With two days left until the draft, it’s hard not to speculate about the endless possibilities of the Rockets’ roster.
This time last season, Rockets’ fans were dreaming of Chris Bosh dawning Rockets’ red, and while that’s a distant memory (and a bitter one), that doesn’t prevent Red Nation from dreaming of Enes Kanter, Josh Smith or Dwight Howard (for the truly naive fans). In honor of the draft, the ultimate gamble in sports, here are five winning hands Daryl Morey could deal this franchise…
THE STRAIGHT FLUSH
As the straight flush is a nearly unbeatable hand in poker (though not the best), the Rockets are not realistically going to acquire a superstar, but could still land a big name player with the right trade. Ideally, the best case scenario would be Hawks PF Josh Smith, who allegedly listed Houston as a potential landing spot should he be dealt.
Yes, I’m aware he is a power forward (he doesn’t have the range offensively to play the 3 and he’s more effective defensively prowling the paint), easily the Rockets’ deepest position. But Houston’s three biggest weaknesses are easily size, defense and athleticism. J-Smoove addresses all three.
Power forward may be a strength, but Smith would be a monster in transition with Lowry and Martin on the floor, and I’m sure Houston could find some takers for Scola, Patterson or Hill if they need to make room on the depth chart. The Hawks are likely to deal him to a team with a center so that they can slide Horford to the 4, but perhaps they would be willing to take a deal centered around Scola? Or maybe they’d do it for something involving a sign and trade with Yao or a collection of young players like Patterson, Buddinger and Lee.
There may not be a “home run” type deal this offseason for Morey, but this is as close as he’s going to get. Other potential big name players on the block include Andre Iguodala, Javale McGee, Chris Kaman and (gasp) Greg Oden. All would help Houston, but Smith seems the most likely and I think he makes the biggest immediate impact.
THE FULL HOUSE
If Houston is unable to trade for players of Smith or Iguodala’s caliber, there are a handful of quality free agents that would be instant upgrades.
The three best players available at the 3 and 5 are centers DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol and small forward Wilson Chandler. Jordan, a native Houstonian, is an A&M graduate who thrived last year with Kaman injured and Blake Griffin dominating the league. He’s not brilliant offensively, but he’s a freak athlete who can dunk with the best of them and was sixth in the league in blocks per 48 minutes last season. Gasol is the player most likely to receive a huge payday in the offseason, as he outshined his older brother in the playoffs and played as well as any big in the league. He’s not as young or athletic as Jordan, but he’s a savvy scorer in the post and above average defensively.
Chandler, a lengthy wing player at 6’8”, is the two way player the Rockets lack from their wings and is 10 times the defender that Bud is. Unfortunately for the Rockets, these three players are all restricted free agents, and it’s unlikely their teams will let them walk.
Two other players who address the Rockets’ biggest areas of need are Thaddeus Young and Samuel Dalembert. Dalembert unrestricted, but is essentially an average center with above average defensive skills on the boards and blocking shots, but fouls a ton and is about as useful offensively as Chuck Hayes. Young is a tweener without much range on his shot, but he can score in the paint and is a solid rebounder. Thad is restricted, but I’d say Philly is less likely to sign him than Denver is to sign Chandler.
Neither player blows you away, but both would address Houston’s areas of need and could probably be signed for reasonable deals. Other players the Rockets should consider are Tyson Chandler (likely to resign with Dallas), Nene Hilario (likely to resign with Denver or get dealt), Andrei Kirilenko and Tayshaun Prince.
Not nearly as reliable as the straight flush or the full house, you can still feel pretty confident about a straight, similar to a high draft pick. In this scenario, Houston would use its assets to move up in the draft and more talented players than those at 14 and 23. Minnesota (2), Cleveland (1 and 4), Sacramento (7), Detroit (8) and Milwaukee (10) have all been rumored to be shopping their picks and it’s likely the other top 10 teams are doing the same.
With PG the only position Houston should feel relatively comfortable about (crossing my finger’s about Lowry’s post-All Star breakout), I see no reason why Morey would move all his assets to acquire Irving. I’m also not crazy about Derrick Williams because he’s a tweener and I question his range and effectiveness as a SF in the NBA. (That and I think he has “Evan Turner” written all over him.) The players Houston should be targeting in the 2-10 range are: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Kawhi Leonard, Tristan Thompson and Bismack Biyombo. Kanter is only 19, but he may be the most physically ready of the bunch and he could step into Houston’s lineup tomorrow and immediately be their best option at center. Valanciunas (also 19) certainly has the higher upside of the two, but he’s the bigger gamble.
It’s been reported that Valanciunas’ buy out would not allow him to play in the NBA next season. If that’s the case, he could fall all the way to 14, where Daryl Morey would be more than happy to steal him.
Thompson may be the most skilled post player in this draft, and I think he’s being underrated because he’s a bit undersized at the 4, but he has too much LeMarcus Aldridge in him for me to ignore his talents. On the flip Biyombo has little offensive skill and relies mostly on his athleticism in the paint, but he’s got good size for a 4 and could be an elite defensive player from day one. Both are wild cards who could go in the top 10 or slip to the teens.
Leonard may not fill the Rockets need for a defensive presence in the paint, but he is an extremely talented SF whose athleticism could eventually make him a decent player on both ends of the court. I’m not as high on Jan Vesely or Derrick Williams, and I think Leonard would be the easiest to acquire, somewhere in the 6-8 range.
Even if the Rockets have to move some of their own players (with the exception of Lowry or Martin), I’d say do it if the player is a better long term solution.
THREE OF A KIND
Three of a kind can be a solid hand if you get lucky, and if the Rockets stay put in the draft, they’ll similarly have a chance with three picks in this draft. At 14, there’s a chance Valanciunas, Biyombo or Thompson could fall. At that spot, Alec Burks, Chris Singleton, Donatas Motiejunas and Jordan Hamilton also make a lot of sense.
At 23, Motiejunas or Hamilton could still be there, while centers Nikola Vucevic and Jeremy Tyler or wings Tobias Harris or Tyler Honeycutt would be solid options. Everyone talks about how poor this draft is, but it is surprisingly deep in terms of talented players who could still be decent NBA players in the late first, early second range. There should be a lot of talentwhere Houston picks in the early second, at No. 38. That’s a range where Morey has been incredibly effective in the past, with steals like Budinger and Brooks.
Chad Ford’s latest mock on ESPN has the Rockets taking Valanciuanas at 14, Motiejunas at 23 and PG Darius Morris at 38. That would be like having pocket aces and hitting a third ace on the river. That being said, maybe all the players they’re targeting are gone before their selections or perhaps they swing and miss with their picks and end up misreading the talent. That’s the equivalent of having three twos and knowing the guy sitting next to you has a flush.
ALL IN AND WAITING FOR A FLUSH ON THE RIVER
It’s possible that Houston keeps their assets or trades them for picks in next year’s draft, biding their time for something bigger. One scenario that is hard to ignore is the possibility of signing or trading for Dwight Howard. If you’re a Houston sports talk radio junky like myself, it’s impossible to go a day without some delusional Rockets’ fan calling in with the inevitable “they need to trade for Dwight Howard” comment.
So why not do it?
Because it’s easier said than done. Morey has swung and missed now on Bosh and Melo, as well as Stoudemire and Gerald Wallace, to a lesser extent. That’s not to say Howard would have no interest playing here whatsoever, but if you’re one of the best players in the league and you could play in Houston with Lowry and Martin or in LA with Kobe freakin’ Bryant and the glory of the Laker franchise, you’d pick the Lakers and you wouldn’t think twice about it.
That’s not to say that Houston can never become a landing spot for elite free agents in the future, but they have to build a contender before they’re taken seriously by the rest of the league. If they go all in with Dwight Howard, I think we’ll all be disappointed when the dealer doesn’t turn over that fifth heart. (Yeah the analogy is getting old, but I’m riding this one out.)
It’s also a possibility that Morey could see the talent in next year’s draft and trade assets to gain more chances for that potential superstar. But there’s still no guarantee of a top pick with the lottery system and there’s no telling which players will stay in school and which will opt for the draft. And by trading this year’s draft for next, you’re setting the entire franchise back a year. For a GM looking to prove the validity of the moniker “in Morey we trust,” the sooner he makes a move, the better.