Veterans on shopping list as NBA free agency begins

Black Friday may not be what it once was, but it still exists, albeit in a heavily revised form and only for a relatively small group of shoppers.

The NBA free-for-all can’t be bypassed by online shopping, despite the weeks of rumors and speculation — or months in the case of James Harden — that precede it.

Instead, the doors will open on Friday at 17 CT with the Rockets among the teams expected to rush in to battle other shoppers. In this case, few try to make good deals.

The Rockets are looking for veterans to help drive the next step in their rebuild as they try to piece together free-agent pickups by matching the players and their strengths and positions.

ALSO SEE: A shopping list as the Rockets head into free agency

Given the money they can spend and the number of players they could bring in, each move can affect the move that follows.

A more expensive free agent such as Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who opted out of the final season of his $22.8 million contract, would be more expensive than most options and affect the next pursuit if the Rockets can land him.

Nets forward Cam Johnson is a restricted free agent and would likely take a particularly rich contract as well, in his case to give the Nets a break before the game. Bucks Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton are the most likely of the high-dollar targets on the Rockets’ list to return to their current team.

Similarly, the Rockets have interest in Lakers restricted free agents Austin Reeves and Rui Hachimura, but both are likely to stick with Los Angeles.

In addition to the players on the Rockets’ wish list, the Rockets are interested in Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks, Nuggets guard/forward Bruce Brown and Raptors center Jakob Poeltl, according to a person familiar with the team’s thinking. Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo is an unrestricted free agent the Rockets will consider.

If they fill out their free agents and haven’t signed one of their targeted centers, the Mavericks’ Dwight Powell would also have a spot on their shopping list.

The Harden option looms over every move the Rockets are considering, but there is an expectation that a reunion with an ill-fit star is unlikely with indications that Harden will stick with the 76ers.

While weighing the merits of additions, the Rockets have also had reason to consider culling the returning roster.

Including last week’s first-round picks Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore, the Rockets would have 13 players under contract. That includes KJ Martin and Daishen Nix. The Rockets picked up the option on Martin’s contract on Thursday worth $1.9 million. They have a Thursday deadline to cut Nix before the $1.8 million on his contract becomes guaranteed.

The Rockets have plenty of cap space, about $61 million, without clearing more cap space by dropping players with non-guaranteed contracts. But with nine players taken in the first round of the past three drafts, there wouldn’t be playing time to bring every player under contract, add Thompson and Whitmore and add more free agents. Late first-round picks Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher in 2021 and TyTy Washington Jr. last season, has struggled to earn consistent playing time.

As much as the acquisition and playing of young prospects was designed to start the rebuild in the name of development, the spending expected to begin with this weekend’s deals has long been part of the plan. The Rockets resisted any urge to add veteran help to bolster a team that produced the second-worst record in the NBA last season to save for summer spending.

Even during Rockets coach Ime Udoka’s introductory press conference two months ago, he touted the value of the Rockets’ cap space, then on Monday talked about the intention to bring in veterans when he introduced Thompson and Whitmore.

“It’s an advantage for us to add some veterans and have the cap space that allows us to do that,” he said. “So we’re going to find the right mix of veterans. The type of guys we’re looking at … have professionalism, be good examples for our young guys.

“But we also feel like the young guys that we have and the guys that are coming back have been here for two, three, four years now and even though they’re young in age, they have a lot of experience. These guys have been on big stages as well. The athleticism is a little overarching and we want to add the right veterans to kind of groom those guys with myself.”

However, the Rockets are looking for more than guidance. In Rafael Stone’s first two seasons as general manager, the Rockets worked around the edges, first to try to rebuild and compete and then to rebuild. They acquired Christian Wood and Daniel Thiess in sign-and-trade deals and added free agents Sterling Brown and Jae’Sean Tate. Only Tate remains.

None came at the price the Rockets expect to spend next month. They’ve long looked forward to their chance to chase free agents — or use their cap room in trades — to get the kind of veterans they’ve been missing. On Friday, it’s time to shop.

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