As currently constructed, the Houston Rockets look like a fringe playoff team at best. Despite an exciting roster built around an elite scoring talent (James Harden) and a number of talented young players, the Rockets are still a few steps away from becoming a legitimate threat in the Western Conference.
The Rockets have spent much of the regular season thus far neck and neck with the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers in a battle for the final two playoff seeds out west. But with the recent resurgence of the L.A. Lakers as a functional basketball team, Houston's road to the postseason is sure to become increasingly difficult.
Fortunately, the impending NBA trade deadline should provide an excellent opportunity for this Rockets team to solidify its starting lineup into that of a legitimate playoff contender.
Though there is a great variety of players currently dangling on the trade market around the league, only one offers the perfect combination of scoring ability, versatility and affordability to make the trade worthwhile. That player is Paul Millsap.
Millsap has seen his offensive role in Utah decline this season, but don't let that fool you. Despite his modest scoring numbers (14.9 PPG this season), he remains a near-elite post scorer capable of averaging close to 18 points per contest given an increased role.
Millsap is also an excellent rebounder and a versatile contributor to the stat sheet. While a bit undersized for the power forward position, Millsap makes up for his occasional struggles defending the post with admirable tenacity and a knack for picking up steals. Millsap currently averages 1.3 steals per game, significantly above the average for power forwards, while also contributing an average of one block per contest.
Perhaps most importantly, Millsap is sure to fit perfectly in Houston's starting lineup, as he is essentially just a heavily upgraded version of the current starting 4, Patrick Patterson. Millsap would fit as a solid secondary scorer next to Harden, and at just 27 years old he could continue to occupy that role for years to come.
Millsap is a great fit for Houston because of his talents, but he would also be a logical acquisition because of his current affordability. Millsap is an impending free agent for the summer of 2013, and the Jazz will likely be willing to part with him at a discounted price due to the uncertainty of his next contract and the desire of the Utah front office to give Derrick Favors one of the starting spots currently occupied by Millsap and Al Jefferson.
Though the Rockets would run a bit of a risk in trading for Millsap due to the possibility of him signing elsewhere in the summer, there's little reason to believe he wouldn't be willing to re-sign a long-term deal with Houston, which has plenty of available money to throw his way.
At the very least, Millsap is a safer option than the other most notable power forward on the market, Josh Smith, who is seen by many teams as a potential max-contract player and who is almost certain to test free agency this summer no matter where he ends the season.
In order to create a sufficiently attractive package for Millsap, the Rockets would likely need to include a couple of rotation players. One reasonable swap would entail sending Carlos Delfino and Marcus Morris to the Jazz for Millsap and DeMarre Carroll. This trade would allow Houston to improve its playoff odds drastically without shaking up its young core. It also makes sense for the Jazz, as it would provide them with some much-needed assistance on the wing while opening up room for some of the younger frontcourt players.
Millsap is one of the most underrated and underutilized power forwards in the league, and the Rockets would be wise to capitalize on his currently shaky position in Utah in order to position their increasingly strong core. Though there are certainly sexier names available on the trade market, none would fit as well in Houston as Millsap while also coming at such a reasonable price.