The Houston Rockets have successfully built a contender primarily through free agency and trades. While the core is pretty much in place, there is probably another move or two that could be made before it's all said and done.
The team doesn't have many needs. There's plenty of star power, and the Rockets are deeper than a Wale poem at each position. Still, if a deal is to be done, it will more than likely involve center Omer Asik.
Since the arrival of Dwight Howard over the summer, Asik has had his sights set on playing elsewhere. He asked for a trade in July, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, but the team rebuffed him. He remained professional throughout camp and the preseason but never seemed content with his new role.
After Asik exited the starting lineup in favor of forward Terrence Jones, his morale took an even larger hit, and rumors of his inevitable departure began to circulate yet again. He was a healthy scratch against Denver on Nov. 16 and played a total of 19 minutes in the two games that followed.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Rockets are "certain" to trade Asik, and it's more a matter of when than if.
In a recent podcast with TNT's Steve Kerr, Grantland's Bill Simmons pitched the idea of a trade that would send Asik to Portland in exchange for center Robin Lopez and a few other spare parts. Besides Lopez, the Rockets would net a draft pick and another shooter.
Simmons' proposal makes sense for the Blazers. It gives them a legitimate center to pair with talented big man LaMarcus Aldridge and shores up their biggest area of need.
However, why would Houston do that deal?
Portland is already 10-2 (as of Nov. 21) without Asik. Why should Houston strengthen another contender by handing over one of the best defensive big men in the league for a package headlined by a fringe starting center?
With a potential Asik deal looming, here are a few proposals (including one non-Asik related) that Houston should consider over the next few weeks.
This trade has been talked about for a while now, and on the surface, it makes a ton of sense for both teams. The Pelicans desperately need a center to man the middle alongside franchise anchor Anthony Davis.
The Rockets, meanwhile, could use someone at the 4 who can space the floor, and few big men shoot the ball better than Ryan Anderson. In his first two games since returning from a toe injury, he has averaged 22.5 points per game and has nailed 10 of his 16 attempts from three.
The deal even makes sense financially, with the extra year owed to Anderson in 2015-16 leveling out the big salary due to Asik next season.
For New Orleans, Asik will help a team that is currently 24th in the league in rebounds per game with an average of 41.3 boards per night. He and Davis (already a contender for Defensive Player of the Year this season) will form one of the best young defensive frontcourts in the NBA.
For Houston, it will reunite Anderson with his former Orlando Magic teammate, Dwight Howard. Anderson would be more of a natural fit next to D12, and the Rockets wouldn't have to keep forcing things with the Asik-Howard tandem.
ESPN's Marc Stein pointed out a few issues with the deal. He says the trade faces "long odds" of happening, as he pointed out that the Rockets would essentially be helping out a division rival. He also listed three other factors:
1. The Pelicans love how Anderson fits into their core and are said to believe his ability to space the floor does as much for Anthony Davis as a bruising center like Asik would.
2. The Pelicans love the production Anderson gives them, and the very reasonable contract he possesses in relation to that production. Asik's offensive limitations will be even harder to stomach next season when that balloon payment valued at nearly $15 million kicks in.
3. Anderson is under contract to the Pelicans for two more seasons after this one on those favorable terms: $34 million over four years. Asik can become a free agent in the summer of 2015, and likewise can't be extended by the team that acquires him this season because he has fewer than three seasons left on his current contract.
All of these are valid points, and every trade is going to have its share of negatives. But the good seems to outweigh the bad here. Houston may take a hit defensively with this swap, but it would remove a distraction in Asik and become even more dangerous offensively.
As for New Orleans, breaking up the Anderson-Davis combo would be a big blow, but the Pelicans would get a huge boost on the defensive end and on the glass. In a league where protecting the rim is critical, an Asik-Davis pairing could be devastating for opposing offenses.
In regard to the division rival angle, it is a legitimate concern, but the Pelicans aren't an immediate threat, and the deal still makes the Rockets better.
Trade No. 2: Houston sends C Omer Asik to Philadelphia for PF Thaddeus Young
For those concerned with trading Asik inside the Western Conference, here is an alternative. There are few places that the Rockets can send Asik that are less likely to come back to bite them than the Philadelphia 76ers.
Depending on how you feel about Thad Young, this deal is either just right, or the Sixers aren't giving up enough. Salary-wise, it is about equal, with Young due around $20 million combined for the two seasons after this one and Asik set to make around $15 million next year.
Young isn't as effective as Ryan Anderson from the outside, but he's capable of putting up points when he gets his touches. His 14.3 points per game this season are on par with the 14.8 he was putting last year.
He's an above-average athlete who can get after it on the boards. He can even hit the occasional jumper, as he's a career 33 percent shooter from behind the arc. It's not as ideal as the Anderson trade, but it keeps Asik out of the division and conference.
The Rockets would go to war every night with a starting five of Howard, Young, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Jeremy Lin. If Young is the fifth-best player in a rotation, the team has a pretty formidable starting lineup. In this uptempo offense, that group would be fun to watch.
For Philadelphia, it would open next season with Asik and Nerlens Noel patrolling the paint. They might not make up the most offensively efficient big man duo in the league, but they would make life miserable for anyone attempting to attack the basket.
Beyond that, Philly has promising point guard Michael Carter-Williams and potentially two lottery picks (if New Orleans lands outside of the top five) in a loaded 2014 NBA draft.
The Sixers have already made a commitment to rebuilding by sending Jrue Holiday to New Orleans this past summer. Young is the last domino left to fall. They aren't going to find a big man with Asik's ready-made skill set in the draft. It makes sense for them to pounce now.
Trade No. 3: Houston sends PF Donatas Motiejunas and SF Ronnie Brewer to Sacramento for F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
This deal can't happen until December 15 because Brewer was a free-agent addition this past summer (that's why there's no Trade Machine link). There will also need to be some tinkering to the deal to make the financial aspect work.
Still, the gist of this deal is for Houston to turn two seldom-used parts into someone who can fix one of its biggest areas of need: defense. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute doesn't offer much offensively, but he's a solid defender.
Admittedly, I included Donatas Motiejunas and Ronnie Brewer because I'd like to see them go to teams where they can see more time on the floor. Motiejunas, once a highly touted European prospect, is stuck being a developmental project on a team wanting to win now.
The result is an average of just less than 11 minutes per game. His best chance at minutes in H-Town will be when the team decides to move on from Asik. In Sacramento, the expectations aren't as grand, and he could be brought along slowly.
As for Brewer, his playing time makes "D-Mo" look like a starter. He's averaging just four minutes per game and has played all of 16 minutes all season. With Robert Covington waiting in the wings, the Rockets could afford to let Brewer earn his paycheck elsewhere.
In return, they get a stopper who doesn't require a ton of shots on the offensive end. If Mbah a Moute can come in for 10 to 15 minutes a night and make things difficult for the likes of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, isn't this deal worth it in the end?
The Rockets aren't in desperate need to make major changes. In truth, the only deal that the team will probably make before February will be granting Asik his wish to play elsewhere. The team is 8-5 and has a pretty nice trade chip in the form of one of the league's emerging centers.
Beyond New Orleans and Philadelphia, teams like Miami, Dallas and Oklahoma City could use someone like Asik. The question is whether Houston wants to help out a team that it will likely have to get past to achieve its goal of winning an NBA championship.
The Asik fiasco is a situation worth monitoring going forward. For now, he's an ace up the sleeve of a team that has made its mark by playing its cards right.