The NBA shopping season begins in earnest this Friday, when the free agency land rush starts at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
As free agent crops go, this particular annual land rush has one plush green pasture (Kevin Durant), a few scenic enclaves (Al Horford, Mike Conley, maybe Hassan Whiteside) and then a bunch of promising lots that may or may not have some type of foundation issue (almost everyone else that matters). In other words, it's a class deep with rotation help, but very little transcendent superstar power.
To say this is a crucial offseason for the Rockets is merely making the same annual proclamation, because when you have an All-NBA talent in his prime like James Harden, every offseason is crucial. The Rockets burned a season's worth of valuable daylight on Harden's career going 41-41 last season. Owner Les Alexander, despite putting on a good face about "making the playoffs" at head coach Mike D'Antoni's introductory press conference, likely won't tolerate another finish hovering around .500 in 2016-17.
So here come Daryl Morey and the Rockets, armed with around $40 million in cap space and some very clear needs:
1. Another scorer to go with Harden, preferably someone who can shoot from distance;
1a. Come to think of it, they need lots of guys who can shoot — from distance, from the elbow, from anywhere;
2. A big man who is specifically willing to primarily rebound, defend and pick-and-roll for days (basically, all the things Dwight Howard saw as secondary to post touches);
3. Leadership, defense and dirty work guys.
With that in mind, and while crossing off the free agents whom the Rockets have zero chance of landing (Durant, Andre Drummond, Mike Conley), here are ten free agents of varying levels of prominence that I would target if I were Morey. With $40 million in cap space (and warm weather, and no state income tax, and the promise of becoming a hero to the Chinese), landing two of these guys is not unreasonable.
10. Jared Dudley, SF, Washington, 30 years old
After a season that ended with a divided locker room and toxic chemistry, the Rockets can have no shortage of good locker room guys. Dudley is a great teammate behind the scenes, a try-hard guy on defense and a fantastic outside shooter. You could do much worse for a fixture and leader of your second unit.
9. Courtney Lee, SG, Memphis, 30 years old
Many folks are mentioning Jeremy Lin as a former Rocket who could return to Houston, but I will put Lee's name in the mix. Lee is a solid outside shooter and a super-tough wing defender, and in Mike D'Antoni's system, he could play the role of Raja Bell.
8. Marreese Speights, PF, Golden State, 28 years old
All too often, especially down the stretch and in the postseason, Harden found himself drawing a disproportionate amount of attention from the defense and dishing to someone who would then clank a corner three or a mid-range jumper. Speights does one thing really well — knock down midrange jumpers. (He actually shot threes well for the first time in his career, 39 percent on 72 attempts.) His numbers backslid a little bit this season, but Speights would be a solid scoring option in a second unit.
7. Kent Bazemore, SF, Atlanta, 26 years old
Bazemore brings a lot of redundancy with Trevor Ariza, so Ariza would likely need to be moved to bring in the "Animal." Fortunately, if you're a Bazemore fan, the Rockets should be shopping Ariza and should find takers considering he is on what will now be a wildly reasonable $8 million-per-year deal. Bazemore is a solid shooter from three-point range, a frenetic effort guy who can defend taller players because of his long wingspan and a former undrafted player who appreciates every minute of his NBA experience. In short, the money he is going to get (likely $12-$15 million per year) likely won't change who he is as a teammate or basketball person.
POOR MAN'S "LEGACY OF BIGS"
6. Festus Ezeli, C, Golden State, 26 years old
Ezeli is purely a backup plan in case the Rockets strike out on some other bigs. His being a restricted free agent probably removes him from the Rockets' radar since I'm guessing they don't want to tie up their cap space with an Ezeli offer sheet while the Warriors decide on whether to match or not.
5. Ryan Anderson, SF/PF, New Orleans, 28 years old
A longtime apple of Morey's eye, he does one thing really well (shoot from great distances), but he does it at an elite level and it happens to be arguably the most important skill in a) today's NBA and b) Mike D'Antoni's offense. Anderson has had some injury issues in recent years that are cause for concern. There's a good chance that when max (or near max) contracts start getting doled out, Anderson represents the border of "Okay, what the hell are these teams doing?" territory.
4. Nicolas Batum, SF, Charlotte, 27 years old
Batum has elite scorer potential, and can beat opponents from distance or off the dribble. He also gets up and down the floor, key with D'Antoni as the head coach here. Batum is also a willing defender. Honestly, he's the perfect "second scorer" to put with Harden as he is dangerous with the ball and off the ball. Chances are he'll stay in Charlotte, but if there's a player who hasn't made an All-Star Game that I'd pay max for, it's Batum (and Hassan Whiteside; more on him in a minute).
3. Joakim Noah, C, Chicago, 31 years old
When he's healthy, I like Noah the best out of any player on this list — he defends like crazy, is a relentless rebounder at both ends, and is a smart and creative passer for a big guy. Also, he directly addresses the most glaring criticisms of the 2015-16 Rockets — effort and leadership. The uplifting effect of Noah's defensive energy is the yin to the draining effect of Harden's lackluster November defense's yang. Now, about that health...only once since 2010 has Noah exceeded 67 games played, and last season he played in 29 games. This might keep his contract reasonable for a year or two. He's worth a risk, if things don't work out with either of these two guys:
2. Al Horford, PF/C, Atlanta, 30 years old
Actually, I take back what I just said at the end of Noah's paragraph. I'd be fine with Noah and Horford on my team. If it was good enough for Billy Donovan at Florida, then it's good enough for Mike D'Antoni! As for Horford alone, I think he would be knocking down elbow and baseline jumpers for days in D'Antoni's system with Harden as the triggerman. DAYS.
1. Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami, 26 years old
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In a vacuum, just looking at his last couple of seasons statistically, Whiteside would be the best free agent get for the Rockets (not named Durant), as he averaged a double-double and led the league in blocked shots, although he has a reputation as someone who tries to block shots at the expense of team defense. Nevertheless...put it this way, if you're the Rockets and you were willing to extend Dwight Howard (which it appears they were, and maybe still are), then you should be crawling over hot coals to sign Whiteside, who is several years younger, not nearly as beat up and much more willing to focus on what the Rockets need out of a center than Dwight, who seems to think he is still worth giving touches to in the low post. Now, you have to swallow hard on Whiteside given the questions about sample size (small), me-first issues (they've existed in the past), and just how he will do with a big-money contract in the bag (uncharted territory).
MOST DESIRABLE DUO: Whiteside, Batum
MOST LIKELY DUO: Whiteside, Anderson
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.