Will Houston ride Splash Mountain?

We’re now (mercifully) less than 12 hours from the start of the 2023 free agency cycle, and the rumor mill is running hot as teams around the league scramble to fill their rosters. Less than a year removed from a disastrous 22-60 season, the Houston Rockets project to become an integral member of the summer spending cycle.

We’ve spent the past few days diving into the Rockets’ free-agent options in the backcourt and on the wing, with Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet able to secure just over $40 million of Houston’s roughly $60 million in salary cap space. Will general manager Rafael Stone make a similar return on a center? Let’s evaluate his full list of options below.

Splash Mountain time?

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

Houston remains linked to the 2020 champion in recent days, and for a Rockets team bereft of both outside shooting and back-line rim protection, Lopez effectively solves both problems. The player affectionately dubbed Splash Mountain was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a 37.4 percent shooter from three who had a career reinvention in Milwaukee that is truly commendable. Some teams are likely to give Lopez over $50 million over two or three years. Will that team actually be the Rockets? I will give a few reasons for skepticism.

First, isn’t the Rockets’ best returning player a center? I’d still call Jalen Green the franchise’s most important and promising piece, but look at Alperen Şengün’s 2022-23 campaign and it doesn’t look like this is a bench player or overqualified sixth man. Şengün finished fourth among all centers in assists per 36 minutes last season, and he averaged nearly 15 points per game. Şengün post-ups averaged more points per possession (a nice 1.00) than Deandre Ayton, Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. The Rockets were 5.5 points per 100 possessions better with Şengün on the floor last season, an impressive clip considering how poorly Houston played throughout 2022-23. Even given his defensive shortcomings – which I believe are partially exaggerated and largely fixable over time – I’m not so sure I’d be eager to move Şengün to a bench role.

Then there’s the idea of ​​salary cap tightness (which we touched on Wednesday when we discussed Dillon Brooks). The Rockets, according to a team source, are intent on signing Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet, who is likely to command about $40 million per year over two seasons. So will Houston commit to anything close to the nearly $20 million likely needed to lure Lopez away from the Bucks? Consider me a bit skeptical. When the dust settles, I guess we’ll get a happy Şengün, one who isn’t at least partially dislodged by Lopez’s arrival.

Alternative sizes

Jakob Poeltl, Toronto Raptors

Hat tip to Hoops Hype’s Mike Scotto here, who named Poeltl as a potential target for Houston because of his close relationship with VanVleet. Poeltl is a 27-year-old center who improves every year, someone who is a legitimate rim protector with some ball skills for an interior big man. But I have a feeling the Rockets will be priced out of the Poeltl market, especially by the Raptors if VanVleet heads south from Toronto to the Lone Star State.

Markelle Fultz #20 of the Orlando Magic battles for the ball with Fred VanVleet #23 and Jakob Poeltl #19 of the Toronto Raptors during the first half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on February 14, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks

Powell is more of a one-note center than a flexible piece like Lopez, but the Mavericks big man fills his role to awareness. He’s an impressive vertical spacer with some acumen as a weak-side shot blocker, one that could be affordable for the Rockets even with the addition of VanVleet and Brooks on Friday night. Powell should have a number of suitors looking to secure his services for under the $12.2 million mid-level exception. He would be a nice addition to Şengün.

Mo Bamba, Los Angeles Lakers

The size? Check. The three-point shooting? Also check. the engine? Well, that’s still a big question mark. Bamba has left teams wanting more dating back to his time in Texas and all the way around Orlando and Los Angeles, though there is enough talent here to entice some teams in free agency. If the Rockets spend big in other areas, Bamba could be of interest to Stone and Co.

Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans Pelicans

We conclude this list with another former Longhorns center who is entering free agency after his qualifying offer was declined by the Pelicans. Hayes has not produced as expected at the NBA level, although he is a serious elite athlete who would fill a role as a rim-runner behind Şengün. Adding Hayes isn’t the kind of upgrade even Powell would be, but he can be a smart low-risk flier.

Official prediction

Maybe the Lopez noise is real and the Rockets are throwing two big bucks at VanVleet and the Stanford product. But for now, I think Houston will opt out of such a double-dip. The Rockets can still sign VanVleet and probably even Dillon Brooks, then use the remaining capital to add a cheap center along with maybe another cheap wing option. Will that center be Bamba? Powell? I am not completely sure. But come free agency morning, the rotation with the opening night center figures to be Şengün, Usman Garuba and whatever cheap piece Houston adds on the free-agent front.

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