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[Iko/Hollinger] Projecting the Rockets’ future

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by J.R., Apr 8, 2020.

  1. J.R.

    J.R. Contributing Member

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    tl;dr: Tilman is cheap & sucks.

    Projecting the Rockets’ future with former NBA executive John Hollinger

    For the better part of the last decade, the Rockets have been a playoff team. And since 2016, the team has been in NBA Finals/win-now mode. When and if the NBA returns, that mindset will remain the same even though the team is the sixth seed in the Western Conference. With that being said, this window the Rockets find themselves in won’t last forever. Sports are cyclical and the NBA isn’t immune to that.

    To talk about the state of the Rockets and their future outlook, I sought the expertise of John Hollinger, who served as vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2012-19. He has since transitioned to a national writer’s role, and I’m extremely fortunate to be able to call him a colleague of mine.

    Hollinger has done this with several other teams around the league, mainly focused on lottery-bound franchises looking ahead to the future. But how do contenders evaluate the times they live in now while planning ahead? From why Houston needs to resign P.J. Tucker, alternative head coaches and GMs, to forecasting Harden/Westbrook, mid-level options and everything in-between, here’s what Hollinger had to say about the Rockets.

    Kelly Iko: John, I had the fortunate pleasure of bumping into you in Portland a few weeks ago (good times). But Blazers-Rockets regular-season games aside, your NBA experience puts you in rare air. You know as well as anyone, from your time with Memphis, just what it takes to put a contender on the floor for a number of years in a row.

    The Rockets have been in Finals-mode since 2016 when Mike D’Antoni was hired. Four years later, they’ve been close, but no cigar. In that time span, they’ve changed ownership and fundamentally changed how traditional basketball is played, centers be damned. Dating back to last summer and their Game 6 loss at home to Golden State, there had been whispers that change could be coming on the horizon for the Rockets, especially depending on how this season pans out, whenever it’s safe to play basketball again. This era of Houston basketball is critical. Would that be a fair assessment?

    JH: Change could be coming at a lot of levels, but ironically I’m not sure how much of it will happen on the basketball court. The Rockets are pretty locked into the team they have, without much ability to shift gears. In the last two years, they have essentially used all of their available assets to avoid the luxury tax (especially last year) and convert Chris Paul and Clint Capela into Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington.

    Those moves have bound them into a situation where they have a centerless, five-man cohort that can plausibly match up with any team in the league — James Harden, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Westbrook, and Covington. All five players are under contract for next season, and all but Tucker for the year after. The contracts of Westbrook and Gordon, in particular, will be very difficult to trade, with the team inking Gordon to a questionable four-year, $73M extension just prior to the season despite his turning 31 in December and having an extensive injury history.

    So Houston has a five-man core and not a whole lot else and likely will be in that situation for a while.

    But the change that is almost certainly looming on the horizon involves head coach Mike D’Antoni. He has an expiring contract after the team couldn’t agree with him on an extension, and will become a rare coaching free agent after the season.

    It doesn’t seem like the Rockets are willing to pay his market value. Even before the coronavirus happened, the Rockets had cut back on payroll under new owner Tilman Fertitta and performed multiple backflips to avoid the luxury tax. Now that his restaurant and gaming businesses have been hammered by the current situation, it’s pretty easy to imagine the Rockets pulling back even further.

    So, what happens when a D’Antoni team is no longer coached by D’Antoni? Who could they bring in that could maintain the unusual style that has propelled this team to the West’s elite? They really have no choice anymore, they don’t have any viable centers left to play a more “traditional” style under a new boss. This could be a really interesting offseason even if the five starters remain unchanged. Do you see any hope for a return from D’Antoni?

    Iko: If I’m going to be honest with you, I might have been really in the deep end of conspiracy theories when it comes to D’Antoni. What I mean by that is, there was a point in the season when it was all going to crap for Houston, where I thought he might just pack it up and leave. I was trying to put myself in his shoes and look at the optics: a supposed contender falling apart and an uncertain offseason with no contract. I just didn’t see any other way to get out of the sinking ship.

    But this is where the COVID-19 situation gets interesting. It changes perspective, and with that expectations. In some ways you almost have to bring D’Antoni back, right? Think about it: You allowed this big stylistic shift, trading away a starting center on a pretty nice contract in exchange for a 3&D wing. That never happens, ever. You had ~15 games of data with this new group before the NBA went on a hiatus, and when it returns, if it does, there’s no telling how many more regular-season games you’ll be allotted before the playoffs start.

    If you are ownership doesn’t that have to play a factor in negotiations? Let’s say games resume and go straight to the playoffs. Would you fault D’Antoni for a second-round exit to the Clippers? This is such a weird time in NBA history that when the games come back, it might not be about who’s simply better, but who’s more conditioned, who took care of their bodies better during this impromptu break. Can we put all of that on the head coach?

    A Rockets team without D’Antoni would be a weird one, that’s for sure. Forget the fact that press conferences could now become mundane, how would the players respond? D’Antoni’s presence, green light mentality, and confidence he instills in players is a big pull in free agency, and he’s done well in revitalizing some of these guys’ careers. I like what you said about his own market value; we talk so much about players that we forget it also applies to the X’s and O’s guys.

    If Houston did indeed go in a different direction than D’Antoni this offseason, they would have to bring in someone who not only has that similar green light mentality but one who garners the trust of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. D’Antoni has been able to connect with Harden in ways that others haven’t, and he has Westbrook playing the most efficient brand of basketball in his career. I saw someone float the idea of Kenny Atkinson, and I don’t see it. By a long mile. If he couldn’t reel Kyrie and KD in, he’s not doing it with these guys.

    JH: I completely agree. Unfortunately, I think if the Rockets move on from D’Antoni it’s not going to be for another brand-name coach, because the budget is likely to be a major factor. I think there’s a decent chance the Rockets’ next coach is somebody who has never coached in the NBA before.

    Also, I alluded to this in my piece on the Bulls, but this hiatus is about to get super awkward. Some teams are going to look to fill their job openings right now rather than waiting to see if the season re-starts. If you’re D’Antoni, wouldn’t you want a chance to interview for some of these jobs? And if you’re the Rockets, and you know you’re moving on anyway, is this a chance to get compensation? Receiving $5M cash from another franchise might look pretty good to Fertitta right now.

    But again … how do you come back and finish the season without the head coach? Who would they have running the team in his place, and how would things work under a new boss? D’Antoni is one of the most unique coaches in NBA history; while the league has been copying him ever since Seven Seconds or Less in Phoenix, he’s still more extreme in his approach than anyone. You’re not just bringing in generic coach X to fill his shoes.

    While we’re on the topic of people who run the Rockets, what sense do you get about Daryl Morey’s long-term future there? He’s been among the best GMs in the league and would certainly be desirable to other franchises if the door cracked open, but also recently signed an extension that compensates him well. What’s your impression?
     
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  2. J.R.

    J.R. Contributing Member

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    KI: I think Morey is safe. I’ve never worked in a league front office so maybe I’m wrong on this, but you don’t get to make the kind of moves he’s made in the offseason and in-season without some sort of job security. Ownership has been quite public in support of Morey about matters on and off the floor for quite some time now. The media’s job is to cover these things, and we can always question moves and criticize certain things but the facts remain. Since D’Antoni arrived in Houston, Morey’s primary goal has been to dethrone the Golden State Warriors. He never accepted the fact that the league ran through Oracle Arena and you have to give him credit for putting up a fight. It’s one of those what-ifs, but we’ll really never know how it would have played out had Chris Paul been there for Game 6 and 7, we just don’t. They were in great position to take them down the following season but didn’t. That’s not on Morey.

    That being said, it’d be foolish not to consider the possibility of him walking away from this at some point. He’s been there since 2007, might he be in the hunt for a new challenge? Like D’Antoni, he’d certainly be a hot name on the market and teams would be calling his line crazy for an interview.

    I want to stay on the topic of Morey, but try and peek down the line a bit. Where you can have a discussion with him is future flexibility. As you noted earlier, Harden and Westbrook are locked up long term with big, big money. There’s no getting around that, so no point in really discussing cap space hypotheticals. Where you can question is the stuff around that. Houston might not be a tax-paying team, but Gordon’s lucrative extension hampered their wiggle room some.

    They’ll have the non-taxpayer MLE available to them, which should be ~$9.7M, but could come down a bit depending on what the league cap settles at. They’ll also have the BAE. Put yourself in his shoes, or actually in your own shoes since you’ve done this before. What route do you take this summer? Are you going to be a team that’s always hunting around the margins, looking for minimums and splitting the MLE? I assume this team wants to remain under the tax, despite anything said otherwise. What names are on your big board? What do they need?

    JH: If I’m the Rockets and can use the MLE, I’m operating with a strategy similar to the one they used to get Tucker a couple of years ago: Use the full MLE and target the best player available. Splitting it is a backup strategy for when you strike out on Plan A. Adding even one more high-caliber rotation player is a big deal for the Rockets because it provides insurance against injury to one of their top 5 or age-related decline to 30-somethings like Gordon and Tucker.

    The Rockets go into this with a pretty clear idea of what type of player to target. They don’t need a guard, because they have Harden and Westbrook, and they don’t need a center, because they don’t ever play with one. So the target is clear: get switchable 3s and 4s who can shoot 3-pointers. It doesn’t really matter if he can dribble or do other stuff.

    One guy who I think would really fit the bill and be available at their price point or a bit lower: Jae Crowder. He’s not a great shooter but he’s a willing long-range launcher who knows how to play a role. He’s a combo forward who is very strong, so he could operate similarly to Tucker in terms of getting his body into bigger players.

    Kentavioius Caldwell-Pope, Joe Harris, and Maurice Harkless are a few other players who might fit into this slot, although each presents a few questions. Caldwell-Pope is more of a guard and isn’t going to be switch as well on bigs; Harris can rain 3s but has a lot of defensive question marks that could get exposed in this system, and Harkless is the most dubious as a floor-spacing threat.

    I’ve buried the lede, however. The bigger issue is not WHO but IF. The Rockets are only $10M from next year’s tax line, assuming they keep Ben McLemore and Isaiah Hartenstein, let Chris Clemons go, and Austin Rivers declines his option. That’s with only eight contracts … even if the other six spots are minimums, they are going to be close to the tax line. And as noted above, I don’t see any way for this team to pay the tax.

    Unlike past years, Houston’s pathways to extricating itself are unclear. The Rockets could possibly trade Danuel House to gain enough wiggle room to use most of their MLE. In particular, trading House for a second-round pick in 2020 could prove valuable — that pick would make a shade under $1M, or barely half the veteran’s minimum, so the move could clear $3M in space below the tax.

    But beyond that, they no longer have the option of paying somebody to take a Brandon Knight off their hands, because there aren’t any more Brandon Knights. They have five essential players and nobody else makes above the minimum except House. There’s no place left to cut.

    Regardless of whether they use their MLE, at a lower level, they are probably going to have at least one spot open for a minimum contract or BAE guy. I think Solomon Hill is a name that fits here. Wesley Matthews and E’Twaun Moore are a couple of other possibilities, as are bringing back DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green.

    KI: Crowder is a name whom I’ve heard before, just as KCP and Moore. I see the fit, specifically in terms of physicality and toughness, along with being switchy and malleable. I like House as a fit in Houston, although his role has fluctuated a bit. D’Antoni has probably used the word athleticism and physicality in describing House about 50 times this year. They like him. I’d be surprised if Rivers didn’t decline his option this summer, to be honest. This year has just been weird. Honestly, I think this has become a bit of an exercise in Houston: names that fit for one reason or the other but never work out. The Covington trade really was surprising in that aspect.

    But we know how Houston’s system works, all of the aforementioned names are there to give the starters rest. One starter in particular, P.J. Tucker. I’m curious about general front office thoughts on the looming extension stuff. How is he viewed? To me, I see a gritty 3&D team-first guy, great locker room presence, and a must-have. He’ll be 35 going into next season with guaranteed money, but what’s his price point? What was the consensus around the league when he took less money to join Houston four years ago? Can he get one last payday?

    JH: The league saw him as a mid-level exception guy when he left the Raptors for Houston; he took slightly less than the full MLE but nobody was slapping their forehead in shock over that. Since then, however, he’s much more firmly established himself. Remember, he had been in Phoenix and then done a partial season in Toronto before the Rockets nabbed him.

    Now, the thing working against Tucker is his age. Houston has already absorbed long commitments to two other players in their 30s in Westbrook and Gordon, so there’s a case to be made that why not do it for Tucker as well.

    And your point is correct that he’s a must-have — for as long as they’re going to keep trying to play this way, or until or unless they can find another player who can do what he does for him defensively.

    Nobody is giving him a long-term deal at his age, but even a two-year extension pays him until his age 37 season. How long can he hold up as the centerpiece of their defensive strategy? This fits in with a larger question about the Rockets, which is that age is going to start catching up with them really soon, and they don’t have a single young player they can point to as a guy who will help offset that. (Even the “young guy,” House, turns 27 in June). They don’t have many draft picks, either, and they have very limited cap flexibility for as long as they try to avoid the tax, which seemingly will be as long as Fertitta is the owner.

    So the question of extending Tucker almost becomes a non-question — what other choice do they have?

    But there’s another fly in the ointment here — an extension for Tucker can only be for 120% of his 2020-21 salary, which would cap it at just $9.56M. Tucker will likely be looking for more than that, and in a frothy 2021 free-agent market where many teams will have cap room, he has a good chance of getting it. Even if the Rockets want to extend Tucker now, they may have no choice but to wait until summer 2021 and then see where the chips fall.

    And honestly, given how much this team has painted itself into a corner already, that might not be the worst thing.
     
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  3. J.R.

    J.R. Contributing Member

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    KI: The age thing is real. I think people get caught up in the wind of contending so much they forget that these guys get older. Which is what brings me to my next point. Morey made a comment earlier this week about buying into the draft and the reasons behind it, stating he likes to have at least one developmental guy each year for pipeline reasons. This makes the decisions in the last year and a half somewhat confusing to me, letting guys like Gary Clark and Vince Edwards go. Those were pegged to be developmental guys that would eventually be molded into rotational 3&D guys, but Houston went in a different direction. I also wonder what they end up doing with Isaiah Hartenstein, who’s suddenly become Rockets Twitter MVP. Frazier is someone they should hold on to as well, a gritty defender who’s never missed a three in his life, allegedly.

    But back to reality, NBA mortality isn’t a myth. Harden and Westbrook are playing high-level basketball and are handsomely paid. How long do you figure the backcourt can continue this level of production? How many years do they have left at All-Star level? From your experience, do those thoughts occur in front office conversations? How does that apply to team-building and putting talent around one player’s specific skill set?

    JH: I can talk about this one from experience. We spent my entire time in Memphis trying to figure out how to stay highly competitive with a good, veteran team while still accumulating pieces that could be part of what came next. It’s really hard — you never have a high draft pick, for starters, and sometimes you have to trade them to assemble the pieces you need to maximize the short term. You have to get a bit lucky and hit on late draft picks or find guys on the scrap heap that other teams missed. Houston already did this once by hitting on Capela with the 25th pick in 2014, but hasn’t been able to replicate that since.

    The other places the conversation goes, as you mentioned, is “how long can we do this?” and “when is it time to break this up?”

    The Rockets aren’t there yet and should remain in win-now mode. But in two years they might be in a position where their best move is to break up the team and start over. Here’s where it gets hard — that conversation is as much an emotional one as it as an analysis question. No matter what the rational outlook is, you’re essentially turning around an ocean liner of personal investment by the stakeholders in the franchise. It’s one of the most difficult decisions a franchise can make and for that reason one that is very often put off until it’s a year or two too late.

    That certainly happened with us in Memphis, but we were really fortunate that a couple of our players held their trade value into their 30s and were able to return picks and players, and beyond that, that we were able to finish high in the lottery in consecutive seasons. Other teams have and will be far less fortunate.

    But looking ahead, there is going to come to a point when the Rockets are either forced into that situation(because Harden sees they’re not good enough anymore and wants to be someplace else), or they realize that trading Harden for a mother lode is the only rational out for an old team with no cap flexibility or draft picks. They’ll do everything in their power to avoid this, as they should, but the handwriting is already on the wall if you look at Houston’s cap and roster. The only question is how many years they have before it happens.

    KI: Two quick things before we go, I’ve kept you long enough: How long do you foresee this full-time small ball era last in Houston? And what’s the consensus on the Westbrook-CP3 trade around the league? We’re conditioned to believe in a “winners and losers” as it pertains to deals, but this seems to be a rarity where there isn’t an actual loser.

    JH: I think they’ll do it again next season because they have no alternative at this point. It’s not like a starting-caliber center is just going to materialize out of thin air. After that I think it’s more of an open question — they have to see where Tucker is, whether he re-signs, and more generally how successful it has been. Also, not to belabor the point, but they need to know who is coaching the team and how they want to play.

    On the trade, I agree that both teams won, and that’s generally why trades happen in the first place — it’s a chance for each side to optimize a roster situation. CP3 has been better in Oklahoma City than Westbrook would have been, and Westbrook has been better in Houston than CP3 would have been.

    Where it gets trickier on Houston’s end is that they gave up multiple first-round picks and swallowed an extra year of exorbitant salary. (Westbrook makes $47M in 2022-23). However, I think those are costs you can live within the context of maximizing James Harden’s best years and trying to get at least one ring out of it. Rockets fans are used to having awesome players, but this isn’t normal, and it might be a long time before they have another player of this caliber. Pulling out all the stops to squeeze the most from his prime years is an appropriate response. One just hopes we’ll get a chance to see how the movie ends for 2019-20.
     
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  4. TilmanFinancialWindfall

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    I can't imagine Tilman paying $47 million a year for Westbrook. Ain't no way that's happening. Either he or Harden is going to be traded for LTS.
    That is, if he is still the owner of this team in 2022. He just can't afford it.


    Where it gets trickier on Houston’s end is that they gave up multiple first-round picks and swallowed an extra year of exorbitant salary. (Westbrook makes $47M in 2022-23). However, I think those are costs you can live within the context of maximizing James Harden’s best years and trying to get at least one ring out of it. Rockets fans are used to having awesome players, but this isn’t normal, and it might be a long time before they have another player of this caliber. Pulling out all the stops to squeeze the most from his prime years is an appropriate response. One just hopes we’ll get a chance to see how the movie ends for 2019-20.
     
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  5. bleedroxred79

    bleedroxred79 Member

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    My prediction? Unless Tilman sells, Morey quits and leaves for the east coast. MDA will not be renewed and one of Westbrook or Harden is gone. This owner was already penny pinching before the pandemic and his fortune has nose dived. Do the math.
     
  6. Aruba77

    Aruba77 Contributing Member

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    i have very little confidence in Tillman. I still have some confidence in Morey. I don't have buyers remorse on Russ, but i do think we gave up too much and dealing draft picks and assets for tax relief has really hurt. I still think small ball is an unknown and highly risky strategy, but it's clear that if it doesn't work, we don't have the assets, flexibility or picks to fundamentally change the direction of the team without entering a long period of rebuilding or 8th seed play -mediocrity treadmill.
     
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  7. Zboy

    Zboy Contributing Member

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    We have no future with Tilman.

    He is cheap and he sucks.

    Morey will leave if he has ambitions and wants to win a ring.

    I hope Tilman goes broke so he has to sell the Rockets.
     
  8. Fantasma Negro

    Supporting Member

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  9. BigBum

    BigBum Member

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    Why signed 3 double-overpaid contracts within 4 years?

    2016 Ryan 80 mil - not playable
    2018 Paul 160 mil - age
    2019 Gordon 76 mil - injured

    Total Double overpaid amount 160 million before tax.

    Clippers bench is double-underpaid.
    Worth a year
    Lou Williams 16 mil
    Harrell 20 mil
    JaGreen 10 mil
    Shamet ....
     
    #9 BigBum, Apr 8, 2020
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2020
    Highlyrated likes this.
  10. Elephant810

    Elephant810 Member

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    Tilman should never have been allowed to buy the team. His pockets aren’t deep enough to have purchased the team for 2+ billion...
     
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  11. Rock Block

    Rock Block Sorta here sometimes

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    Les disagrees.... :rolleyes:
     
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  12. Elephant810

    Elephant810 Member

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    Sure... but the NBA should have properly vetted him since team was purchased with high degree of leverage.
     
  13. Nook

    Nook Member

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    The league did properly vet him.

    TF had a history of borrowing money and paying it back at a good profit to the lender. His reputation in that regard is sterling and it is why he can borrow as much as he has.

    The league knew Alexander had a strong preference to sell to someone local and the main the league approved it? He paid 2.2 billion dollars for a franchise outside of LA and NY. His purchase increased the value of franchises through out the league.
     
  14. Section123row16seat1

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    Cp3 was a great signing

    that’s the reason I bought season tickets 3 years ago

    We came so close and I’m still in it!

    However if they do any more Ryan Anderson style contracts I’m fading into Bolivian
     
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  15. BigBum

    BigBum Member

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    Hollinger suggested that Morey signs free agents KCP, Joe Harris and Harkless. Each of them could ask 10 million a year.
    Why target Knicks, Nets and Lakers? They have money and under the tax. It’s about money competition.
     
    #15 BigBum, Apr 9, 2020
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2020
  16. iNoseBleedRed

    iNoseBleedRed Member

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    I love fading into Bolivians
     
  17. daywalker02

    daywalker02 Easter Egg Hunter - Tell me why? نحن عائلة
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    Whoa, Hollinger gave a rare interview.

    Graced us with his presence.
     
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  18. Gray_Jay

    Gray_Jay Member

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    Thank you very much for putting this string of lengthy quotes together. It was an interesting article, more in depth than I was anticipating.

    This particular part made me laugh and cry at the same time:
    It probably is that tenuous for Fertitta's finances right now. Anyway, thanks again for showing us an article I probably wouldn't have found otherwise.
     
    J.R. likes this.
  19. Elephant810

    Elephant810 Member

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    Those are good points. I’m just a frustrated fan.
     
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  20. Sweet Lou 4 2

    Sweet Lou 4 2 Contributing Member
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    I think Tillman if he does not sell will blow things up. Morey, MDA, Harden will all be gone in cost cutting moves. WB too if he can dump his salary. He'll firesale to get the payroll down and make the Rockets profitable.
     
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