The Houston Rockets will enter this summer loaded with cap space and a set of blinders. Even though they already possess one of the NBA's most capable defensive centers, they badly want Dwight Howard, and will do everything within the Collective Bargaining Agreement's rules to sign him.
But free agency is an unpredictable process. And if Howard lands with another one of the half-dozen teams planning to make a run at him on July 1, the Rockets will need to acquire a different player who's able to make a positive difference.
Right now the Rockets are loaded with young prospects who possess mystic athleticism and various skill sets that fit perfectly within a modern NBA offense, but waiting around for these players (Thomas Robinson, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, etc.) to reach their potential might be a process too drawn out for Daryl Morey's notoriously impatient genius.
In the meantime, the team's primary question mark is power forward, as it's been even before both Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris were moved at last year's trade deadline.
More than anything, the Rockets want talent at the position. In a dream scenario they'd prefer a two-way player who understands the importance of routinely playing above-average defense. But this player will also need to score the ball on his own, sometimes with his back to the basket but also in motion on a roll to the basket or popping out for an open jumper.
He needs to be productive without the ball (barring some unforeseen development, James Harden will be the team's best offensive player next season) and ready to score when plays aren't specifically designed around his particular strengths.
What Houston does not need is tradition. They need modernity. Here are five options who don't necessarily all fit neatly into a "power forward" label, but who could do a great job fitting in with Houston's short-term ideology, which is simply to be better than they were last year.
Three of them are available in free agency, while the fourth is entering the final year of his contract in a situation that warrants trade discussion. All players are accompanied by their shot chart from last season, and they're ranked in no particular order.
1. Josh Smith
Smith will be the most sought after forward on the open market this summer. While Smith is more effective in some areas of basketball than others, his greatest strengths would be elevated within Houston's system. Conversely, his weaknesses would be masked.
Houston predicates its offensive style on three-pointers, shots at the rim and free-throws. The Rockets attempted only 9.8 shots per game between 16 and 23 feet during the regular season, per Hoopdata.com, which was lowest in the league.
Smith is a player who thrives in transition, whether attacking the basket or setting up teammates with his above-average passing. He's able to operate pick-and-rolls as a ball-handler and would be effective doing so with Omer Asik as his partner, giving defenses yet another thing to worry about when trying to cover Houston's potent offense.
He's not quite skilled enough with the ball to carry the responsibilities of an entire offense, but at only 27 years old, as a complementary piece besides Harden, Smith's prime years in Houston would be beneficial to everyone involved.
2. Paul Millsap
If Josh Smith isn't the No. 1 forward available on the market this summer, Paul Millsap is. He's a smart player who makes about half his shots and understands the role of being a complementary piece after spending seven productive years in Utah.
Millsap is an established rebounder for his size, and as he enters his prime, he'll potentially excel as a threat either popping or rolling after setting a screen in Houston's spread pick-and-roll. As a secondary scoring option, Millsap is versatile. He's also a wise defender who makes proper rotations and can't be bullied in the post.
Opponents would be flummoxed on the glass battling both him and Asik, and on the other end he'd loosen the pressure Harden felt all of last season.
3. Pau Gasol
The Rockets once briefly had Gasol in their possession, and it might be that they can have him again. By trading for Gasol, Houston would have an effective scorer from the low post.
Inserting him in their offense could have a dramatic effect slowing down the team's overall pace, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Gasol can shoot from the perimeter, initiate offense from the high post, set screens and pass while moving. The Rockets would have to become more of a half-court oriented team, but sacrificing their identity for the sake of Gasol's offensive mastery would probably help instead of hurt their team.
4. David West
Coming off 19 playoff games in which he averaged 15.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and existed as the most consistent two-way hub the Indiana Pacers had, David West asserted himself as an irreplaceable force.
Next season he'll be 33 years old, headed toward the end of a consistent, productive career. But even though West's identity as a half-court maestro doesn't appear in line with Houston's quick-trigger offense, his presence would best be utilized as a stabilizing piece in the post.
He's also coming off two seasons as the starting power forward on one of the NBA's best defenses, which doesn't hurt his résumé, or ability to help fill Houston's holes on that end. An unquantifiable attribute like veteran leadership is valuable both on the court and in the locker room, and it's something David West could certainly bring by joining one of the league's youngest teams.
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