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Should Houston make a run at Gasol, Smith, or Millsap?

The Houston Rockets have their future set at four positions. For all intents and purposes, Jeremy Lin (24 years old), James Harden (23), Chandler Parsons (24), and Omer Asik (26) are stable, improving building blocks/players/trade assets that one way or another are capable of evolving into a championship worthy foundation.

But something’s missing: a forward who can defend his position, rebound on both ends, and lift at least 25% of the offensive burden from James Harden’s sagging shoulders. Asik is wonderful, but the Rockets need a player in their frontcourt who they can run their offense through for extended stretches of time; another option when opposing teams trap Harden as soon as he puts the ball on the floor; a player talented enough to slow down Houston’s pace when absolutely necessary without making the decision to do so feel like a mistake.

Between now and the trade deadline, Houston’s front office would be wise to explore a deal that would land them one of the select few players like this that makes both financial and basketball sense. Big sorry to Zach Randolph (who would mortgage the future with his contract: $17.8 million guaranteed next year and a $16.5 million player option in 2015), LaMarcus Aldridge (whose value has skyrocketed thanks to Portland’s surprising record and a second straight All-Star berth), DeMarcus Cousins (understandably off limits), and Kevin Love (a tantalizing dream…at the moment). For their own respective and numerous reasons, none of these guys are worth analysis at the moment.

But the three guys below? They’re all realistic grabs, and the Rockets would be more than thrilled to have one. Here are the options.

 

3. Pau Gasol

One of the two or three best low post scorers in the game? Or a rapidly declining loafer who’ll never again reach the lofty 2010 playoff heights that solidified his case as an eventual Hall of Famer? Who will Pau Gasol be if he’s traded to another team? That is the question.

Before we pull this curtain back too far, it should be mentioned that it would be extremely difficult for the Rockets and Lakers to pull off a deal involving Gasol without involving another team. His contract is an absolute monster, and without giving up Lin/Harden/Asik/Parsons it’d be difficult matching salaries without bordering on the absurd.

Anyway, as I’m sure you remember, Gasol was supposed to be a member of the Rockets two years ago. Things didn’t work out, stuff happened; he stayed in Los Angeles. But what we know from this situation is that at one point in time Daryl Morey liked Gasol’s game. That interest has since waned, with his declining play and rising age.

What we’ve seen so far this season is as close to a tragedy as anything related to basketball strategy can be. In effect, Mike D’Antoni has chosen his own system over Gasol’s ability to score with his back to the basket. A lot of people find this silly, while others can get behind it as a “good for the team” type of personnel move.

I, for one, cannot. Gasol has been placed on the bench in favor of Earl Clark, a 25-year-old journeyman who’s made seven three-pointers in his career and appears to have already reached the absolute peak of his basketball playing life. As a result, Gasol’s trade value has sunk to such sickly depths, that Sylvester Stallone has inquired about developing the situation into a 138 minute long feature film.

But with Gasol’s trade value floating in a toilet, and there only being one more year on his once-sizable contract, the timing might be right for Houston to strike a low-risk deal.

The Rockets could use a low-post scorer like Gasol, there’s no doubt. Either pairing him with Omer Asik or bringing Asik off the bench. The scenarios that could invigorate Gasol’s career in Houston are plentiful. And having an offensive presence like him on the court would lessen Harden’s insane amount of responsibility. Also, Lin would have a pick-and-roll partner who’s more than capable of knocking down a 16-footer, and the team’s depth would thicken considerably.

Right now Gasol’s averaging the fewest points per 36 minutes of his career, 3.1 fewer than last season (which until now was his career low). His rebounding numbers aren’t good by his standards, and the 15.5 PER would also be a career worst. (Wait, did I mention the 41.3% field goal percentage? Guess what that is? You got it…a career low!

On the other side, he’s only 32 years old, not 35 or 37 (Hi, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan), and when you watch him play, the fundamental ability is evident. It’s the energy, passion, and general willingness to try that’s lost. The Rockets love shooting three-pointers, and adding a big man of Gasol’s ability would only make attempting shots from behind the arc easier and more abundant.

 

2. Josh Smith

The rope that holds an imaginary anvil over Josh Smith’s imaginary market value stretches thinner and thinner each time he scrapes an arena’s ceiling with a crescent moon looking 20-footer. According to math, just over seven out of every 10 of these shots does not go through the hoop.

He’s cut down on the long-two volume, but Smith still attempts just under five shots from 10-23 feet per game. That number is gruesome.

But hey, nobody’s perfect. Nearly everything else about Smith’s game is desirable. And when you take into account his age (he’ll still be 27 on opening night next season), the thought of bringing him into the fold as a still-developing bundle of talent is intriguing.

If the Rockets wanted, they could deal for him before the deadline, examine how well he plays beside Harden, Lin, Asik, and Parsons (assuming none are included in the deal), then either let him walk or sign him long-term. Getting Smith would dramatically increase Houston’s odds at a playoff spot this season, and adding him to the rest of the team’s young core could be gold.

What’s great about this is the little risk on Houston’s end. If they don’t like what they see, Smith becomes a free agent over the summer, so by trading for him they wouldn’t be locking themselves into a long-term contract.

It depends on what they give up, as Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe pointed out last week. Why trade for Smith, and lose current assets/players/draft picks, when they can just pursue him over the summer as a free agent.

I believe trading for him is the wiser route to go down for two reasons: 1) Free agency is a gamble, and if the Rockets are serious about acquiring Smith, why risk him signing with another team in free agency? The Suns, Hawks, and Mavericks will also be vying for his services (especially if Smith’s interested in signing a one-year deal).

2) If they get him in a trade, the Rockets will have half a season (and possible a playoff series or two) to watch Smith mesh with Harden/Asik/Lin/Parsons. It won’t be a lot of time, but anything’s better than nothing.

To some degree, how Smith meshes is less relevant than how he fits into Houston’s offensive philosophy. Right now they love running, shooting threes, avoiding long twos, and attacking the rim. Smith is shooting 78% at the rim (up 10% from last season) but everywhere else his efficiency has been decrepit (you’re familiar with the shooting term 40/50/90? Smith is currently 31/44/52 after rounding up).

If he comes to Houston, will he finally stop aggravating the advanced stats community by launching those miserable jumpers? (The Rockets average 11 shots from 16-23 feet per game, good for lowest in the league.) Will he take even more three-pointers? Could he lead the league in blocks roaming the weak side while Asik locks down the paint? All questions are difficult to answer, but it’d be fun to have a look and see what happens.

 

1. Paul Millsap

Similar to Josh Smith, Paul Millsap is currently playing this season out on an expiring contract. And similar to Gasol, he’s primarily useful in the post. Millsap is strong down there, and one of the best in the league at darting to the block then quickly sealing off his defender directly beneath the rim.

Over a fifth of all his offensive possessions are utilized in post-up situations. And according to Synergy Sports, he’s the 35th most efficient player in the league when he gets there.

Millsap is a good fit for most of the same reasons as Smith: He’s entering his prime (28 years old when next season starts), and if acquired in a trade before the deadline would effectively serve the rest of this season as a catalyst that all but guarantees the Rockets a spot in the playoffs.

A few differences between Millsap and Smith: Millsap’s salary is lower ($8.6 million), making acquiring him easier (fewer pieces needed to go out). Also the Jazz have a lower need/want of re-signing him in the offseason thanks to their Derrick Favors/Enes Kanter duo, giving Houston more leverage in any deal. (What about Carlos Delfino, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Jones/Donatas Motiejunas/a future first round pick? Maybe it’s wishful thinking, especially when you consider Utah’s probable unwillingness to deal Millsap to a team that’s fighting them for a playoff spot.)

Also, what’s cool about Millsap is he’s shown some semblance of range! (Not really, but he’s currently 41.4% on threes and two years ago he went 3-3 from behind the arc in a 46 point effort against Miami. So, yea.). Can he replicate that sharp shooting in a system that encourages it, like Houston did with Patterson and Morris? That’s difficult to say, and shouldn’t be factored as a weighty reason to trade for him. But Millsap’s actual strengths (being physical, an above average defender, and nearly an All-Star caliber forward at times) are definitely intriguing. He’s far and away the best upgrade Houston can realistically make in these next few weeks.

Twitter: @MichaelVPina

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