Despite a recent losing skid, the Houston Rockets still find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt as the Feb. 21 trading deadline approaches.
Fans are clamoring for improvements to be made to the roster. What do the Rockets need? What realistically can be expected to happen in the next four weeks?
ESPN's Chad Ford says general manager Daryl Morey will be busy in the coming weeks trying to improve the team. But being active is not the same thing as actually pulling off trades.
On the outside, it appears the best methodology for Houston is to sit tight and keep its flexibility into the offseason when it can add to the roster via free agency and not have to trade away any assets. If Morey is known for anything, it is that he is willing to sit on his assets, be patient and then pounce at the right time.
But, what if the trade deadline is the right time?
To get an idea of what might make sense for the Rockets in potential trades, first eliminate what does NOT make sense.
Ford is right. The most glaring weakness right now for the Rockets is at the power forward position. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris can both be described as nice. But neither seem like they should be the starter on a championship-contending team.
So, finding an upgrade at power forward is probably the best way to go.
If not, moving small forward Chandler Parsons to power forward and finding another wing player is another option. Statistically, that has had positive benefits on the floor.
Plenty of available players fit the bill. But not all make sense.
DeMarcus Cousins? Too much trouble. Ersan Ilyasova? Not enough production for $8 million each of the next three seasons. Andrea Bargnani, Pau Gasol or Danny Granger? Too many injury worries.
That leaves six plausible options left for the Rockets. In order of worst fit to best fit:
Zach Randolph and Al Jefferson
Both power forwards are very good players. But neither one fits the up-tempo style of play the Rockets have created and are trying to reinforce.
Randolph, 31, and Jefferson, 28, are getting old in NBA years and both are more tortoises than hares. Randolph has two more years on his contract after 2012-13, while Jefferson is a free agent at season's end.
Each guy would represent an upgrade at the power forward spot. But, neither one seems like a logical target for the Rockets.
This would be the one player that would cause Parsons to move up to the big forward position.
Gay is a very nice player. But is he a difference maker?
Only once has he averaged over 20 points a game, and that was back in 2007-08.
With a contract that will pay him $37 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15, Gay would represent the one major bullet the Rockets have left to fire in shaping this core.
Is a Lin-Harden-Gay-Parsons-Asik starting five a championship contender?
Those who think the addition of Gay along with improvements from Lin, Parsons and Omer Asik will morph Houston into contender would probably be willing to pony up for Gay.
It seems, at least in the present, that lineup falls a bit short of contender status.
We're getting a little closer to plausibility.
Smith is in the last year of his contract on an Atlanta Hawks team that is positioning itself for free agency next summer. All signs point to him being moved before the deadline.
Smith is the most athletic power forward not named LeBron James and is capable of special things on both sides of the floor. His youth falls in line with the rest of the Rockets squad.
So what's the hold-up?
Well, let's just say Smith's basketball acumen is less than stellar. His on-again, off-again bouts with coaches is well-documented, even as recently as last week. His affection for long jump shots is mind-boggling. And his overall attitude leaves a lot to be desired.
For a young team with good chemistry, Smith may be the one bad apple that spoils the bushel.
Now we're talking.
Millsap checks off a lot of requirements on the Rockets' wish list.
A young, athletic, two-way player who can get up and down the floor and works hard.
Also a free agent at the end of the season, the Rockets would probably be wise to try to sign him long-term.
But, Millsap would bring Houston an ever-improving player who fits the mold at a fairly at a more modest price (maybe $11 million - $12 million per season).
We have a winner!
This would be the ideal trade target for the Rockets, both for the present and the future. He is skilled, big enough to go to work down low and athletic enough to keep up with The Running McHales.
At over 20 points and almost nine rebounds per game, Aldridge's numbers are those of a big-time player. Those numbers also mean the Portland Trail Blazers may not be so eager to move him.
The Rockets would be looking at dumping a lot of assets to obtain Aldridge's services. With no 2013 draft picks as of now, the Rockets may also have to dip into the 2014 draft pick supply to sweeten the pot for Portland.
But Lin-Harden-Parsons-Aldridge-Asik is a pretty good starting group. Admittedly, Houston's bench would take a hit with guys like Patterson, Greg Smith, Toney Douglas and James Anderson still in reserve.
Aldridge is signed for two years on top of this season at just $29 million ($8 million less than Gay). Given their current salary figures, that would still leave Houston approximately $6 million under the cap.
Again, the Rockets would be better served to wait out this season, continue to gel and wait for the 2013 free agents or the loaded 2014 free agent class.
But if they are set on making a trade in February, there are ways to improve the club, albeit at the cost of many of their assets.
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