Houston Rockets' Trade Targets to Pair with Dwight Howard and James Harden

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 18, 2014

Houston Rockets' Trade Targets to Pair with Dwight Howard and James Harden

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    After connecting on moon-shot acquisitions in each of the past two offseasons with James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets are back in the batter's box waiting for their turn to swing for the fences once again.

    General manager Daryl Morey's superstar scheme has nearly come to fruition. While the Rockets' championship chase ultimately fell short, this group still produced elite-level results: 54 wins and a 108.6 offensive rating (fourth-best in the NBA).

    So, it's back to the drawing board for Morey and Co. or the dream board as they seem to view it. Few franchises, if any, aim higher than Houston, which has already voiced its desire to snag another big fish from the offseason waters.

    "We're going to have cap room to bring in a terrific free agent and I think next year we'll be a lot better than we were this year," Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said, via Marc Berman of Fox 26 Sports.

    The owner could prove prophetic on the latter. The Rockets should be better next season. Not only did Houston have the youngest roster of this postseason, it also had just 82 games to figure out the Howard-Harden dynamic. Clearly, there's still work to be done on that front.

    As for the former part of Alexander's quote, though, that's a little tricky to follow. The Rockets could have free-agent funds to throw around, but it's not without getting through several layers of red tape first.

    Houston has more than $59 million on the books for next season, via ShamSports.com, and would need to shed several significant salaries (think: Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin) to gain the buying power Alexander is apparently after.

    That red tape could be avoided if the Rockets follow the same path that netted them Harden: the trade market. That's where big names can be found in abundance, a claim this free-agent market couldn't make unless things go sour in South Beach.

    Houston, as always, will be after a notable name. Some on this list are more recognizable than others, but all should invigorate a fanbase.

    After that criteria, it's up to the Rockets to decide what they desire. There are superstar scorers and dominant defenders potentially available if Morey just makes the necessary call.

Arron Afflalo, SG/SF, Orlando Magic

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    In terms of name power, Orlando Magic swingman Arron Afflalo finds himself on the bottom rung of this star-studded list. In terms of valuable production, though, one could argue he'd find himself at the opposite end of the spectrum.

    The seventh-year wing broke out in a big way this season. He set a career high in scoring with 18.2 points per game, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from three, along with a personal-best 16.0 player-efficiency rating.

    Offensively, he looked a bit overexposed as the team's primary scorer, but he wouldn't have to play that role in Houston. Defensively, he could give the Rockets the lockdown they currently lack on the wing.

    And he'd do it all at a very reasonable rate. The 28-year-old is owed just $7.5 million for next season, via ShamSports.com, and holds a $7.5 player option for the following year.

    Afflalo spent the majority of the 2013-14 campaign on the trade market, and while Orlando ultimately kept him around, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported in February the Magic could "revisit deals...in June."

    Hopefully, Morey took note of that tidbit. Afflalo could do a lot for Houston's 12th-ranked defense, an area the executive admitted he'll have to address this summer.

    The Rockets "need a top 10 defense to go along with our dynamic offense," Morey tweeted.

    It's hard to say if Houston has the developmental pieces to offer the youthful Magic, but it would be well worth Morey's time to check.

Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF, New York Knicks

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    Bringing in Carmelo Anthony would be such a trademark Rockets' move, it almost feels inevitable.

    The 29-year-old has said he intends to opt out of the final year of his contract and experience free agency for the first time in his career. Not that this is any news to Houston, of course, as the team has long been rumored to be one of the leading horses in this race.

    Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported in March that the Rockets, along with the Chicago Bulls, had "risen above" Anthony's potential suitors. A source told the Yahoo scribe Anthony planned to "give New York every option" to keep him around, but added that the former scoring champ would "explore" all possibilities.

    The Rockets would likely need to pull off a sign-and-trade to bring in Anthony, but perhaps there's one to be made. They could try selling Asik as a building-block big and Lin as a box-office boost, sweetening the offer with as many draft considerations as needed.

    A league source told Marc Berman of the New York Post Houston "will make a bid for Anthony" this offseason and even "asked the Knicks about Anthony before February's trade deadline."

    The interest seems real and every bit as high as Houston's aspirations.

    Melo would be something of a curious fit for the Rockets. Defense is optional (if that) in his book, and his offense involves the type of ball-stopping isolations that would further chew into the touches that already seem a bit too scarce.

    Still, he'd give the Rockets a three-headed monster as ferocious as any in the NBA. Houston would arguably have the league's best center, best shooting guard and most complete scorer.

    The potential for greatness is high enough for Houston to endure what could be a logistical nightmare getting all these pieces to mesh.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    It seems a matter of when—not if—Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving finds a new NBA home. The former top pick hasn't said as much himself, but there's simply too much smoke surrounding his reported unhappiness to believe there's not some type of fire at its source.

    ESPN Insider Chad Ford said during a January chat on SportsNation that Irving "has been telling people privately he wants out." During an April interview with Cavs: The Blog's Robert Attenweiler, ESPN's Brian Windhorst said Irving's "camp has been putting out there for years – years – that he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland."

    While Irving has publicly denied these reports, he's stopped short of pledging his allegiance to the franchise. "Twice I’ve given Irving the opportunity to say he’ll sign a max contract with the Cavs — once last summer and once in January," Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote. "Both times, he avoided the question."

    With a maximum contract extension offer likely headed his way this summer, the two-time All-Star could quiet some of the chatter around him by putting his name on the dotted line. But if he's truly unhappy to be there—and it sure sounds like he is—the Cavs have to consider shopping their biggest draw since LeBron James migrated to Miami in 2010.

    If (when?) that bridge is crossed, Cleveland might be after the type of immediate assistance Houston can provide.

    "Trading proven players for draft choices would set the team back into rebuilding mode, and I don't think that's the direction this team is heading," Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer wrote.

    Might a combination of Lin and/or Asik with versatile forward Chandler Parsons do the trick? It would definitely address the Cavs' needs on the wing and under the basket.

    Irving might seem like yet another ball-dominant scorer with his career averages of 20.7 points and 5.8 assists, but our perception of his skills has changed since his NBA arrival. Leading up to the 2011 draft, NBADraft.net's Aran Smith called Irving "a facilitator who shows the ability to make those around him better" who had "great vision and passing skills."

    That doesn't sound like the player who has suited up for the Cavaliers since, but perhaps Cleveland hasn't given him a supporting cast capable of elevating. He's never played with an electric scorer like Harden or a rim-protector like Howard.

    With the 28-year-old Howard serving as the senior member of this potential trio, this group could be dominant for a long time.

Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves are still working to convince Kevin Love that they can build a winner around him, but six consecutive losing seasons suggest otherwise.

    The Wolves chased the 2014 playoffs hard, acquiring win-now pieces such as Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger. The result of that effort? A 40-42 record, sadly the best during Love's six-year stay in The Gopher State.

    Love is understandably antsy.

    "I haven't been in the playoffs yet," he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports in December 2012. "I'm looking at my contract in the eye of two years from now, and if I haven't been to the playoffs – or it's been one playoff berth – well, it's going to be tough to say, 'Oh well, I'm going to stay here and continue to rebuild.'"

    Well, it's been nearly two years since Love made those comments, and he's yet to sample playoff action. It's that anxiety—along with Love's option to get out of his current contract next summer—that may lead Minnesota toward trading its top talent.

    A rugged rebounder (12.2 per game for his career), top-shelf scorer (26.1 points per game this season) and 6'10" floor-spacer (career 36.2 three-point percentage), Love is the ideal frontcourt presence to pair with Howard. Love's motor and basketball IQ have fueled his ascension to superstar status: three All-Star bids and one All-NBA selection.

    He's the type of player a team wouldn't move unless it absolutely had to. The Wolves apparently see him the same way, as ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported "Wolves owner Glen Taylor...will keep resisting trade offers until, as one insider puts it, he 'has no choice."

    So, Morey and his staff will do everything in their power to convince Taylor that time has come. "Houston will be lobbing frequent calls to Minnesota to test the Wolves' resolve, since Love would complement Howard better than pretty much anyone else you could nominate," Stein wrote.

    Love might make Houston's defense more vulnerable than it is, but with his addition, the Rockets would be well-equipped to win nightly races with upward of 110-plus points.

Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics

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    The already nearly fever-pitch rumblings surrounding Rajon Rondo's future with the Boston Celtics have somehow gotten louder.

    Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reported Friday that, "We've been hearing for a while and in more concerted tones here...that Rajon Rondo may be more available now than ever before." This news surfaced just one day after ESPNNewYork.com's Stephen A. Smith wrote that the New York Knicks had "snubbed a trade" that would have netted them the prolific point guard.

    A win-now talent such as Rondo makes no sense for the rebuilding Celtics. Throw in the fact the 28-year-old's contract is set to expire next summer and there is major motivation for Boston to see what the trade market has to offer.

    That search should lead Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to Houston sooner than later. The Rockets have been linked to Boston's floor general since before the February trade deadline passed.

    Interest apparently hasn't waned on Houston's end. "It's inevitable that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will likewise check in with his old boss Danny Ainge in Boston...just to make sure Rajon Rondo isn't suddenly available," ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote.

    Rondo could be exactly what the Rockets need. A shrewd decision-maker on the hardwood (career 8.4 assists against 2.8 turnovers), he's smart enough to strike the balance that gets Howard and Harden back on the same page. Rondo can call his own number when needed (career 11.1 points on 47.5 percent shooting), but he's always looking to get his teammates involved.

    Despite standing just 6'1", his freakish physical tools would allow him to share the floor with bulldog defender Patrick Beverley. With a two-point guard look, a common trend in today's downsizing league, Houston could close some of its problematic defensive holes.

    Offensively, the fit looks great. Defensively, it sounds even better. If the paper version winds up better than the on-court product, Houston can cut its losses and go superstar searching again next summer.

    With the way this this team operates, the Rockets might continue aiming for the stars even with their locker room littered with them.


    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.