The Houston Rockets' focus in the days leading up to the Feb. 20 NBA trade deadline should be patching up a few minor holes. With a young core and one of the league's most impressive starting fives, there is no need to make a huge splash to grab some cheap headlines.
Houston finished the first half strong as they went into the All-Star break on a seven-game winning streak. The Rockets have rose to the Western Conference's third seed at 36-17. They are also just two games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the Southwest division lead.
The brunt of the credit goes to the starting lineup. Center Dwight Howard and guard James Harden will represent the team at the All-Star Game. In any other year, they may be fringe MVP contenders, but this season's top individual honor clearly belongs to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant.
Small forward Chandler Parsons made a strong case to join the other members of the high-powered trio in New Orleans, but he fell just short of making the cut. He's averaging 17 points per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from behind the arc.
Second-year power forward Terrence Jones is in the midst of the breakout season that earned him a nod at the Rising Stars Challenge. Playing with and against the league's best rookies and sophomores, the Kentucky product put up 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting and grabbed six boards.
In his Rising Stars grades piece, ESPN's Michael Wallace gave Jones a "C."
At point guard, Jeremy Lin is playing the best basketball of his career. He's been alternating between the starting lineup and a sixth man role all season. He's averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting a career-high 46.5 percent from the field (including 34 percent from three).
His 2.7 turnovers per game are the lowest average of his career as well.
However, the Rockets aren't without their flaws. As a team with immediate championship aspirations, Houston appears to be one or two small moves away. While fans will clamor for the team to push all of its chips to the middle of the table and go after a big name, that isn't necessary.
Instead, here is what general manager Daryl Morey's trade deadline strategy should be:
Fix The Bench
On paper, it would seem as if the Houston Rockets have a tremendous amount of depth. After all, they have one of the best defensive centers in Omer Asik backing up a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard.
They have a bevy of guards from Patrick Beverley to Jeremy Lin to Aaron Brooks that they could easily insert into the starting lineup to run point. They also have veterans such as Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi that can play either forward spot and give the team some flexibility.
Despite all of that, Houston has one of the least productive second units in the NBA. According to HoopsStats.com, the Rockets are tied with the Indiana Pacers with an average of 25.8 points per game from their bench.
The main reason has been injuries. Asik missed two months with knee and thigh injuries. Garcia has had his own knee issues. Beverley has had a litany of health woes this season, and even Casspi has missed a couple of games.
What has been equally detrimental has been the second unit's ineffectiveness when they are healthy. After starting strong, Garcia and Casspi have disappeared lately. Asik is still trying to find a rhythm after returning on Feb. 8, while Beverley has struggled with consistency.
The need could use a couple of new bodies to give this unit a jolt and take some of the scoring pressure off Jeremy Lin. With Garcia and Casspi slumping, the team could really use another shooter. A name that makes a ton of sense is Chicago's Mike Dunleavy.
USA Today's Sam Amick wrote last month that the Bulls swingman was high on the Rockets' wish list. The 2002 No. 3 overall pick out of Duke is averaging 11.1 points per game this season, while shooting nearly 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep.
Dunleavy could play shooting guard or small forward and, at 6'9" and 230 pounds, might even be able to dabble a little as a small-ball 4. He also has a reasonable contract that pays him $3 million annually for this season and the next.
With Chicago now the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they may be a little less willing to part with the 33-year-old than they were a month ago.
Another shooter that could be big for the Rockets is Orlando's Arron Afflalo. The 28-year-old has seemingly been on the trade block since last summer, when his name surfaced in rumors (h/t to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne) in a deal for then-Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Currently, he's averaging 19.4 points per game for the Magic. He's also shooting 46 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from behind the arc. The question becomes are the Magic willing to move their best player?
According to BasketballInsiders.com's Steve Kyler, the Magic haven't seemed keen to the idea of trading the veteran scorer.
"The problem for the Magic, or teams trying to extract Afflalo from the team, is that Orlando really does not seem overly interested in trading Afflalo." wrote Kyler on Feb. 10.
Afflalo's deal is more expensive than Dunleavy's. He's owed a little over $15 million ($7.56 million a piece) for this season and the next. He also has a player option for 2015-16 that's worth $7.75 million. An Afflalo-Lin backcourt on the second unit would be pretty imposing, but it comes with a hefty price tag.
Add Another Defender
Defense has been an Achilles' heel of the Houston Rockets for quite some time now. The team tried to shore up the area by signing Dwight Howard to pair with Omer Asik and form one of the best tandems of rim protectors in the league.
To his credit, Howard has done his part. He leads the team with an average of 1.8 blocks per game and has been holding opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 48.1 percent, according to 82games.com.
Asik, meanwhile, has spent the season injured and unhappy. Beyond him, Greg Smith has been limited to just 11 games, and Donatas Motiejunas still has a ways to go as a defender.
On the perimeter, the only real stopper Houston has is Patrick Beverley, who has struggled to stay healthy as well.
If anything can wreck this team's title hopes, it's their inability to stop opposing perimeter scorers. They need to try to poach another defender by the deadline. The options vary from the relatively cheap (Minnesota's Luc Mbah a Moute, Atlanta's DeMarre Carroll) to the slightly more expensive (Washington's Trevor Ariza).
Ariza would be the best option of the three, since he fills the need for both a defender and someone who can provide scoring off the bench. He's currently averaging 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists in his contract year with the Wizards.
The main obstacle in making a deal for any of those guys (or any of the names mentioned in the previous section) is Houston's lack of trade ammo. The team's best trade chip is Asik, who is in the midst of a rough year.
Beyond him, there's Motiejunas and his possible upside as well as Houston's 2014 first-round pick (which would probably be in the bottom half of the round). The Wizards wouldn't have much interest in Asik, and the pick isn't enough to pry away Ariza, which means they'd probably need a third team to make a move.
Washington are in the market for a backup point guard, as ESPN's Marc Stein tweeted out earlier in the week, so maybe the Rockets could offer someone like Aaron Brooks in a package deal for Ariza.
Regardless of who it is, the perimeter defense needs to be fixed. They aren't going to find anyone who can stop Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but they should at least bring in someone that won't be a walking turnstile.
Trade Omer Asik
I've been back and forth on whether the the Rockets should move disgruntled center Omer Asik all season. At this point, it makes the most sense for the team to nip the situation in the bud and try to get something for the Turkish 7-footer.
It seems unlikely that, after demanding a trade twice in the span of four months, Asik will magically become content with a role he's disliked all season. You've heard plenty of things since the big man's return against Milwaukee. "I'm happy to be back" hasn't been one of them.
Asik's hurt feelings are understandable. He's one of the best centers in the NBA, especially on the glass and protecting the rim. He deserves to be a starter somewhere. That place just doesn't happen to be Houston.
A package deal for Asik would allow Houston to add some depth as well as rid themselves of someone with clear desires to play elsewhere. With a little over $20 million owed to him for this season and the next, is Asik really worth the trouble?
In the 33 games he's missed this season (including the two he sat out in November), the Rockets are 22-11 without Omer Asik. That includes the brunt of their current seven-game win streak with victories over potential playoff teams like San Antonio and Phoenix.
Are we certain Houston wouldn't be just fine by opting to move Asik in exchange for a backup center who may be less talented but more content in his role? Wouldn't the Rockets be just as formidable with someone like Brandon Bass or Spencer Hawes (who have been mentioned in previous Asik rumors, according to ESPN's Marc Stein) leading the second unit's frontcourt?
Asik is still getting back into game shape after nursing knee and thigh injuries for two months. He only has a Feb. 19 showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers to show potential suitors he's worth trading for before the deadline. In any case, there's risk involved for all parties.
Regardless, the team has proven the show can go on without Asik. He's the team's best trade chip, and they are in need of a few extra pieces. The advantages of moving a talented-but-disgruntled big man far outweigh the risks of keeping him, especially if they move him to the Eastern Conference.
The Rockets will open the second half of the season as the hottest team in the league. They are firing on all cylinders, and they have a three-headed monster in Howard, Harden and Parsons that are capable of taking over a playoff series on their own.
However, while Houston is riding high at the moment, the team shouldn't be content with resting on its laurels. There's still some minor tweaks that need to be made that will help down the stretch.
General manager Daryl Morey has done an excellent job of putting together a championship contender in such a short time span, but the Rockets are still very much a work in progress.
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