When Houston got Ariza for the MLE last season, I think most Rockets’ fans were pretty happy with the deal. They didn’t break the bank for him, he would be a great role player defensively and he could hit the spot 3-pointer. However, midway through the season I came upon a realization. Five years for $34 million for a trigger-happy, poor offensive player who is (in my humble opinion) overrated as a defender might turn out to be a lot less of a bargain that I thought. Cutting $28 million over the next four years gives Houston flexibility (as well as a $6.3 million trade exception) and they got a player of similar skills and ability for A LOT less money.
I’ve been hearing a lot of “he was our best defender” talk. Was he really? There were more than 20 players who received votes as one of the three best defenders in the NBA last season. Thirteen of them were wing players. One of them was from Houston. And it sure wasn’t Ariza. Sure Ariza is quick, gets steals and is a beast in transition. But give me the intense on-the-ball defense of Shane Battier any day of the week. Ariza was an above average defender, but let’s not crown him as an elite perimeter defender yet. The second thing I keep hearing is that he’s a good spot shooter who would have thrived with Yao, and played better when Martin got here. Did his averages improve with Martin in the lineup? Sure, but he’s still a career .321 shooter from beyond the arc. There are a ton of better 3-point shooters on this team (Martin, Brooks, Budinger, Battier and now Lee) and his skill in this area will not be missed. I’ll miss his length and his athleticism, but guys like him are a dime a dozen.
Now, looking for the future, the future of Houston’s wing positions are up in the air. Martin is locked up for the next three seasons, while Budinger has two years left on his rookie contract, Lee will likely be here another two years (one season is a very reasonable $2.2 million team option) and Battier has one season left on his contract.
The only guarantee for next season is that Martin will start. The easy answer is he’ll be at the 2, with Battier back to starting at SF. That gives Houston a fairly balanced offensive/defensive game at the 2/3. However, Lee has been a starter for the majority of his short NBA career, and it’s always a possibility he could start at SG with Martin moving over to SF (which he certainly has the length to play). People will say this group is poor defensively, but I don’t think it’s significantly worse than the Martin/Ariza duo was. Lee may not have the length, but he certainly has the tenacity as an on-the-ball defender. Also, Lee is a much more balanced offensive player than Ariza and Battier. He’s a better 3-point shooter and free-throw shooter, and I’d trust him driving to the basket before I’d want Ariza handling the ball (Ariza averaged twice as many turnovers per game last season). The big question is where Budinger fits into the mix, and that will be based on how well he develops this season. He has the length to play both positions, unlike Lee, and his athleticism sets him apart from the other three. I don’t like the idea of him starting at SF next to Martin but that shouldn’t be a problem yet. However, I think it’s safe to say that all four players will likely end up with 25+ minutes a game and play a significant impact.
This is a big year for Houston, with Yao’s contract up. Barring some sort of complete meltdown for Lee, I think they pick up his reasonable option. But I think there are two big questions this season at the 2/3. Do they re-sign Battier? How they approach the development of Lee/Budinger? Assume for a second that they DON’T re-sign Battier. Will Martin start at the 3 with Lee at the 2 or Budinger at the 3 with Martin at the 2? I’ve already said I hate that second duo starting, but if Budinger reaches his potential I don’t know that there’s a player good enough to keep him out of the starting lineup (improving his defense would sure help). I really hope Houston and Battier can come to an agreement for the cheap. He’ll be 32, but that’s certainly still a reasonable age to still be a veteran perimeter defender and team glue guy (which is where his real value lies). If Budinger and Lee both don’t develop past spot shooters at this point, I’d be a little worried about Houston’s future.
I’m not even going to try this, but it’ll be interesting to see if they re-sign both Lee and Budinger. Far too early to tell at this point, and I’m no Nostradamus.
At first glance, this trade just seems like a salary dump, and with the trade exception and all the extra space, it’s hard to imagine that Morey doesn’t have “future trade implications” on the brain. While I’d be surprised if another trade happened before opening day, by the trade deadline, there will be half a dozen teams looking to move great players for expiring contracts like Jeffries and Battier, as well as all the Knicks future 1st round draft picks. It’s VERY likely that Martin, Battier, Lee and Budinger won’t all be wearing a Rockets jersey by this time next February.
Even if there isn’t a future blockbuster trade, I won’t consider this trade a loss because Lee is certainly a talented player. I remember seeing him play for Western Kentucky a couple of years ago and thinking, “How have I never heard of this guy before?” I was upset when Houston couldn’t move up to nab him in the ’08 draft. As an NBA player, I think he has a ceiling, but I think he can be more than “That Orlando player who bombed that layup in the playoffs.” He is essentially a shorter, less athletic version of Ariza, if Ariza was more reliable offensively. And cost a hell of a lot less money…