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No Brinks truck: Isaiah Thomas takes historic tumble from top five in MVP to minimum salary

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In the summer of 2016, as he was stuck on a relatively low-paying contract he’d signed years earlier and lesser players were landing massive deals, Isaiah Thomas looked ahead to his 2018 free agency: “They better bring out the Brinks truck.” He backed up that statement with a top-five finish in MVP voting then declared again last summer: “I’m a max guy. I deserve the max. … My time is coming. They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck.”

Yesterday, Thomas agreed to a one-year, minimum contract with the Nuggets.

Thomas’ fall has been sharp and costly. The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers last summer, and his physical was so troubling, Boston sent Cleveland an extra pick to complete the deal. Thomas tried to rehab his hip without surgery, missed a long chunk of the season then came back hobbled. Even on a team with LeBron James and slowed himself, Thomas played his same ball-dominant style anyway – to the detriment of the team. Thomas was destructively inefficient as he tried to work his way back. He also played a part in the Cavs’ toxic chemistry. The Cavaliers traded him to the Lakers before the deadline due more to his expiring contract than playing ability. Thomas played a little in Los Angeles then finally underwent surgery.

As he found this summer, there just isn’t much of a market for 29-year-old 5-foot-9 point guards with attitude concerns and far larger health concerns.

Maybe that isn’t fair. Perhaps, Thomas – who was the very last pick in the 2011 draft and has repeatedly exceeded expectations – deserves more benefit of the doubt.

Maybe it is fair. Small guards tend to drop off quickly around Thomas’ age, and his hip injury only exacerbates worry.

It’s definitely historic.

Clyde Drexler earned $1,378,000 while placing second in MVP voting. He earned the same salary the following season then got a raise to $1,578,000 the season after.

That’s the last time a player earned less than Thomas’ $2,029,463 salary for next season while finishing top five for MVP or within two seasons after.

It was also more than 20 years ago.

The salary cap has risen considerably since, especially for the last few years with the new national TV contracts in effect – part of the reason Thomas thought he’d get paid. Instead, he’ll earn less than 2% of the salary cap.

That’s by far the lowest mark for a player in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after.

Here are the smallest percentages of the salary cap a player earned in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after since 1991 (as far back as Ryan Bernardoni’s salary data goes):

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Especially disappointing for Thomas: He also ranks No. 2 and No. 4 on the above “leaderboard.” He outperformed his previous contract – a four-year, $27 million deal signed in 2014 – and believed he’d be rewarded handsomely this year. But he got hurt and declined then settled for the minimum.

Only Chris Paul – who finished second for 2008 MVP while still on his rookie-scale contract – comes close to Thomas’ percentage of the salary cap while in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after. In fact, most of the seasons on the above list were by players on their rookie-scale deals.

The most comparable veterans are Scottie Pippen, who finished sixth for 1996 MVP, and Drexler. Drexler eventually got a raise to a $9.81 million salary (and traded to the Rockets the same season). Pippen also got his massive deal in Houston, part of his trade from the Bulls.

But Thomas’ big payday remains elusive.

He’ll have a chance to prove himself in Denver and regain his Brinks-truck momentum. But he’ll do so backing up Jamal Murray, and Thomas will be on the wrong side of 30 when he re-enters free agency. Even if he stays healthy next season, teams will not forget about his hip injury.

This story probably won’t have a happy ending.

Report: Rockets offered Clint Capela $85M-$90M over five years

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According to one report, the Rockets offered Clint Capela about $53 million over four years. According to another, it was about $60 million over four years.

According to a third report…

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

That’s a lot of money, but Capela’s production might be worth even more to Houston. He complements James Harden and Chris Paul so well as a lob finisher, and Capela is an excellent rim protector and fit in the Rockets’ switching scheme.

But he’s a restricted free agent, and there is no obvious team to press Houston with an offer sheet. So, the Rockets have leverage.

Then again, so does Capela. He could accept his qualifying offer, become an unrestricted free agent next summer and unilaterally leave Houston.

These situations tend to result in lengthy standoffs – with plenty of leaks as both sides try to gain an upper hand. It’s not always clear which of these reports are accurate, but both sides want to present themselves as being reasonable and the other side as being too difficult. This is obviously the Rockets’ attempt.

Report: Rockets signing James Ennis

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Interrupting all the handwringing about the Rockets losing forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston is adding a combo forward.

Not Carmelo Anthony (yet).

James Ennis.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Houston might have dipped into its mid-level exception for Ennis. This might be a minimum contract. The player option – which makes Ennis more expensive next season (in direct salary and luxury tax) due to the NBA’s policy for one-year minimum contracts – and the Rockets’ strong team could have set them apart from other minimum-offering suitors.

The 6-foot-7 Ennis is big and athletic enough to handle several defensive matchups. He’ll fit right into Houston’s switching scheme. He’s a capable 3-point with enough off-ball activity to get some easy looks set up by James Harden and Chris Paul.

Ennis isn’t as good as Ariza or Mbah a Moute, and at 28, Ennis doesn’t have major upside. But Ariza and Mbah a Moute are already gone, and at this point, Ennis is a decent fallback.

Report: Carmelo Anthony met with Rockets, Heat as Thunder exit looms

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The Thunder, by stretching him or trading him to another team that will waive him, are dumping Carmelo Anthony.

The Rockets are frontrunners to sign him, but he’ll at least explore the market.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In advance of an inevitable – if not imminent – parting, the Oklahoma City Thunder granted Carmelo Anthony permission to meet with prospective teams, including the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, league sources told ESPN.

Anthony and his representatives met with Rockets and Heat officials at the site of the NBA Summer League in recent days, league sources told ESPN.

The Rockets meeting included coach Mike D’Antoni, who had a turbulent relationship with Anthony as New York Knicks coach. D’Antoni made it clear to Anthony that he thinks the circumstances together would be far different in Houston, and welcomed the idea of coaching Anthony again, league sources said.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has been a strong advocate of signing Anthony, who could play a major role for the Heat at power forward.

So, it’s between a coach whom Anthony has resisted before (D’Antoni) and a coach wants to play at Anthony at a position the former star has resisted before (power forward). What a fun battle!

D’Antoni has embraced isolation far more than he did with the Knicks, but that was with James Harden and Chris Paul – not an over-the-hill Anthony. I’m hardly convinced Anthony joining Houston would go well.

Anthony has embraced power forward far more than he did with the Knicks, but that was with Steven Adams doing the dirty work behind him – not Hassan Whiteside as his center. I’m hardly convinced Anthony joining Miami would go well.

But Anthony is convinced staying in Oklahoma City won’t go well, so he’s now exploring other options. Good luck to him finding a good fit.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta says luxury tax not influencing Houston’s offseason

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The Rockets gave Chris Paul a four-year max contract.

But they lost Trevor Ariza (to the Suns on a one-year, $15 million contract) and Luc Mbah a Moute (to the Clippers on a one-year, $4.3 million contract). Houston isn’t rushing to pay restricted free agent Clint Capela, either.

Those departures are major blows to a team trying to compete with the Warriors. Risking Capela signing his qualifying offer, which would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer, could also undermine the Rockets’ long-term future.

These hard-to-swallow decisions all make sense through one lens – money.

Yet…

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

First-year owner Tilman Fertitta adamantly stated that the NBA’s luxury tax is not influencing the Houston Rockets’ offseason decisions.

“We know we’re going to be in the luxury tax, and if you want to compete for a championship, I feel like unless you get real lucky, you’re going to be in the luxury tax,” Fertitta told ESPN before the Rockets’ summer league game Monday against the Clippers. “So it is what it is. … It never even came up in any discussion.”

Sources told ESPN that the Rockets’ initial offer to Capela was in the four-year, $60 million range, with the blossoming star center seeking a deal similar to Oklahoma City Thunder big man Steven Adams‘ four-year, $100 million contract. The Rockets plan to pursue forward Carmelo Anthony after his expected departure from the Thunder via being waived or bought out, league sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

If Tillman’s quote is accurate, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is doing a terrible job. Ariza and Mbah a Moute are far better than any replacements Houston could sign, and with those two proving their willingness to take one-year contracts, there would have been no adverse long-term effects for Houston. Re-signing Ariza and Mbah a Moute would have maximized the Rockets’ performance next season and not at all limited them beyond.

But of course Tillman’s quote is inaccurate. Houston lost Ariza and Mbah Moute and is in greater danger of losing Capela next summer because of the real-dollar costs of assembling such a team.

The Rockets probably won’t escape the luxury tax entirely, though if Capela accepts his qualifying offer, there’s at least a chance. But it’s a matter of degrees, and Fertitta clearly deemed Ariza and Mbah a Moute too expensive to keep. That’s fair. He can run the team as he sees fit, and after sinking so much money into purchasing the franchise, his spending power might be limited.

But it’s silly of him to misrepresent the obvious situation.