USA Today reports that GM Daryl Morey has been stockpiling picks for a potential run at Howard.
The Rockets headed into the week with the 14th and 16th picks in the upcoming draft. Since then, they have sent Chase Budinger to Minnesota for the 18th pick and traded the 14th pick and Samuel Dalembert to the Bucks for the 12th pick, Shaun Livingston, Jon Brockman, and Jon Leuer.
With the 12th, 16th, and 18th picks in their possession, the Rockets now look to trade up for multiple picks in the top ten, which they would then package to Orlando for Howard.
The impetus to try to turn many lower picks into a couple higher ones is the right idea. Although Houston ended up missing the playoffs last season, depth was not the issue, but talent. One or two star-caliber players would make much more of an impact than three role players would.
However, the maneuvering necessary to get Howard is more than the Rockets can afford.
They have had a void at center since the end of the Yao Ming era, but Morey should not create more holes on the roster in order to fill it.
The news on Houston's negotiations with the Kings has not been promising. According to CBS Sports, the Rockets offered Sacramento the 16th pick and Kyle Lowry for the fifth pick and Chuck Hayes, but the Kings turned it down.
If the Rockets are committed to a move for Howard, they cannot afford to give up much more in a deal with Sacramento.
ESPN had already assumed Lowry was earmarked in a deal to Toronto to trade up for the eighth pick. With Lowry in the Kings' trade talks, Houston must be shopping the 12th and 18th picks in a different deal.
What this means is that Morey has no more first-rounders in 2012 to sweeten the deal for Sacramento. The alternatives would be to cede a future first-rounder or to throw in a talented young player like Chandler Parsons.
Either way, Houston would be sacrificing both the present and future just for the privilege of trying to get Howard.
Even if Morey had been able to complete his ideal trades, swapping Lowry and his three picks for the fifth and eighth selections, it likely would not have been enough to convince the Magic to give up Howard.
Bill Ingram of Hoopsworld believes that in order to get Howard, the Rockets' package would have to include not only the two picks, but Kevin Martin as well. Rant Sports is backing up Ingram's speculation, reporting that Martin is unlikely to re-sign for Houston next offseason and is now a trade chip.
However, including Martin in the deal would leave Houston's cupboards bare upon Howard's arrival.
The remaining players of merit under contract for next season would be Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, and Parsons. Perhaps we could throw in Marcus Morris, but that would really stretch the definition of the word "merit," though it would show just how depleted the roster would be.
Ingram does have a solution, though. With the Rockets' copious cap space following Martin's departure, they would be able to make a run at Deron Williams in free agency.
Unfortunately, that is a pipe dream. Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick doubts Williams will consider Houston under any circumstances, even if Howard is there. This idea is a dead end.
So what Houston would have going forward is Howard, a thin group of reinforcements, and no picks from the strong 2012 draft. Given the likelihood Morey would have to dip into future picks and that meager supporting cast to get the deal done, acquiring Howard would amount to imploding the Rockets.
For a guy who has not expressed interest in re-signing with Houston, it's just not worth it.
What should the Rockets do with their first round picks?
On the other hand, the efforts to trade into the top ten are still worth pursuing.
Lowry is disenchanted with the Rockets and will be moved regardless, so the prospective trades would essentially amount to turning their three first-round selections into the fifth and eighth selections. Even if Morey had to give up a future first in order to make it work, the payoff at the top of this year's draft would be worth his while.
Prior to the Howard rumors, ESPN had originally pegged Houston's transactions as a play for a different athletic center, Andre Drummond.
Though he has considerable bust potential associated with him, Hoopsworld puts Drummond's ceiling on Howard's level. For a big man with raw technique, there would be no better situation for Drummond to learn the craft than under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
In his latest mock draft, Chad Ford predicts Houston will first pick the best big man available, then turn their attention towards high-upside wings. If Ford is correct, Morey would be ecstatic to have the Raptors' pick, as ESPN's draft analyst has Harrison Barnes falling out of the top five to the eighth pick.
Conventional wisdom dictates that if Barnes falls to eighth, the Raptors would be less likely to trade down with Houston. In this scenario, fortunately, the Rockets do not need to move up.
With Drummond already in hand, Morey could stand pat and take a guy like Moe Harkless or Perry Jones with the 12th pick. He could then either use the 18th on point-guard depth or trade it for a first-rounder in 2013, refilling the coffers for the future.
On draft night, Dwight Howard will be the best player Houston could get, and it's not even close. But the Rockets don't have to blow up their team to get him. If Morey keeps Martin and shoots for Drummond, he will improve his team's prospects in both the short and long term.