The Houston Rockets have planted both feet firmly in the Western Conference playoff race, but that hasn't grounded their superstar thoughts at all.
The Rockets have been seemingly linked to every star player rumored to be available over the past few seasons. What once sounded like nothing more than Houston GM Daryl Morey's pipe dreams now carry a strength of validity given the team's improved play (27-23) and the presence of All-Star guard James Harden.
But how can Morey differentiate between players that will add name power and those that will add wins?
It starts with identifying areas of need on the current roster. A quick scan of the Rockets' lineup shows a few nice building blocks, but a number of areas needing improvement.
And those improvements just might be needed before the 2012-13 regular season is finished. As strong as the Rockets have played as of late (6-3 in their past nine games), their season has largely been defined by an overall lack of consistency.
With the Los Angeles Lakers (23-26) and Portland Trail Blazers (25-23) right on their heels, and the Utah Jazz (27-22) refusing to give any ground, Houston may need to add some reinforcements to solidify their postseason position.
Given the Rockets' youth, though, Morey should be considering players for both this season and beyond.
The Phoenix Suns (17-33) are going nowhere fast this season, and their soon-to-be 29-year-old center has vocalized his disappointment with his decreasing role throughout the season.
In terms of making a splash, Gortat is more elegant dive than cannonball, but he's productive nevertheless. And according to Steve Kyler of USA Today, he's been good enough to draw "more than a passing interest" from Houston.
Of the Rockets' nine-man rotation, only reserve forward Carlos Delfino is above the age of 26. In other words, Houston has more than enough young talent to help facilitate the Suns' massive post-Steve Nash rebuilding project.
While Omer Asik has been productive in his first season with the Rockets (11.5 rebounds and 10.3 points per game), he doesn't have the offensive arsenal to match Gortat's. The Phoenix center has seen statistical drops nearly across the board this season (including nearly 2.5 fewer field-goal attempts per game), but he's still just one year removed from an impressive season of 15.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
The Pacers aren't determined to move Granger, but the team's success in his absence (31-19) and All-Star breakout performance from Paul George has afforded Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard the chance to gauge interest in the former All-Star.
Granger has yet to play a game this season due to an injury in his left knee, but Pacers coach Frank Vogel said the forward could make his debut before the All-Star break (via ESPN.com).
When healthy, he's one of the game's premier scorers. He averaged 18.7 points per game in 2011-12, which marked a five-year low for the former University of New Mexico star.
Despite the impressive play from sophomore small forward Chandler Parsons (14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game), Houston could stand to upgrade the position. And Granger has emerged as a viable option for the Rockets (according to FoxSportsOhio.com's Sam Amico).
With Harden pouring in better than 10 points per game more than any of his teammates, the Rockets clearly have a need for a reliable secondary scorer. Granger could fill that void while bringing toughness and playoff experience to the youthful team.
Like Granger, Bynum has yet to log a single minute of action in the 2012-13 season thanks to injuries in both knees.
But given the undeniable potential that a healthy Bynum would bring, expect the collective eye of the basketball world to keep a close watch on his return. Despite seeing little improvement after receiving knee injections, the big man still hopes to return to the floor this month (according to Jason Wolf of USA Today).
The Rockets in particular will be keeping tabs on his progress as he's emerged as a clear plan B for the club if they're unable to lure free-agent-to-be Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers (according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard):
We know Rockets will go after D12 n summer but word is they'll pursue A Bynum if D12 unavailable. assuming AB plays well n return this yr.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) February 6, 2013
Given that Bynum is less than 12 months removed from a career year (18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in 2011-12), he'd be the perfect interior complement for a Harden-Jeremy Lin backcourt.
Smith might be available in the right deal before the Feb. 21 trade deadline or may not be until he reaches the free-agent market this summer, but either way, the Rockets will be interested.
Given the rather seamless transition for the athletic Smith in coach Kevin McHale's up-tempo system, that interest might be mutual. According to what a league source told CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, the Rockets are among the teams that would appeal to the impending free agent.
Smith has had questions regarding his motor and desires in the past, but his on-court impact is undeniable. The versatile forward can change the outcome of games on either end of the floor, energizing his teammates with a collection of highlight plays along the way.
He may not be the most reliable threat in the half-court set, but could blossom in Houston's free-flowing, potent offense (105.8 points per game, second-highest in the NBA). He could also bring a badly needed athletic defensive presence capable of keeping up with smaller forwards or battling bigger ones in the post.
Howard has long drawn the interest of Morey, along with virtually every other GM in the NBA.
But unlike many of his peers, Morey has the cap space to make a serious charge at the big man should he opt to test the free-agent market. And with Harden on board, the Rockets also have a potential for greatness not lost on the center.
Houston will be among Howard's main suitors when free agency begins on July 1. While Howard had no interest in joining the team last season, he has acknowledged that this is far from the same team that pursued him a season ago (according to Chris Broussard of ESPN.com).
Regardless of his "struggles" this season (a term I can only use lightly given his 16.5 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game), Howard will be the greatest prize available on the market. His size (6'11", 265 pounds), explosiveness and intimidating presence under the rim could transform this team from playoff hopeful to championship contender.