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Why Houston won the Thomas Robinson trade

In the moments before last night’s thrilling victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, climactic word began to seep through the internet that the Houston Rockets had unsurprisingly become one of trading season’s first participants. It started with word that Marcus Morris was inactive; when Kevin McHale was questioned by the local media about it, he quipped “ask Daryl.”

Then, as he’s prone to do, Yahoo! Sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski began to obliterate Twitter with a stream of bomb shells. By the time the dust had settled, word had spread that the Rockets sent Morris to Phoenix in exchange for a 2013 second round pick.

But that wasn’t all. A much more significant deal with Sacramento had also gone down. Somehow, someway, the Rockets had acquired reigning No. 5 overall pick Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia, and Tyler Honeycutt for Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas and $1 million in cash.

First reactions to the deal were a healthy mixture of shock, excitement, and awe (throw in some guilt, too, depending on how bad you feel for loyal basketball fans in Sacramento). Seriously, how did/does Daryl Morey do it? This was an absolute clinic on dealing with rookie contracts, and once again he proved to be the best in the business at weighing value and getting maximum return on a prior investment that’s grown stale.

Patterson is a stable power forward nearing the end of his rookie deal. For a contending team, he isn’t worth anything more than the $3.1 million due next season. After that, the options are either to pay Patterson more than you’d like as he enters free agency, or package him in a deal and get something for nothing. (The earlier this is done, the better, as teams won’t be willing to relinquish much for a player in that situation unless they’re seriously interested in keeping him long term.)

Nothing against Patterson (or Morris for that matter, who for argument’s sake is a carbon copy except with an additional year on his deal) but he isn’t talented enough to be included in any trade that’d bring back an All-Star caliber player. He’s a below average rebounder who can’t get to the free-throw line; not the best combination for any 6’9″ power forward.

Patterson is a hard worker, and his renovated jump shot is proof, but his ceiling is only so high. Morey recognized this, and cashed out, grabbing a younger version of Patterson/Morris who possesses all the upside in the world—and happens to be on the first year of his rookie deal. The game is a never ending carousel, and sometimes it feels like Daryl Morey is the operator.

Of the seven players that were moved between Phoenix, Houston, and Sacramento, is Thomas Robinson the best? Obviously that remains to be seen. But what we can say definitively is that at this moment he’s far and away the most valuable asset. Compounding Robinson with the second round pick acquired from Phoenix (if the Rockets make the playoffs this season their only draft pick goes to Atlanta) gives Morey something to play with should he be interested in making another move before the deadline.

There’s only so much you can seek on the trade market while dangling a player like Patterson, who’s up for a pay increase sooner than later. But Thomas Robinson is an unknown variable; a freak who might have just enough athletic upside to convince either Utah or Atlanta that sending Paul Millsap/Josh Smith to Houston is the smartest option.

We’ll know soon enough if Morey flips Robinson for an immediate impact player, or holds onto him until the summer, when teams with more to offer might have their interests piqued.

Does this move on its own make the Rockets a better team tomorrow? We’ll get to that later. But what it does do is give them tons of flexibility moving forward, and if the end game is to win a championship at some point during James Harden’s prime, this deal was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

The Dwight Howard Factor

Now that the Rockets have that first superstar capable of leading them to the playoffs, their next move is to grab another one so that championship contention can become more than hypothetical scuttlebutt.

Free-agent-to-be Dwight Howard is the player Daryl Morey covets the most, and what these two deals did—as tweeted by Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe—was cut Houston’s salary by $1.6 million next season, which should allow them enough space to fit Howard in for a max deal.

Right now the chances of actually landing the Lakers center are slim, but Morey’s move here keeps the possibility of it happening alive and well. Thumbs up for that.

Can Houston Still Make The Playoffs?

We’ll start answering this question by taking a quick peek at the incoming players, then assessing those that were lost. An intriguing piece is Francisco Garcia, a 6’7″ guard who’s played his whole career in a Kings jersey (six playoff games!). At one point he was strictly known for his contract; an overpaid disappointment. But Garcia can shoot. And in Houston, that’s smiled upon.

He’s a career 36% shooter from behind the three-point line, and on 5.5 attempts per 36 minutes this season he’s just under 37%. Similar to Carlos Delfino, Garcia may quickly find fruitful opportunity in Houston’s uptempo system.

To be honest, I don’t know much about Tyler Honeycutt, but that’s probably because he’s played 120 minutes in a two season career.

Now onto the departed: Toney Douglas has been fantastic in spurts this season, but he began losing a good chunk of playing time to Patrick Beverley in recent weeks. So his loss shouln’t be deemed too significant.

Parting ways with Patterson and Morris was much more interesting. I expected one of them to go, but both was a bit of a shock. While each played a significant role trading spots as the starting power forward this season, neither was a long term solution, and behind them on the depth chart sits Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, and, hopefully, Royce White. Throw Thomas Robinson into the mix, the best rebounder of the lot, and what the Rockets might have is addition by subtraction as they fight for one of the Western Conference’s final two/three playoff spots.

Even if this goes down as the final bit of action Houston takes part in until after the season, all in all this was a brilliant trade. They’re still an extremely young team, but their core talent remains stable (perhaps even strengthened by an influx of even more athleticism). This trade might not make the Rockets a better basketball team tomorrow, but by no means does it decrease their chances at qualifying for the playoffs.

Twitter: @MichaelVPina

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