The Courtside Couch
The Houston Rockets at the Trade Deadline: Three Potential Strategies
As the NBA trade deadline looms in a season that’s positively raced by thus far, two-thirds of the teams in Texas seem quietly content. The Spurs are, as ever, the Spurs, and with Tony Parker playing like a darkhorse MVP candidate, San Antonio’s front office has not made so much as a peep suggesting that their championship caliber core is in danger of being disturbed. Meanwhile, in Dallas, the never-silent Mark Cuban has gone out of his way to tell the media that the Mavericks aren’t hurrying to pick up the phone either.
But down in Houston, one team has some very serious decisions to make. This plucky Rockets squad finds themselves clinging to the eighth seed in the Western conference, with the red-hot Timberwolves, the shaky Trailblazers, and the still-there Jazz hot on their heels. Houston is also looking down the barrel of one of the toughest second-half schedules in the NBA and with a road record of just 7-14, they’re not exactly scaring anybody when the they pull into town. Now, on the brink of a season-defining date and possible turning point for the future of the franchise, let’s look at three potential trade deadline strategies for the Houston Rockets.
Option #1: Take a gamble.
Of all the teams waiting for a certain Dwight Howard-sized domino to fall, nobody outside of Orlando has as much to lose at the New Jersey Nets. They made waves last year when the franchise swooped in at the trade deadline in a play for superstar point guard Deron Williams, and then spent the better part of the next ten months apparently trying to convince him that a pairing with Howard in Brooklyn was their destiny. As the Nets continue to sweat out this year’s deadline, the dream of acquiring Howard for Brook Lopez is fading, and their best hopes might now rely on convincing both Howard to relocate in free agency and begging Williams not to leave the door swinging on his way out. With several more attractive options on the table (Dallas conveniently cleared out just enough space to sign two near-max level deals in the summer of 2012), at what point do the Nets start to think of themselves more as sellers than buyers?
That’s where a team like the Rockets finds an opening, a chance to get splashy, to take some risks. Could New Jersey find an offer for Williams better than, say, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin? Could Williams be convinced that playing with a different famously well-run team in his home state is as viable an option as signing with Dallas? If anybody could make a case for building around D-Will, it would be Morey, wouldn’t it?
Option #2: Do nothing.
Or really, “Don’t just play the role of facilitator” (at least not yet…) It’s true that, with Morey’s reputation as a guy who can never say no to picking up an under-valued player on the cheap, Houston is one of the franchises most often called-upon to help grease the wheels of the trade machine. Unfortunately, the value that’s usually represented in such deals tends to be of the “solid rotation guy” level. While that might make a solid Rockets team marginally better, adding another such piece to the only NBA starting five not to feature a single lottery-selected player would certainly not make them a favorite in the ultra-competitive West.
The closest thing that Houston has come to a game-changing deal this year was a deal for Gasol that paved the way for Chris Paul’s move to the Lakers and the Hornets’ into the lottery. In that scenario, LA would have likely renewed their standing amongst the league’s elite, the Hornets would have upgraded some pieces (particularly at power forward and shooting guard) without taking on unattractive contracts, and the Rockets… well, what exactly was that plan again? Adding one great big man to the mix in Houston might secure their place in the playoffs, but that would still place them far away from the championship aspirations of the Yao Ming era.
Option #3: Sell, sell, sell.
Burn it all down before the 15th. Ship off assets like Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to contending teams before their value as players begins to lessen. Accumulate as many first round picks in the process as possible, and start again from the ground-up in what promises to be one of the richest drafts of the last decade.
With a wealth of college players staying in school to avoid the lockout-headache that hung over last year’s draft and scouts debating seemingly every likely draft entry not named “Anthony Davis” as a potential lottery selection, there might never be a better time to hold picks in the mid-teens or early-twenties. Meanwhile, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and both Los Angeles franchises are but a few possible players in the market for a key rotation piece at a decent price, with a particular premium placed on wing scorers (like Martin) and point guard depth (Lowry).
Acquiring draft assets and cap space before the ides of March would allow the Rockets the best of both worlds. Houston would be in prime position during the free agent-frenzy of June, placing them much more favorably to land franchise-shaping players as either a destination city or the third partner in somebody else’s dealings. Or, the franchise could do what sooner or later every mediocre team must: Decide if it’s time for to blow it all up and start over again from the ground up. But at least this way when these Rockets detonate, they’ll have no shortage of options when dealing with the fallout.