Two nights ago, on the road and with their starting backcourt unavailable for duty, the Rockets defeated Oklahoma City—the team that most consider to be the Western Conference’s likely NBA Finals representative.
Inspecting it on a micro level, in the context of a single game, the win means very little. It’s one notch in the standings for a team that as of this moment probably has less than a 50% chance at making the postseason. But on the macro level, this win tells Daryl Morey (and, equally important, other general managers across the league) a bit about who this basketball team is right now. (For example: guys like Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, and Chandler Parsons are capable of competing in big minutes, in big spots, against big-time competition. Not to say they were terrible before, but this game was a different substance.)
Taking into account Houston’s recent past, their innovative and adventurous GM, whispers from national NBA reporters, and the general wide open field standing in their way, it’s more than likely that this team strikes a deal before the arrival of today’s trade deadline. And looking at the roster, it’d appear the Rockets are in a wonderful position to do so. Their depth is truly outstanding; even the players they don’t play could be viewed by a rival executive as having upside if brought to a new environment. All it takes is one believer. Daryl Morey has plenty of options. Let’s investigate why.
Courtney Lee/Kevin Martin: Whenever I think of Courtney Lee, the first thing that pops into my head is the fourth quarter eight-second violation he forced on Paul Pierce earlier this month. Giving up two or three inches and a career’s worth of end-game heroics to Boston’s future Hall of Famer, Lee was an underdog with unrelenting tenaciousness. For lack of a more descriptive word, the play was awesome.
Because this is already his third team, Lee’s four years in the league feel more like eight. He’s 26-years-old and has experience competing in the NBA Finals as a rookie. He doesn’t get nervous, he’s still improving, and whether there’s five minutes left in the second quarter or 15 seconds left in the fourth, he plays with the same attitude—all are precious qualities. Based on his rotation patterns, in the eyes of Kevin McHale—and other contenders who’ve been inquiring about Lee’s status—maybe he’s more valuable to this team than Kevin Martin. Heading into this season, Martin was Houston’s closest thing to an All-Star, but what is his value right now? If you place Kevin Martin on the table, what is it you’re getting back? The $13 million he’s owed next year is a bit gross, even though it’s expiring. I don’t see any team in the league willing to give up anything substantial for a one-dimensional, inconsistent shooting guard who’s spent his entire career in losing situation after losing situation. Maybe the Bulls would take a chance if they got desperate, but it’s too hard to see them sacrificing their defensive identity for a secondary scoring option before 3 pm to sacrifice their defensive identity. (Also, they don’t want Martin, they want Lee.)
Goran Dragic/Kyle Lowry: I love everything about Goran Dragic. EVERYTHING. He’s a physical, savvy, fearless point guard who attacks the basket, sets up teammates, and defends on each play as if an explosive device would detonate in his shoe if he were to stop moving for two seconds. If he played 35 minutes a night, there’s a good chance he’d be one of the 15 best point guards in the league. (I’d take him over Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, Jason Kidd, Jeff Teague, and Mario Chalmers, to name a few.)
Having a talent like Dragic on the roster lessens the pain that’d come with moving Kyle Lowry (the team’s most valuable player/asset)—if they happened to do this, signing resigning Dragic would be a priority—and allows the team flexibility to grab a serious piece like Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. For the record, as much as I like both Lowry and his contract, this would totally be worth it. If they were to acquire Howard, the path moving forward would obviously be to do as well as possible for the rest of this season, get into the playoffs, make some serious noise, and then do their best to convince Howard that Houston is a perfect place to spend his prime.
If Morey were to keep Lowry in the face of renting Howard, it wouldn’t make much sense. The entire point of going after young players with sexy upside is to get the general managers who possess superstars to bite. Morey has done an admirable job filling his roster with attractive assets, and when it’s time to strike he can’t afford to miss the opportunity. Lowry is dynamic and a walking triple double, but he’ll never be the “franchise player” Howard is. If they were to give up Lowry for Howard, only to watch him walk at the end of the season, the team’s future wouldn’t be as awful as it sounds. Houston would go through one or two difficult seasons (with serious cap space after using their amnesty on Scola or Martin) and have young international prospects like Sergio Llull and Donatas Motiejunas (more on them later) to play around with, along with a couple lottery picks, hopefully. The team will have bottomed out without losing any fans; people will blame Dwight Howard for choosing to leave, not Houston’s management for being unable to keep him. In this situation, the Rockets could place themselves in position to rebuild along a different strategy: through the draft with in-house player development.
(If by the time this column is published, Howard decides to go back on his word one more time, insert Deron Williams wherever it says Dwight Howard.)
Hasheem Thabeet/Chase Budinger/Terrence Williams/Jonny Flynn: All four of these guys are more “asset” than critical piece for the future. One has proven he can start on a pretty good team, adapt his game to fit with any system, and exist as a dependable rotation player (Chase Budinger), two guys have physical traits that other teams could try to take advantage of (Terrence Williams and Hasheem Thabeet), and one guy who’s yet to find any semblance of success, yet is reportedly drawing interest from both San Antonio and Cleveland (Jonny Flynn). Overall, Budinger is the one guy here you’d like to see stay put, but he’s also the only one who could bring something back in return. If any of the others can be flipped in a package that brings back real-life production or a useful draft pick, it’d be a minor miracle.
Luis Scola/Patrick Patterson/Marcus Morris: For all the people who speak negatively about Luis Scola’s game, and how it seems to have fallen off a cliff, please take a deep breath. Nobody does more with less. Nobody. If money were not an issue, I’d still take Scola’s tough, crafty skill set over most power forwards in the league, but alas, this is the real world, and money is in fact a big deal. We’ve talked all year about Patrick Patterson, and how his basic value lies not only in his youth and stocky build, but in his ability to hopefully one day replicate (or come close to replicating) Scola’s production at a much cheaper cost. Just like Dragic with Lowry and Lee with Martin, Patterson symbolizes protection for Houston should they choose to deal one of their core three players. As for Marcus Morris, out of all the players on this team who possess potential, this guy is the most promising, in my opinion.
Donatas Motiejunas/Sergio Llull: The two combine for 0 minutes of total NBA experience, yet they’re the aces in Daryl Morey’s pocket—whether he projects them to contribute in the future or believes he can sell high on an unknown product. Motiejunas and Llull aren’t on Houston’s roster at the moment, but they exist as two mysterious entities—a couple of safety blankets—both at this trade deadline and next year’s as well.