After a miserable three-year stretch, the Houston Rockets appear ready to put their losing ways behind them this summer. Houston will have major cap space in free agency and a clear desire to win, and at the top of an ambitious free agency wishlist is former MVP James Harden.
Despite Harden previously requesting a trade from Houston, they appear to be putting all of their free agency hopes on him, though that may not be the case any longer. According to NBA insider Marc Stein (subscription required), the Rockets have a backup plan in case Harden stays put in Philadelphia or another team swoops in and steals him.
Houston has polarizing backup options if they fail to land Harden.
Dallas Mavericks star Kyrie Irving will be a free agent this summer, and while he has been linked to a couple of teams, the Rockets are among the few teams that can sign him outright without needing help from their in-state rivals. However, that might not be enough to lure Irving away from Dallas, which, despite missing the playoffs last season, still has a top-10 player in Luka Doncic.
Houston has quite a few promising young players, but barring a trade for a star, the Rockets can only offer Irving money—granted, a lot of it. That may only come into play if Dallas lowballs him and refuses to play ball on a sign-and-trade.
In addition to Irving, the Rockets are reported to have interest in Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves, who turned heads during their playoff run by averaging 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. The Lakers are expected to match any offer, but the Rockets can make them think twice by offering him a contract that is structured to hurt the team financially.
Even if they were to land Irving and Reaves, the Rockets would probably have to overpay to do so, and unless there is a trade that proceeds those moves, neither appears to move the needle enough to make them a contender, let alone a play-in team. That leads us back to Harden, who at nearly 34, is still very good but not the player he was during his prime in Houston.
Signing him would also require the Rockets to make another big move, and that is asking a lot for a front office that hasn’t done a particularly good job with their rebuild post-Harden. Ultimately, whether the Rockets’ plan A goes off without a hitch or they have to settle for plan B, they will need to do a lot more to get back on track.