LAS VEGAS -- The Houston Rockets spent nearly $135 million in free agency, highlighted by the signing of power forward Ryan Anderson, a player the team sought for years in trade proposals and free agency. Next was shooting guard Eric Gordon, whom the team was also interested in for some time. And third was Nene Hilario, a veteran center who will help bolster the bench. Of course, the Rockets concluded their summer moves with the signing James Harden to a contract extension worth $118.1 million.
Essentially, the Rockets feel they improved their team this summer -- even without retaining center Dwight Howard -- with the goal of making a deeper playoff run in the Western Conference. Here's how it all came together.
Strikeout in Atlanta
It was just after midnight on July 1 when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey got to work. Morey, along with a contingent of team officials, including owner Leslie Alexander, CEO Tad Brown, executive vice president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, coach Mike D'Antoni and franchise legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, met at the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta to make their pitches to prospective free agents.
"We didn't have a great year last year," Alexander said, referring to their 41-41 season and first-round playoff exit. "We still made the playoffs, but it didn't end well. We needed new blood and guys who are passionate about the game."
Houston's first scheduled meeting when free agency started was with center/power forward Al Horford. Horford was the Rockets' top candidate to replace free agent Howard, who was moving on after three lackluster years in Houston and had his own meetings scheduled with teams in another part of Atlanta, his hometown.
With the Rockets in the midtown section of the city getting ready for a meeting with Horford, Morey ran into the representatives of free agent small forward Kent Bazemore.
Morey convinced Bazemore's camp to schedule a late-night meeting with them, explaining his team's need for a wing who can defend and score.
Bazemore said he enjoyed his meeting with the Rockets -- they offered a four-year, $72 million deal -- but he wanted to talk with other teams before making a decision.
While the Rockets waited on Bazemore, Morey and his group met with Horford. When the big man walked into one of the luxury suites at the Four Seasons, his eyes lit up when he met Olajuwon, according to those involved in the meeting.
The Rockets' Hall of Fame center talks in a raspy voice and often greets people with a "Hello, my brother." He talked to Horford about the benefits of working with the owner and team that molded him and the city that embraced him. Horford was overwhelmed by Olajuwon's presence.
But within the first 48 hours of free agency, the Rockets struck out. Bazemore would agree to terms with the Atlanta Hawks and Horford would pick the Boston Celtics. A person familiar with the discussions between Bazemore and the Rockets said in a text message the deal "was sooooo close" to happening.
Howard, meanwhile, also decided to decided to join his hometown Hawks. The Rockets moved on -- this time to California.
Closing the deals
While other teams were lining up free-agent agreements, the Rockets' group flew to Los Angeles. On July 2, the Rockets visited Anderson's home in Hermosa Beach. After a nearly two-hour afternoon meeting with Anderson and his representatives, led by agent Jeff Austin, the Rockets got their man, agreeing to a four-year, $80 million deal. Anderson then called Gordon, his former teammate from New Orleans.
"He was the first guy I called when I made the commitment to Houston," Anderson said later. "I wanted him to come along. You make a decision that's life-changing and career-changing, and Eric is the first guy I called. I don't know how I sounded. I was outside myself. I love Eric. Eric is a great guy."
Houston's party, which then included Harden, then moved on from the beach to meet with Gordon and his agent, Rob Pelinka -- who also represents Harden -- in his Los Angeles office.
Morey pitched new coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system and how Gordon and Anderson would fit with Harden in a point guard role. The Rockets showed videos of how Harden could take on a role similar to that of former Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash in a revamped offense.
Morey wanted to convince Gordon that while Harden is noted for his scoring, he's also a fantastic passer. Harden finished sixth in the NBA with an average of 18 points a game created by assists, the highest among shooting guards. He also finished sixth in potential assists at 14.3.
The system appealed to Anderson, who said he didn't get enough open looks in New Orleans, something that someone with his skill set would need to succeed in Houston. Also, when defenses attack Harden, his ability to make clear passes should help someone like Gordon, who can shoot from the outside and create opportunities off the dribble.
"I got a little bit of Nash in me," Harden said later of the Rockets' sales pitch. "He had his own pace to the game; that's what I took out of that. You could never speed him up, you could never make him do anything he didn't want to do, that's what separated him from any other point guard at the time, which led to two MVPs."
Gordon and the Rockets agreed to four-year, $53 million contract that night, and in the course of one day, the Rockets added two players who appeared to fit their system.
The team later failed in its attempt to make a deal with Orlando restricted free-agent center Dewayne Dedmon, and after Kevin Durant agreed to terms with the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets fell short in their bid to trade for Andrew Bogut.
A couple of days later, Houston agreed to terms with Hilario on a one-year, $2.8 million contract to become the backup center behind Clint Capela.
All that was left was to take care of Harden.
Morey approached Pelinka in November 2015 and said a contract extension for Harden was in order. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Rockets couldn't finalize any extension with Harden until July 1. While the Rockets started homing in on free agents, Morey also went after Harden. A bond had developed between Harden and the organization, and Morey was confident they could reach an agreement.
Houston had hoped to sign Durant, capitalizing on his close relationship with Harden as a selling point. Durant and Harden worked out together for nearly a week in Phoenix this offseason. Durant, according to those who were briefed on the conversations, told Harden he wasn't going to sign with the Rockets, narrowing his choices between Oklahoma City and Golden State, and giving Boston an outside chance. Durant was open to meeting with the Rockets regardless, but Harden told the Rockets about Durant's decision, and Morey and the front office moved on.
Harden said Durant's decision didn't bother him, but you could tell in Harden's comments that having his own "super team" wasn't his motivation.
"My focus is on the Houston Rockets and how we can get better," Harden said. "The Warriors are a really good team." Alexander then chimed in, "They have to defend us also."
The fact Harden agreed to an extension was somewhat of a surprise, given how several other superstar players opted out of contracts or allowed their contracts to end and explore the market. Alexander said it was a no-brainer to ink Harden long-term deal as the face of the franchise.
After the news conference announcing the Anderson and Gordon deals, Harden's mother walked into the media area. It surprised reporters who thought Harden was just there to comment on the Rockets' free agent acquisitions. But Alexander announced Harden had signed a contract extension.
"So there is no indecision, no doubt in anybody's mind," Harden said. "Now we have to focus on how can we improve. Last year was very stressful for all of us there's some new life here with coach [D'Antonio] coming in.
"This summer we want to build a strong team and go to bat every single night."
Harden's contract ends after the 2019-20 season, but the Rockets don't plan to let him leave. The goal is to take care of Harden so he doesn't hit free agency. Harden's contract is also structured so the team can still make moves for other prospective free agents in years to come, which is something Harden has said he agreed on.
In the days leading up to that news conference announcing Houston's free-agent signings and Harden's extension, there was a large sign on the adjacent garage to the Toyota Center with the headline "Legacy of Bigs." Yao Ming, Elvin Hayes, Olajuwon and Howard were on the sign. Construction workers were removing it, marking the end of the Howard era in Houston after three seasons in which he helped the team reach the Western Conference finals in 2015, but also fell out of favor with Harden and the front office.
Now it was time for a new sign. A sign that this is Harden's team.
"You just feel it sometimes," Harden said. "You got that feeling where everything feels comfortable. You feel love. You feel like people want you to be here and that feeling right there outweighs everything. The ultimate decision was to stay and make sure we get it done."