Two years ago the Rockets barely broke even for the season. Their centers were Sam Dalembert, Hasheem Thabeet and Marcus Camby, 21 feet of stiff. They had Kyle Lowry before his breakout season, which happened after he left for Toronto. Their main guy was Kevin Martin.
They were spinning their wheels and going nowhere fast. But they had plans, and a risk-taking general manager, and some draft picks, and more than a few crossed fingers.
What happened over the next 24 months was a drastic and dramatic makeover: James Harden, Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin all arrived, and Chandler Parsons developed into a shooter with guts. Their identity changed along with their spot in the West. The Rockets won 54 games last season in a tough conference and even better, stayed flexible enough to add another player this summer, maybe an All-Star. Maybe Carmelo Anthony.
The Rockets, therefore, are a great player away from putting the rest of the West, if not the entire NBA, on red alert. Imagine a lineup with Harden and Melo. That's 50 points a night, at least, a one-two scoring punch that would make any defense woozy. Then you add Howard. He's one of the league's best defensive centers who can erase the mistakes of his teammates, and the same for Beverley, a pit bull of a point guard. And if the Rockets can keep Parsons, he could stretch the floor even more and allow coach Kevin McHale to devise all sorts of attacks and strategies with a small-ball lineup fortified with three-point shooting.
"We all want to win a championship," said Howard. "That's why I came here. Melo would be a big part of that."
Melo arrived Wednesday in Houston and received the same massive amount of ego-stroking that he had the previous day in Chicago. It wasn't without some awkward moments. The Rockets had Melo in uniform on the Toyota Center outdoor display board, even with Melo's jersey number, which is the same worn by Lin. Feeling stiff-armed by the franchise, Lin ran to Twitter to explain how he felt disrespected, forgetting that the Rockets (or someone else, if he's traded to make room for Melo) will pay him $15 million next season. Oh, the humility.
Anyway: The Rockets talked up the benefits of playing with an All-Star center and having Harden around to share the scoring burden. Texas doesn't force residents to pay a state tax, so that's a financial plus for Melo. Mostly, the Rockets' welcoming committee, which included Clyde Drexler, raised the possibility of multiple championships and a team that, unlike the Knicks, needed little to no upgrading.
Except this dream scenario seems unlikely. Aside from the Rockets needing to make a trade or two to free up enough money to give Melo something to think about, and the possibility that they aren't at the top of his destination list -- if he goes anywhere, it's probably Chicago -- he's probably not what they need, anyway.
Melo's a scorer. The Rockets were No. 2 in the NBA in scoring last season. They were 23rd defensively. Therefore, he doesn't give them what they need most. He'd strengthen a strength and force teams to put up 110 points, but given how weak the Rockets are defensively, they might give up 112.
Look, he's a true star who'd make Houston better and create all sorts of issues for 29 other teams. The energy the Rockets are using to chase Melo isn't exactly being wasted or misplaced.
Yet: A better option, and a more economical one, would be Luol Deng. He's not the same player who made the All-Star team in Chicago, and he does have 10 years of wear. But Deng is a solid defender at small forward who brings enough scoring to stretch the floor even more and would make the Rockets a tough challenge for anyone to guard. He could, depending on the matchup, see minutes at power forward.
Signing Deng to a reasonable salary, say $8 million to $10 million a season, would allow them to bring back Parsons and maybe add another proven veteran for the bench and keep them in the hunt in the West. Lowry would also be another option instead of Melo. The Rockets had Lowry before their facelift began, but he and McHale weren't always on the same page. He'd be an upgrade over Lin, except Lowry will probably get overpaid by the Raptors, who can't afford to lose him and risk losing all the goodwill they generated last season after a stirring run to the playoffs.
Who else? Pau Gasol? That's another player who'd give the Rockets what they need, a complimentary rebounder and post-player to side with Howard. And he wouldn't come with the same steep salary demands as Melo. Gasol is in demand, however, and seeing where the salaries are going this off-season -- a max deal for Gordon Hayward? Really? -- Gasol might price himself out.
If those are problems for the Rockets, many teams would love to have them. General manager Daryl Morey has a 50-win team, a pair of Olympians still in their prime, and roughly $18 million of cap space to tinker with. With Howard and Harden under contract for the next three seasons, the Rockets have their core intact. All they need to do is stay flexible with the surrounding cast and therefore stay in the running for another high-priced star, should one become available through a trade or free agency.
They're already fortunate enough to have Howard and Harden, both acquired through distressed situations. If you can't get a superstar through the draft, going the distressed route is the next-best way. By "distressed," we mean a star who's anxious, for some reason, to escape his current situation. Those are rare, which makes the Rockets lucky enough to strike it rich not once, but twice.
Howard was done with the Lakers because he couldn't exist with Kobe Bryant. Their personalities clashed; Kobe is as serious as a stroke, while Howard laughs a lot. Also, the Lakers two years ago (and even now) were in transition, with old stars forced to carry the load because of the lack of new blood. So Howard signed with the Rockets and chose to lose money in the process, roughly $26 million.
A year earlier, the Thunder refused to give the max contract to Harden. They'd already lavished one on Kevin Durant while Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were also pulling eight figures a season. In hindsight, OKC would've been better off paying Harden and dealing with the luxury tax, if only to keep a great player from walking out the door. Instead, they traded Harden for a package of players and picks and gave the Rockets a building block.
Two years later we see the Rockets back at the free agent table, looking for another upgrade, another piece that would turn them into a 60-win team. None of the other contenders in the West (Clippers, Spurs, OKC, Warriors, Blazers) have the ability to spend this generously this summer, which gives Houston an advantage.
Now they just have to use it wisely. Getting Anthony would be an obvious no-brainer, if far-fetched, given his number of choices. The beauty of the Rockets is they have a fallback plan. By adding two or three useful pieces, instead of one, that could work out better than the Melo master plan.