There has been an undercurrent of anger among diehard Rockets fans about owner Tilman Fertitta. The narrative goes something like, "He is too cheap to be willing to pay the luxury tax and, as a result, the team is suffering." For those who aren't aware, the NBA has a weird, soft salary cap, which is to say they basically have NO salary cap, but they implemented rules that penalize teams that go so far over it, the league has to be like, "Listen, LA, we know you have like eleventy billion dollars, but what are we supposed to do when fans in Charlotte bitch that the league isn't fair?"
So, when a team reaches a certain threshold, they begin paying a tax to the league, essentially a progressive penalty starting at 150 percent of the amount over the cap and climbing as payroll gets higher. Then there is the deadly repeater tax. If a team spends three of four years over the luxury tax limit, they fall into repeater tax territory, which increases those percentages significantly. The luxury tax cost the Rockets Trevor Ariza, whose contract with Phoenix two seasons ago would have been cost the team tens of millions more than his actual salary.
As a result, fans view the team's owner as cheap when he wants to save his team from paying luxury tax dollars. Thing is, they are wrong. In fact, it's a little ridiculous to even have an argument that a billionaire is unwilling to spend money on the pro basketball team he owns, but that is where we are on the internet.
It's convenient to blame an owner for wanting to keep payroll in line. We don't care how they spend their money, only that they are willing to spend it freely. But, in fact, there are good reasons to believe Fertitta is fiscally responsible. You may not like him — plenty don't — but cheap is not a good reason.
Look at his track record.
It's hard to call the world's only restaurant billionaire a miser when it comes to money. He pours millions upon millions into his business ventures and his alma mater University of Houston. From the Fertitta Center to his aggressiveness when pursuing coaches for UH's athletic department, nothing about him screams cheapskate. It's also worth noting he has said repeatedly that he would be upgrading the Toyota Center in the next few years. Not the taxpayers, the team. Money does have to be spent on expenses off the court as well.
It feels like Jim Crane syndrome.
One of the initial complaints about Astros owner Jim Crane was that he wasn't a super rich billionaire type like former Rockets owner Les Alexander or Texans founder Bob McNair. Crane needed investments from others and, as a result, fans were skeptical he wouldn't pony up when necessary. This was exacerbated by the fact that the team slashed payroll the first few seasons after he took over as a means of rebuilding. But when it was needed, he has spent freely and no one can argue with his success. In some ways, the criticisms of Fertitta sound a bit like new owner consternation. We don't know what he will do in the future, so every move now is scrutinized. As we've seen with Crane, those worries were unfounded. Something tells us the same will be true of the Rockets owner.
He's more inexperienced than penny pincher.
If there is a criticism to be leveled against Fertitta it is that he has made some questionable decisions based on his previous business dealings. His fumbling of the negotiations with coach Mike D'Antoni last summer looked more like a restaurant boss negotiating with a young chef than a team owner trying to retain the services of a veteran coach. Other moves inside the organization have felt rushed and some of his on-camera moments have stirred unnecessary controversy. The same was completely true of Les Alexander, whose thick New York accent often brought cringes (at best) or anger (at worst), and his abrasiveness was legendary. But he settled in and found his groove. Fertitta will as well.
Only four teams are paying the luxury tax and they are all bad teams.
Bottom line: No team wants to pay the tax. Currently, only four teams do: Portland, Minnesota, Miami and Oklahoma City. The Thunder are overachieving this season and tried to shed salary before the trade deadline to get under the cap. Portland has been terrible and Minnesota is a cellar dweller. Only Miami has been really good and they are less than $2 million over the cap. When teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and others are under the luxury tax and winning, it is tough to complain about the Rockets. In truth, Fertitta is behaving much like other owners around the league, mostly like the good ones.