there is a fairly deep list of frontcourt prospects, per Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo’s latest Big Board. 

The Rockets route to rebuilding their frontcourt isn’t perfect. But even without a big free agency splash, count on Morey to construct a workable frontcourt rotation before opening night of the 2020-21 season. 

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