No, this isn’t Daryl Morey’s first choice. Daryl Morey wants Kevin Durant. Daryl Morey wants Al Horford. Daryl Morey might even sniff around Hassan Whiteside if he didn’t have enough fun playing the enigmatic center game last time around. The Rockets are going to pursue every superstar available through every avenue. They just probably aren’t going to get one.
Houston was a goddamn madhouse last season. They barely snuck into the playoffs and seemed genuinely bummed to be there. Nobody likes playing with James Harden. Dwight Howard hated it so much that he’s leaving a year after making the Western Conference Finals. Mike D’Antoni is the coach and he hasn’t won a playoff game since leaving Phoenix.
Why on Earth would Kevin Durant choose to play here when the Thunder, Clippers, Warriors and Spurs are on the table? It’s just not happening. Morey’s going to look around for stars and when he inevitably doesn’t find any he’s going to have to try something as a backup plan. He’s going to have to sign sensible free agents that actually fit the construction of his team.
Nic Batum seems like the right place to start. D’Antoni needs someone to be his Boris Diaw, a stretchy forward who defends multiple positions and is a great passer who doesn’t need the ball all that much. That’s Batum to a tee. Stick him on the Rockets and suddenly they look an awful lot like the team that won 56 games in 2015. Harden does the scoring, Batum, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley make the three’s and play the defense. Clint Capela is the roll man and rim-protector. Boom. That’s a pretty nice James Harden roster all things considered.
The issue then becomes what to pay Batum. He’s an excellent role player coming off of a career year and he’s only 27. He’s going to get the max from someone.
If It’s Houston, that’s where he’s going. There aren’t state income taxes in Texas. That makes the max there worth more than anywhere besides Florida. Not even the Hornets can outbid them if they decide to offer him his max contract (though they will have a fifth year to dangle).
But will the Rockets make that kind of commitment to Batum? It’s really 50/50. Morey had to see the flaws in his star-searching strategy last season, and four years of Batum right now don’t seem likely to include a major downside, as they would with the 30-year-old Horford. In fact if Houston plays their cards right, they could sign Batum now and jump right back into the max-salary fray next summer when Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and plenty of others become free agents.
It’s just going to be a tough pill for Morey to swallow. He’s built most of his reputation around the James Harden trade and fervently believes in acquiring talent over fit. It’s entirely possible that his ego prevents this deal from happening. So I’ll predict a max and hope Houston does the right thing, knowing that there’s a real chance that they don’t.
Likely Contract: Four Years, Max