This makes the NBA a league of "haves" and "have nots." Either you have one of those elite players, or you do not.
For teams with those special players, they need only to surround that player with the right parts to win a title. For those teams without a superstar level player, they must do all they can to get one. Teams in this latter group have three ways to make this happen:
1. Obtain a top pick in the right draft class (this is almost always a Top 6 pick, but if the class is as bad as 2000's, no pick will save your franchise).
2. Accumulate cap space and attempt to woo a superstar in free agency (See Miami in 2010 and Lakers in 1996, and 2000 Magic as a case for failure).
3. Trade for a superstar, either through accumulation of desirable assets and/or a disgruntled superstar wanting out of his current situation (see Kareem to LA in '75, Kevin Garnett to BOS in '07, Shaq to Miami in '04, etc.).
The Rockets find themselves in a position to exercise that third method to acquire the best center in the NBA. If it works out, they have that elite player who makes their team matter. If it does not work out, the Rockets will find the first method available to them. Both scenarios are better than their current one.
Going into this offseason, the Rockets found themselves occupying the worst tier a team can in the NBA. The Rockets stood as a team full of good (not great) players. Without that elite talent, they would have remained good enough to make the playoffs (seventh or eighth seed) or just miss the playoffs (high lottery pick).
How many players drafted later than the sixth pick in the draft have led their team to a title after 1980? Three. Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki. However, each of these turned out to be historical anomalies. Let me explain.
ABA draft rules made him eligible to play straight out of high school, and the Utah Stars drafted him in the third round (27th overall). Moses had already signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Maryland, but the ABA offer blew him away.
Not exactly the greatest talent evaluators, ABA teams looked at marketing potential more than basketball ability in order to compete with the NBA's popularity. If the NBA has a rival league that accepts high school kids and looks to draft style over substance, then we might see another superstar like Moses Malone go that late in a draft.
Kobe Bryant's timing caused him to not get drafted in the Top 6. In 2000, Darius Miller went No. 3 overall and did not belong in the same conversation as '96 Kobe. Really, Bryant changed and hurt the NBA because he showed the NBA that a guard coming out of high school could have success (leading to NBA teams investing way too much in immature high school kids like Miles).
Before, NBA team saw only high school big men as worth top picks (Darryl Dawkins and Kevin Garnett). Had there been one successful high school guard draftee, Kobe Bryant probably goes in the Top 6 (no way he goes ahead of Iverson or Camby, though). Seeing how the NBA has no problems drafting hyper-athletic guards after one year in college, I doubt we will see a prospect as talented as Bryant go that late.
Like Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki's timing hurt his draft positioning. Before 1998, drafting foreign players, who did not play college basketball in the United States, almost never happened. Concerning players that mattered, the list includes Drazen Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis (Manute Bol was fun, but would have never been a contributor on a championship team).
Due to his desire/ability to come to the NBA immediately (unlike Petrovic or Sabonis) Nowitzki got drafted ninth overall. The Milwaukee Bucks then shipped him to the Dallas Mavericks for Robert "Tractor" Traylor. In 2001, Pau Gasol went third overall, which happened right after Dirk Nowitzki's breakout third season.
It is hard to believe that Nowitzki's success did not quell the fears GMs may have had about drafting internationally. The last 11 drafts have shown that GMs do not get paralyzed with fear at the thought of drafting internationally. In fact, some are willing to draft and stash with high potential players taken with top picks (see Jonas Valanciunas). The odds of an international player that skilled, that young getting drafted outside of the Top 6?
You get the idea.
After making that right turn at Albuquerque, let us return to the Houston Rockets. The only way they can have the potential to win a title requires the Rockets to either become a bad team or acquire a superstar. Rockets GM Daryl Morey can use all the analytics he wants, but franchise-changers are not diamonds in the rough. They are diamonds in the jewelry shop showcase window. Therefore, Morey must do all he can to bring Dwight to Houston.
The Rockets are rumored to have amnestied Luis Scola (h/t ESPN). Most expect the Knicks to match the offer sheet Houston gave to Jeremy Lin. Even if the Bulls do not match, Omer Asik is only a $5 million cap hit in his first season (and a handy $15 million expiring in his third year).
This allows the Rockets to offer cap relief that no other team can individually. They have the ability to take back four bad contracts, out of Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Hedo Turkoglu. If they find someone willing to take Kevin Martin's expiring contract (or send it to Orlando), they can take all four of the Magic's bad contracts. Along with the young assets, picks and willingness to take Howard on a rental, the Orlando Magic have found their best trade partner.
Daryl Morey probably believes that two things can potentially allow the Rockets to keep Howard long-term.
First, Howard does not seem like the most resolute person. After wanting out of Orlando all last season, when push came to shove Howard opted-in for another season with the Magic. The inability for Howard to make up his mind in the past could foreshadow another incident of Howard backing off his initial demands. I have no knowledge of Howard's relationship with Hakeem Olajuwon, but, if it is good, the Rockets will likely use The Dream to convince Howard to stay in Houston.
Second, look at the cap situations of all the potential suitors.
The Brooklyn Nets have no cap space going forward with Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez signed to long-term deals. That does not account for the minimum eight more roster spots the Nets have to fill. The only way the Nets can get Howard is through a trade, or if they can get rid of one (ideally two) of their three bad contracts by the trade deadline (that way the expiring contracts leave glorious cap space).
The Los Angeles Lakers mirror the Nets' situation. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake take them all the way up to the salary cap line of $58+ million (via Yahoo). With a team completely in win-now mode, the odds of them dealing either Bryant or Gasol for expiring deals seems unlikely.
The Los Angeles Clippers have the potential cap space if they find takers for Caron Butler's and DeAndre Jordan's deals. If those deals yield second round picks, the Clippers could clear enough space to both resign Paul and bring in Howard. The odds of another team taking three years of an overpaid Jordan or a non-expiring Caron Butler at $8 million makes this scenario mouthwatering but highly unlikely.
The Dallas Mavericks have the cap space to go after Dwight Howard in free agency, but it looks like they will lack the cap space to go after both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. With the crop of unrestricted, free-agent point guards looking slim, the Mavericks would have to try to sign a restricted free-agent point guard like Jrue Holiday or Stephen Curry.
If the Mavericks can clear the decks by dealing Marion (higher trade value than Haywood), waive Vince Carter's non-guaranteed contract, not extend a qualifying offer to Rodrigue Beaubois, decline their option on Dominique Jones and amnesty Brendan Haywood (acquiring some second round pick would not hurt), then they can offer full max contracts to Chris Paul and Haywood.
Looking at Marion, he could help shift the title race in favor of a team needing a perimeter defender. If the Lakers are truly committed to winning this season, they could probably acquire Marion for second round picks (LA potentially has three, depending on protections). They also have Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga (who has a team option for '13-'14) and another $2 million in expiring/non-guaranteed contracts. That seems like the only type of situation (for a contender looking to improve their title chances) in which the Mavericks can get rid of Marion's contract.
Marion could opt out of his contract. This would make life easy for the Mavericks. However, that is difficult to predict—a 35-year-old getting $9 million for '13-'14 will probably fail to find the same deal on the open market.
The Atlanta Hawks look like they will have the cap space to go after Dwight Howard as a free agent. They also have a valuable trade chip in Al Horford. The 26-year-old has four years at $12 million each remaining on his deal. This actually makes him slightly underpaid (not as much of a bargain as Rajon Rondo at $11 million, $12 million and $13 million the next three years).
By trading Horford for expiring contracts (and possible some picks), the Hawks could free up enough cap space to go after Howard AND Chris Paul. By trading Horford (maybe along with Teague), they could potentially acquire a high draft pick from a team that has the cap space to acquire those contracts without sending any salary back.
Granted, that is assuming the Hawks work quickly to acquire those two and then sign Smith. If they dawdle, some team could offer Smith a max. Smith would bring that max offer to the Hawks, and the Hawks would probably have to give him a max. That could lead to the Hawks not being able to give Paul and Howard full max contracts, especially if they acquire a high draft pick.
The Hawks have two factors working for them when it comes to attracting Howard, outside of the quality of the team they can assemble.
First, Josh Smith is one of Howard's best friends, and in an NBA full of AAU mentalities that may serve as a huge asset.
Second, Atlanta is home for Howard. His family appears to play a crucial role in his decision-making process. Some say his mother played a key role in Howard opting-in with the Magic (h/t Matt Moore of NBCSports). Pressure from his family to play close to home could cause Howard to sign for the Hawks.
Therefore, in that lengthy surveying of the landscape, the Hawks stand as the biggest threat to signing Howard away from the Hawks. Even if they must find a way to deal Horford, to free up enough cap space to sign Howard and Paul.
Also, their plans could be foiled by another team's zealous pursuit of Josh Smith. Dallas would come in second, but must find a way to deal Marion (or have him opt out) in order to free up enough space to fit both Paul and Howard into their cap.
Even if these teams can offer Howard a max, the Rockets have the advantage of having Howard's Bird Rights. This allows them to give Howard 7.5 percent annual raises as opposed to 4.5 percent. They can also offer a fifth year where his salary would increase by 10.5%. Compound that with the lack of income tax in Texas.
The financial incentives are better in Houston with respect to Dallas, and far superior with respect to Atlanta.
Now, Houston will not have the greatest cap position to improve their team around Howard. However, the contracts for Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon are non-guaranteed. This gives the Rockets some attractive expiring contracts, to deal for a star to play with Howard.
In particular, the Rockets could look to take on a star being paid like a superstar. Much like the Hawks trading Joe Johnson, a quality supporting star can be acquired for expiring contracts if the contract is bad enough. The Glen Davis and Jason Richardson contracts will be pills the Rockets must swallow. They only become expiring contracts for the 2014-2015 season.
Daryl Morey's use of analytics will also aid in surrounding Dwight with talent. Acquiring a superstar does not require a team to be smarter, more efficient or better-run than other teams (see Thunder getting Durant, San Antonio getting Duncan, etc.). Finding diamonds in the rough and the correct complementary parts—that is where franchises like the Thunder, Spurs and Rockets shine.
What is difference between the Thunder/Spurs and the Rockets? The Spurs and Thunder had a superstar to build around. This made their excellent talent evaluation matter in title races. If Houston acquires Howard, their ability to find gems will help to affect the balance of power in the NBA rather than keep them in contention for the eighth seed.
Say Howard leaves. Ideally, this occurs before the Rockets use Turkoglu and/or Duhon to acquire a quality supporting piece. The Rockets can then implement the first method of building a title contender. With Howard gone, the Rockets can focus on playing poorly enough to acquire high draft picks and land a superstar they can build around.
Even if the Rockets give their own draft picks (and they have quite a few first round picks in 2013), the Ted Stepien rule prevents them from dealing draft picks in consecutive years. Since they will take a rental on Howard, look for Morey give his 2013 picks and maybe a first in 2015. This is will still give them a chance to get a top pick in 2014. If they can stay bad (and lucky), they could build a foundation of talent much like the Thunder.
The NBA is a league of "haves" and "have nots." A team must do all they can to get into that former group if they want to win a title.
The Rockets, by going after Howard, allow themselves to finally grab the superstar they have not had since Hakeem Olajuwon (I do not consider Tracy McGrady or Yao Ming superstars in terms of basketball ability).
If it works out, they can build around their center. If it does not work out, they can look forward to having a bad team—but also the chance to land a superstar in the draft.
That beats being stuck in mediocrity.