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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Total comments: 12
  • Drew in Abilene says 1 YEAR ago I'd love to make the playoffs this year, and think we will, but if there were a small deal or two that could improve us long term, I'd love to see it happen. I know it's a long shot, and wouldn't want to bank on it, but I like the idea of being a prime destination for Free Agents in the next few years. If we've got the cap space and a team that's already threatening the top of the West, maybe we could snag one of the top FAs. Building for that future starts with a few more tweaks in the near term and more maturation and coalescing from our young core.
  • ale11 says 1 YEAR ago I vote for staying put. There's no rush, and the guys available (trade block or upcoming free agency) won't make us contenders. I'd like Morey to aim for 2014 free agency
  • ckingtcu says 1 YEAR ago Cooper- agreed that Favors is a better prospect than any of those Rockets. My point is that how many teams have good prospects AND cap space?? Not many. So options are limited.
  • ckingtcu says 1 YEAR ago I'd agree that the marginal improvement wouldn't be worth it... IF we were trying to contend this year. But we aren't. Toney Douglas has been great this year but he is on a contract year and the Rockets aren't expected to re-sign him and Patrick Beverley has proven to be a pretty decent backup PG. I think if the Rockets can trade Toney for a draft pick or a young asset they will do it even knowing that it might hurt their team for the rest of the season. Just like the entire purpose of the article, the Rockets arent trying to build an 8 seed, they are trying to build a legit contender.

    Note that all of this also applies to Cole Aldrich although obviously he doesn't play much. Expiring contracts are huge assets and the Rockets will probably try to use those.
  • Sir Thursday says 1 YEAR ago Unlike at previous deadlines, now seems like the right time to sit back and do nothing. The benefits of continuity probably outweigh the marginal improvement we could make by trading Toney Douglas for a 3-and-D guy or an aging 4.

  • Cooper says 1 YEAR ago Favors was/is a lot better prospect than anyone we have though.
  • feelingsupersonic says 1 YEAR ago Nice post ckingtcu, welcome to Red94.
  • ckingtcu says 1 YEAR ago I don't really see a blockbuster in the cards unless there is a Deron Williams-type unexpected availability of a superstar (Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge as mentioned would be ideal). I think Daryl will wait as long as possible to see if anything big materializes before moving to smaller deals such as shipping Toney Douglas (who has become expendable after the Beverley signing) off to a team that needs a PG and/or bench scoring (Boston? Atlanta?). In my opinion, there's no way Morey will make a deal with one of these studs with expiring contracts without knowing they will sign an extension (like Harden). With the addition of the Beard and other pieces, the Rockets are past their previous point of desparation when they would gamble on a star not knowing whether they could keep him.

    With all that being said, in a perfect scenario I think we'd see something like this:

    LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love for Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas, Cole Aldrich, Donatas Montiejunas and draft picks.

    Both of these deals would have the Rockets taking on ~$7 million in salary (most of their current cap space) while the Blazers/TWolves would get some expiring contracts (Douglas/Aldrich) and some young, controllable big men (2Pat/D-Mo). To be clear, I dont think the Blazers or TWolves would be getting enough value in these deals so it would take an organizational meltdown for either of these to happen but IF these players went on the block, there just aren't many teams that can put together young packages of players. Keep in mind that the Jazz traded D-Will for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two 1st rounders so this deal doesn't seem that far fetched. All four of the Rockets players listed were 1st round picks so there's talent here.
  • thejohnnygold says 1 YEAR ago Also, if we stand pat we will have the ability to "rent out" our cap space again next year and possibly snag a draft pick or two in the process. I believe with the new CBA running a successful team will require a model similar to the patriots in the NFL. Constantly reloading through the draft to build around your core. The only other alternative is to find a group of players willing to accept less $ to stay together and compete for championships....good luck with that!
  • Ostrow says 1 YEAR ago I wonder if Morey will be willing to sit tight for a couple of years. The guys on the market all have major flaws, the free agent class isn't great, but we have a ton of room. Maybe someone better will come on the market later and we'll be able to make a play at him.
  • rockets best fan says 1 YEAR ago I also would love nothing more than for us to stand pat thejohnnygold. unless someone better come onto the trade market the players available simply don't interest me enough to pursue them. our options will be better at years end.
  • thejohnnygold says 1 YEAR ago Yup. Odds are we sit tight. I think we'll make an offer at Millsap in the offseason, but nothing that kills our cap space. Josh Smith just doesn't fit Morey's philosophy. Low % shots and terrible at the free throw line. It actually speaks to how talented he is that he excels despite doing it the hard way. Reddick might be a nice fit next to Harden--at least offensively. His contract expires at season's end...if we sign him what is the price? He is currently making $6 million.

    Meh, Millsap is the only guy I like for Houston, but I think he will get bigger offers from elsewhere. I am happy to move forward and watch our guys develop.