Chris Paul has reportedly agreed to a four-year maximum contract worth $160 million to stay in Houston and continue fine-tuning the absolutely hateful brand of basketball he and James Harden pioneered last season. But they will have to do it without their most accomplished and important three-and-D perimeter player, in a sign that all of Daryl Morey’s high-wire wheeling-and-dealing might’ve finally become too expensive for Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta.
At first glance this news is nowhere near as important as the retention of Chris Paul: Trevor Ariza has agreed to a $15 million one-year deal with the Phoenix Suns. This is notable for a couple reasons. First of all, the Suns are wild to spend $15 million on one season of a 33-year-old role-player wing, especially if they think his inclusion pushes them closer to playoff contention, and especially if they think the extent to which his inclusion pushes them closer to playoff contention is particularly a good thing. The Suns are butt. Their best player is quite possibly a 19-year-old rookie; their incumbent “star”—Devin Booker—has never come close to demonstrating that he can participate in anything even vaguely like winning basketball as a professional; Josh Jackson, last year’s lottery pick, is still a virtual unknown. If the Suns could be described as “deep” at any position, it’s on the wing, where all of Booker and Jackson and T.J. Warren and rookie Mikal Bridges will need minutes and shots. The Suns need a point guard in the worst way, and what they don’t need is a veteran forward to stand in the way of big developmental minutes for their prized youngsters.
But Ariza’s deal in Phoenix is important mostly because $15 million is a reasonable price for the Rockets to pay to retain a wing who fits so perfectly around all that Harden and Paul isolation work, and all those Clint Capela pick-and-rolls. Ariza has evolved into a genuinely excellent spot-up shooter in the second half of his career. He’s lost a step defensively, but he’s still reasonably tough at guarding the league’s best and biggest alpha-scoring wings, and that combination of knockdown shooting and dependable, switchable defense made him an invaluable crunch-time role player last season. The Rockets still have Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, and they could still retain Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, but none of those guys have Ariza’s exact combination of offensive and defensive strengths.
But the Rockets are expensive. According to Spotrac, with just eight guaranteed contracts on their books the Rockets are around $9 million under the luxury tax, with a max or near-max restricted free agency contract for Clint Capela looming, and another $9 million in assorted cap holds for their other free agents, not counting Ariza. Fertitta in February said he’d have no problem paying the luxury tax if it meant the Rockets can win, and they obviously can, but Ariza’s one-year agreement in Phoenix at least suggests that the Rockets weren’t willing to match that offer, let alone to beat it with more dollars or additional years, either of which would’ve seemed to be a no-brainer to retain the core of 65-win team. Ariza isn’t a stud, but he’s extremely useful, and he’s even more useful in a coherent and competitive situation, like with the Rockets. This loss is a meaningful one, and it’s especially troubling if it means Houston’s new owner balked at the price tag.
The Rockets were a game away from upsetting the Warriors and advancing to the Finals, and that was with Chris Paul injured and on the shelf. They didn’t necessarily need to get better this offseason, but it’s for sure a bummer to see them getting worse.