Cap flexibility. Trade exceptions. Draft picks.
The Houston Rockets have them all. They just don't have enough of them—or enough of anything—to make their idealized visions come true.
Striking out on Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chandler Parsons in free agency, and fruitlessly unloading Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, hasn't repressed the Rockets' taste for making big splashes.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Rockets remain in typical mid-offseason form, lusting after two high-profile talents:
So look for Rockets to re-enter trade game for longtime Houston target Rajon Rondo as well as try to work their way into mix for Kevin Love— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 14, 2014
If true, this shocks no one.
Not just because general manager Daryl Morey and his Rockets heart big names, but because Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo are prized superstars who can turn the fortunes of an entire team. Placing them alongside Dwight Howard, James Harden and Trevor Ariza would make for an intimidating core.
Unfortunately, the Rockets don't have the assets to broker such trades—not after their offseason visions took a turn for the empty.
What the Rockets Have
The Rockets have very few of those.
Their best available assets at this point are stretch forwards Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, point guard Patrick Beverley, a handful of non-guaranteed pacts, the protected 2015 first-round pick they received from the New Orleans Pelicans in the Asik trade and the $8.3 million trade exception they created by sending Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers, per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required).
Offering some combination—any combination—of those assets won't get it done. Their main selling point is the ability to act as salary-dumping ground.
That's enticing enough when acquiring players on burdensome contracts, but not when trading for All-Stars.
What the Rockets Need
The market for Love specifically has already been set. Minnesota has fielded and subsequently rebuffed more impressive overtures from other interested teams.
Sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard the Cleveland Cavaliers were willing to relinquish Anthony Bennett, Dion Waiters and a future first-rounder. The Timberwolves have balked at their proposal thus far, demanding No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins to be included.
Those are the deals the Timberwolves are refusing. Not accepting or close to accepting, but rejecting.
Even if the Timberwolves eventually relent—and they may have to as the season wears on—the less than ideal returns Cleveland and Golden State are promising are more ideal than anything Houston can offer.
Discounts won't be found in Boston, either. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge won't hand over his franchise point guard for next to nothing or even a modest return.
Leading up to the 2014 trade deadline last February, two first-rounders were the starting point for any talks, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe. Two. As the starting point. As in, no suitors will be fleecing the Celtics in any Rondo deal.
As in, the Rockets—even if asking prices plummet—have little hope of breaking into these high-priority discussions.
What the Rockets Could Have Had
Entering the Love and Rondo frays would require Morey to enact a series of mulligans.
Parsons was the Rockets' most valuable trade piece upon reaching restricted free agency. He could have been used in a sign-and-trade, offering Minnesota or Boston the chance to house a budding swingman under a long-term contract.
All hope of using him as prominent bait dissipated once he inked his offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks.
It didn't matter whether the Rockets matched at that point—they didn't—because Parsons could no longer be signed and traded.
Two of their other most important assets were shipped out in attempt to land another star (Bosh). Lin and Asik hold debatable on-court values, but their worth as expiring contracts and serviceable rotation players added flair to any package built around financial relief.
Under no circumstances is this to say the Rockets are an awful team that won't make the playoffs next season. The situation doesn't demand that fans panic as pundits sound the alarm either, which Kevin O’Connor explains on Hardwood Paroxysm.
"Essentially, the Asik and Lin trades can be looked at as one large transaction," he writes. "Houston dealt them both and their own 2015 first rounder for a better first rounder, an $8.5 million trade exception, and cap flexibility."
Cap flexibility. Trade exceptions. Draft picks. All of those are good assets.
Used in the right deal, they're great assets.
They can help the Rockets acquire an impact player or two. They allow Morey to absorb an unwanted contract of a player the team sorely needs—legitimate point guard, anyone?
What Morey and the Rockets have done is position themselves to make a modest splash in lieu of the massive one they were initially targeting.
What they haven't done, as The Cauldron's T.D. Williams argues, is position themselves to replace preferred splashes with equally big or even bigger ones:
In essence, Morey has replaced Parsons with Trevor Ariza, an inconsistent journeyman coming off a career year who also happens to be a Rocket retread who lasted all of one season (during which he shot just south of 40 percent) during his first tour of duty in Houston before being shipped out. It’s not the first time Morey has re-signed a player he previously dumped for more money the second time around.
All of this leaves the Rockets in an all-too-familiar spot: heading into yet another season positioned to be an also-ran.
Landing a Love or Rondo would clearly elevate the ceiling of a Rockets team now facing more uncertainty, more questions, than intended. It they can find solace in knowing next season isn't already lost to unbending mediocrity.
There is still time to regroup from and recoup losses because of cap flexibility, trade exceptions and draft picks.
Do the Rockets have enough assets to trade for Kevin Love or Rajon Rondo?
Hope is found in those assets, in the potential to flip them for someone who can help the Rockets move forward.
When tied to Love, Rondo and other stars, though, it just isn't enough.
"The reality is that we couldn’t," Morey told SportsTalk 790 AM (h/t ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon) about matching Parsons' offer sheet. "This would have been our team. That would have been the team that we had and we had to be on bet on. We had to bet on that team or all the multitude of options we could have generated in the other scenario."
Options that include cap flexibility. Options that include trade exceptions. Options that include draft picks.
Options that, as currently pieced together, don't include the means to acquire Love, Rondo or any other superstar in the immediate future.