But in agreeing to send Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans for a protected 2015 first-round pick, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Houston made the dream of acquiring a legitimate superstar like James or Anthony seem pretty darn real.
This Asik deal, though agreed upon in principle, can't happen until after the 2014 NBA draft because the Pelicans already owe this year's pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. They gave it up in the trade that brought back Jrue Holiday on draft night last season, and the so-called Stepien Rule in the league's collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from owing future first-rounders in consecutive years.
But once the draft is over and a few perfunctory days pass for salary-cap reasons, the runway will be clear.
With a bit more maneuvering, likely including a trade sending away Jeremy Lin and smaller deals to shift guys like Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan, Houston can clear up to $19 million in cap space. That's enough to draw serious interest in the biggest names on the market—if those names are interested.
This is a significant gamble.
Asik had value, both as an on-court producer and an expiring deal. If the Rockets wanted to wait for the summer of 2015 to make a play for the handful of exciting free agents available then, they could have simply trotted out a similar roster this year and allowed both Asik and Lin to come off the books.
Further damaging Houston's chances is the fact that both James and Anthony can collect more money this summer by staying put.
And finally, luring stars from East to West is always going to be a tough task. The West is exponentially tougher than the East, and, all things being equal, it makes much more sense for title-hungry talents to stay in the softer conference if they want a relatively unobstructed road to the Finals.
But gambles—especially bold ones like this—have become something of a Rockets specialty.
Per Sam Amick of USA Today, Rockets general manager (and possible wizard) Daryl Morey said:
We're always aggressive. That's just in our owner's makeup, whether it's adding Clyde (Drexler in 1995) to an already-championship team to adding (Charles) Barkley on a team (in 1996) that might have been just as good as their championship teams but came up short, to obviously doing moves for Tracy McGrady and then James Harden. Our owner has got aggressiveness in his DNA, and obviously I'm at the tip of his spear.
Could Houston's gambit fail?
But what if it doesn't?
Think about it: Melo's New York Knicks are already making moves that indicate they know he's ready to leave. The Tyson Chandler trade, as reported by Wojnarowski, could be construed as a play to get beneath the $81 million tax apron, which would allow the Knicks to take back a player in a sign-and-trade exchange involving Anthony.
Now, what the Rockets are doing would seem to make a sign-and-trade unnecessary, but the Knicks' swap nonetheless makes it seem like they've acknowledged Anthony is leaning toward an exit.
Perhaps Houston knows Anthony would like to be on the move as well.
And James can't be certain Dwyane Wade will allow the Miami Heat to rebuild this summer. For Wade, opting out of his current contract to take less money on a restructured deal—which, as part of a three-way pact between James and Chris Bosh, is really the only way for the Heat to create enough cap space to bring in new blood—seems crazy.
There's no way the declining shooting guard will ever recoup the nearly $41 million he's owed over the life of his current contract if he renegotiates. And if he's not willing to give that cash up, he could single-handedly prevent the Heat from giving James the help he needs.
That could make LBJ take a much longer look at alternative destinations.
The Rockets may not connect on what's looking like a home run swing. But they got a first-rounder from the Pelicans (who, by the way, are probably taking too hasty of an approach to building a winner) and can easily flip that asset for something else in the future.
The point is, Houston is getting into position to chase an elite talent. If successful in its pursuit, the possible core it could construct is downright scary.
The Rockets have been building toward this scenario for a couple of years, and they've been in the race for a big haul—and a new Big Three—from the moment James and Anthony made it clear they'd test free agency.
With this latest deal and the ones likely coming next, the Rockets did more than affirm they were in said race.
In fact, they may have just taken the lead.