What Do the Rockets Do Next?

After years of swelling, the wave finally crested and broke for the Houston Rockets. General Manager Daryl morey had claimed his two superstars, putting the Rockets in a position to fight for a championship once again. Dwight Howard and James Harden will be wearing the red and yellow for years to come. But once the relief and celebration wear off, an equally long road stretches out ahead of Houston. In the coming months and years, we can expect moves and tweaks to move the Rockets from second round locks to Finals contenders. The question, then, is what those moves might be.

Not coincidentally, the two players who present the greatest concern for the Rockets are Jeremy Lin and Ömer Aşık. Both were poached from their respective teams by way of a creative and underused proviso in the CBA: the “Gilbert Arenas” provision. Morey gave both players identical offer sheets, the aim being to scare Aşık’s Bulls and Lin’s Knicks into letting them walk instead of paying huge salaries in the contracts’ third and final years. Both offers were longshots, with the possibility of signing Lin seeming almost nonexistent. Somehow, Houston acquired both players, to varying reception.

These targets of opportunity were grabbed before the earth-shaking trade for james Harden, when Morey was in the “asset arbitrage” mode that Rahat Huq described here. Now that a core of two superstars is in place, team fit is more of a concern than potential, and Lin and Aşık present more questions than answers. The biggest question, of course, is “can he play alongside Harden and Howard?” The answer to this question will determine how long Aşık and Lin will live in Houston.

Aşık is easily the greater concern, being that his skill set is extremely similar to Dwight Howard’s, and in fact is good enough to deserve starter minutes himself. Reports have already surfaced that Aşık has requested a trade, which isn’t surprising. Playing both at the same time would create a veritable fortress under the basket on defense, but destroy any spacing on offense. With two players specializing in at-the-rim scoring and putbacks, perimeter attackers like Harden, Lin, and Chandler Parsons would find themselves in the teeth of lively help defense. What to do with Aşık then?

The best case scenario for Houston would be a trade for another star-caliber player. This is both the most desirable and least likely case for the Rockets, as other teams have little desire to more their star players. While a Kevin Love type player would be perfect, there’s no traction possible there. Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge must be on the Rockets’ radar, but is similarly unlikely to be moved. Unless he’s vehemently demanding a trade behind the scenes, Portland would be foolish to let him go for anything less than another star. Seeing Lin and Aşık (and more) leave for Portland would break the hearts of many in Houston, but the unlikely scenario of Harden, Howard and Aldridge on the same team would more than make up for it.

A much more realistic path is for the Rockets to bide their time. While Daryl Morey is known for his willingness to shatter rosters in the interest of team building, at times the best action can be inaction. This course fits with the reports thus far, that Houston has informed Aşık that they are unlikely to trade him for the time being. There are many questions about how a scoring point guard like Lin can work with Howard and Harden, and questions about Aşık have been raised above. The best way to answer those questions may simply be to try out the starting lineup as it stands. With most of the major free agents locked up already, a trade is the primary way for Houston to improve. Waiting to make a move has the advantage of letting Houston see what they have while still keeping options open. As another benefit, making a show of holding onto Aşık and Lin raises their trade value slightly, while a need to move a player before training camp puts pressure on the sellers rather than the buyers.

The last, and possibly most likely path is a trade for a starter-quality player such as Ryan Anderson. The Rockets are rumored to have interest in Anderson, and for good reason. While not possessing the star power of an Aldridge or Love, Anderson is a quality power forward with a laser-guided three point shot, exactly the type of player one wants next to Dwight Howard. There’s reason to believe they would work well together: they did it on the Orlando Magic. The major impediment to this move, or a move similar to it, is the interest of the other team. The Pelicans in particular seem to have no interest in Aşık. Other teams with quality stretch fours would need a desire for Aşık, unless a third team can be included. This complicates matters, but doesn’t make them impossible. Daryl Morey is never afraid to take his time brokering a deal, so don’t count such a move out until the trade deadline comes.

What makes this summer special for the Rockets is that they have the luxury of time. With a solid roster full of young players, Houston can afford to wait for the right deal, instead of simply trading up in talent at every opportunity. If Aşık and Lin must be moved for the good of the team, the front office can wait for a player who makes sense with the current roster. More importantly, Morey can use that luxury to force better deals. Waiting for the correct third team to facilitate or simply waiting out other GMs will be invaluable to Houston.

The Dwight Howard fireworks may be over, but the more subdued outdoor theater of Morey’s moves is only beginning. With quiet, solid signings like Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi under his belt, Daryl Morey has only begun act two of his real performance. The trades aren’t over in Houston, and the roster building will go on for years. Aşık and Lin may raise painful questions, but the Rockets aren’t prone to panic. The players will take their places by October, even if some of the faces are new.

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The Rockets Daily – July 8, 2013