The last three years have been a torturous Groundhog’s Day for fans of the Houston Rockets. Where we currently stand as another season has come and gone, two (or one) more marginal difference makers are scheduled to join the squad after this month’s NBA draft. Last year, Houston begrudgingly accepted the 14th pick. The year before that? The 14th pick. This year they have the 14th and 16th selections.
The overwhelming emotion for anyone who watches this team on a regular basis is frustration. The Rockets aren’t stumbling, they aren’t bursting forward into a hopeful future, and they aren’t making noticeable changes. Despite a slew of trade deadline deals—not including a blockbuster preseason trade that was aborted by the league—and a shrewd draft pick, the end result for this team is dangerous preservation. When patience hits a brick wall, excuses aren’t tolerated. The only question worth asking is “How do we get better?”
The trade to acquire Pau Gasol was proof that the team knows drastic change is necessary. I’m not blaming anybody in the front office, but still, it’s hard to argue with a concrete conclusion: This team today is as good/bad as it was in 2011. And when you change your coach, kinda sorta replacing the final year of Yao Ming’s contract by paying Marcus Camby and Sam Dalembert, and STILL don’t make the playoffs, the flashing siren of judgment must go off.
Each year, sports fans head into their team’s offseason with curiosity. It’s the one unique quality that unites optimists and pessimists; we all want to know what changes will be made, which free agents will be let go, how they’ll be replaced, what’s going to happen on draft night, which young players will take a next step forward, etc. For the Rockets, the future doesn’t look bright, and it doesn’t look dreary. It looks intriguing. Houston finished the 2012 regular season with the 23rd highest payroll in the league, book ended by Indiana and Milwaukee. This summer about a third of the total due dollars will be erased from the book, meaning options are abound. Many decisions can be made, and in multiple ways, the deals that do and don’t get done could determine what path this team sets itself on for the next 5-10 years.
What Daryl Morey did wasn’t easy. By naturally blowing the team up while still keeping everything competitive, he created one of the most flexible situations in the league, and with assets to trade and two first round draft picks in the fold (not to mention Dallas’ first rounder that’s top 20 protected this season but can still be moved, plus a couple European prospects who’ve shown serious ability overseas), Morey finds himself in the driver’s seat to reconfigure his current nucleus on the fly, all while staying competitive. Despite the indisputable stagnancy this team put on display these last two seasons, something tells me things will look a lot different in a couple months.
I’ve spent my past few days tinkering with ESPN’s Trade Machine and absorbing every decent rumor floating around the league. It’s left me with two hypothetical deals that would be pretty good on their own, and devastatingly awesome if put together. Neither by itself makes them an instantaneous title contender, but at the very least they’d be climbing, and that’s more than you can say for what they’re doing now. In the NBA, as in any other industry, to stand still is death. The Rockets are trying to adapt, but for all their effort, the final result is a team trudging through mud. Here are two realistic trades that will lurch them in the right direction. The first will arrive today, and the second one will be posted tomorrow.
The first trade I believe to be a logical one for all participating parties was berthed by this report. The Rockets trade Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, and either the 14th or 16th overall pick to Memphis for Rudy Gay.
Why would Memphis do it: Memphis is a small market team with almost all of its current financial resources tied into four players: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay. And they just lost in the first round. This means somebody’s gotta go. Gay has about $53.7MM remaining on his contract, which includes two guaranteed seasons and a player option for 2015. He’s the priciest piece, and was arguably the least impressive of the four in that seven game series against the Clippers. Moving him forces the Grizzlies to revert back to what made them successful in 2011: an inside-out offense. Replacing Gay with someone who’s more comfortable knocking down three-pointers (Kevin Martin) would really open up this offense and allow the two big guys down low more room to operate. Also, Martin’s contract is up after this year, giving the team some much needed financial flexibility, and the addition of Chandler Parsons creates what might possibly be the greatest backcourt/small forward defensive tandem in the entire NBA (Conley, Tony Allen, and Parsons).
Why would Houston do it: Since Tracy McGrady left town, the Rockets have not had a player who can consistently create for himself off the dribble. When people talk about the need for a superstar, what they sort of mean is this type of player. That guy who you can throw the ball to “in case of emergency”—with the shot clock winding down, if a play breaks down, or if the game’s on the line—and tell him to put the ball in the basket or draw two defenders and find a wide open shooter. Last year we saw Houston explore several different options at the end of tight games. One of them was a second round draft pick. (Nothing against Parsons, but to place him in a significant role like that one isn’t fair to anybody.)
Gay is an improving player, with the type of body and athleticism that makes him a serious threat on both ends of the court. He isn’t a franchise savior, but he isn’t dirt, either. Gay is one of the 30 best players in the league, and would certainly have value as a secondary option on a champion. He’s entering his prime with sky-touching capabilities.
Should they stand pat and do nothing else before the draft, by taking Gay and giving up either the 16th or 14th pick, Houston can still grab a talented player capable of contributing right away. Someone like Austin Rivers (a younger, cheaper replacement for Courtney Lee), or Kendall Marshall (someone who can immediately slide into the back up point guard spot and ease the loss of either Kyle Lowry or Goran Dragic).
Gay is overpaid, but not to the point where his contract can kill a team’s cap space. Symbolically, he’s money worth spending, a representation of positive movement and focused direction. He may not be a “superstar” right now—even though at 26-years-old, after a summer working out with Team USA, he’ll be entering a possibly brilliant prime—but acquiring him gives the Houston Rockets both an on and off the court identity; their first since Yao Ming’s heyday. As we’re seeing take place with Oklahoma City right now, grabbing Gay by himself clearly isn’t enough offensive firepower (his skill and value might not reach what any of that team’s best three players currently bring to the table), but it’s one of the necessary pieces. The buzz he’d bring is worth much more than the motionless outcomes that have depressed this franchise’s once lofty expectations.
Best case scenario: Rudy Gay makes the jump, becomes a transcendent athlete over these next three years, and makes the All-Star team and third team (at least) All-NBA group for the next three years. He regularly draws double teams, recruits free agents to join him, and makes the Houston Rockets relevant once again.
Worst case scenario: Rudy Gay routinely chugs along as a 20-point scorer who pleases the home crowd with the occasional jaw-meet-floor slam dunk, but is never surrounded with complementary pieces (namely, one better than he), and in three years would rather opt out of contract than face another season missing the playoffs.
Look the second part of this article tomorrow.