Reading the Trade Deadline Tea Leaves

With the trade deadline sneaking up right behind All-Star weekend, trade rumors continue to swirl. But while the conversation centers on who and where, why is just as important to ask. The Rockets are certain to make a move at the deadline, as they have every deadline under General Manager Daryl Morey’s stewardship. What exactly that trade is speaks to the plans for the future of the team.

It’s no secret that Morey and the Rockets are looking for a second All-Star caliber player. James Harden has shown that he has the capacity to lead a team, and the Rockets looks poised to participate in the playoffs for the first time in four years. The playoffs, however, were never the goal; the only thing that matters to the Rockets organization, from owner Les Alexander on down, is positioning themselves to win championships. Morey feels confident the Rockets still need another All-Star; the question now is how he’ll get one.

The Rockets got Harden through a trade, so why not the next star? The Rockets put themselves in a very favorable situation to make such a trade: Houston holds seven million dollars in cap room, making a trade for even extremely highly paid players a possibility. If the Rockets acquire an all-star caliber player at the deadline, most likely the core will be set. The problem with this scenario is that trading for such a player this year seems an unlikely proposition. The two best fits for Houston at their position of need, the power forward, are extremely unlikely to move. Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge would fit perfectly the the Rockets’ youth and style, but are too lofty of goals for the Rockets to acquire. Unless a catastrophic meltdown is happening, unreported, in one of those locker rooms, those players won’t go anywhere, much less Houston.

The next class of players involves forwards like Josh Smith and Paul Millsap. Either would be a good fit for Houston, though obviously not as desirable as the previous set. While both are reportedly on the trade block, their own availability raises questions. Both players are on expiring contracts, set to explore the free agency market this summer. The fact that both, especially Millsap, look very likely to leave their cities means their teams will need to extract whatever value they can.

This also means the Rockets have to think about what they want to give up for an extra few months of a player’s time. Houston not only has cap room this year, but can decline options on a few contracts to make a bit more room in the off-season. Even without trading away assets, the Rockets can approach forty million in salary, leaving them with somewhere in the $15m range in cap space. Of course, the knowledge that a Smith or a Millsap could simply walk into that spot in Houston’s roster could force down their trade value, which would be good for Houston’s somewhat thinned trade assets.

Of course, the Rockets might not acquire this player at the trade deadline. If free agency looks more tempting, expect the Rockets to make moves to be active during the summer. If Houston plans on letting their expiring or non-guaranteed contracts go anyway, they may try to get value out of them today and cap space tomorrow. Morey has commented that second round draft picks are the most undervalued asset in the NBA, and plenty of teams could use some of Houston’s role players. If Houston takes back primarily expiring money and draft picks, expect a huge free agency splash.

Of course, the movement of the team could be even more steady; another year may give Houston another bench tweak. Morey is never satisfied with the bench, and even when the team is set, his front office will make trades to better complement the stars. A move like this may signify a large degree of confidence in the team as constructed, or may simply be a precursor to a longer game.

The Rockets might also position themselves to compete in free agencies a few years down the line, like a 2014 set which could include Lebron James, or a 2015 set which could involve Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Rockets’ core players are young enough to make a long play viable, though not necessarily desirable. Players like Pau Gasol, with contracts expiring during that period, but liable to give quality play, would be very tempting for Houston if the plan is to make a run a couple years down the line when most big market teams are still locked in to their salary.

It’s possible to see what plans the Rockets have by when moves they make at the deadline. While the Rockets organization would obviously rather get their long term plans set this month, reality decrees this may not be the case, and it may be confusing or quiet trade deadline in Houston. Or the Rockets might confuse the world by trading for Dwight Howard out of nowhere. One always has to expect the unexpected from Daryl Morey.

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