From the beginning of his tenure in Houston, J.B. Bickerstaff had a system for addressing the team's stars as an assistant coach. At times, it was talking to Dwight Howard over here; at other moments, it was huddling with James Harden over there.
When Bickerstaff took over for Kevin McHale as interim Rockets head coach last November, it was with complete awareness that Harden and Howard had their own concepts of the team's reality.
Bickerstaff's goal was conflict avoidance.
Which doesn't necessarily make for a cohesive group.
The Rockets' failures finally forced a meeting with those three together—and general manager Daryl Morey—to get on the same page.
That communication has Houston hopeful anew that it doesn't have to jettison Howard before the NBA trade deadline Thursday.
The possibility of a Howard deal makes for such fascinating theater: the league's most prolific deadline dealer in Morey, a potentially huge-impact product to move that some could see as half-full and others could see as half-hearted, and the ticking clock.
If Howard is on the market, the resulting trade this week could presumably vault his new team—Boston? Atlanta? Cleveland?—into much better championship position, or Howard could be the bust many around the league see him as being for Houston despite the Rockets reaching the conference finals last year.
If Howard isn't going to be on the move, however, Morey would be wise to add some high-bonding glue.
Chandler "Sunshine" Parsons won't be coming back, but a veteran to help Bickerstaff broker peace and understanding between Harden and Howard—preferably someone who plays a decent number of minutes to command real respect—would be invaluable. The team has already brought back Josh Smith, but he's not the most professional of guys and was Howard's childhood friend; Jason Terry has a ring and definite perspective, but he has never been considered that type of steadying influence.
If Howard isn't really on the open market, that would likely mean this trade deadline won't upstage last year's—when 11 deals went down, with Goran Dragic, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Garnett among the intriguing moves.
But here are three other noteworthy players who make it at least possible the trade deadline will be a memorable one.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Like Howard, who is expected to opt out of his contract this summer to pursue a long-term deal, Horford could be viewed mainly as a rental for the rest of this season. He'll be a coveted piece in the coming free-agency free-for-all.
When Horford was asked about a possible trade in Toronto on All-Star Saturday, he was calm but vague about it. His level of security was not nearly what New York's Carmelo Anthony, also a subject of rumors, was espousing just a few seats away.
In a lot of ways, it would make sense for their teams to swap Horford and Howard (though Atlanta-native Howard makes far more money) to see how that might shake things up for two squads in awkward places.
The list of clubs that might rent someone even as good as Horford isn't what it was last season, when Portland packaged some young talent and a protected first-rounder just to rent Arron Afflalo.
The Celtics have the assets to offer, and they've been rebuilding so long that one of the precious picks is already dying off: Minnesota's first-round pick won't be conveyed this year with the Timberwolves almost certainly lottery-bound, and it thus dissolves into a second-rounder.
But Boston's organizational philosophy is not to overstate its chances of succeeding in any free-agent situation. Banking on Horford re-signing with Boston after being traded there is not the Celtics' style, as much as his versatility and reputation as an all-around good guy would be a fantastic fit for Brad Stevens' impressive group.
Timofey Mozgov, Cleveland Cavaliers
One more reason to believe the trade deadline could pass more quietly this year is that so many coaches have been fired recently.
Clubs rarely make a big move and then another big move; it's just too tumultuous for the players to build something amid so much change in a short period of time. So after the Cavaliers dumped David Blatt for Tyronn Lue, their best course of action is to build up Kevin Love as opposed to taking him out and trying to throw a new puzzle together in a couple of months.
Mozgov, though, presents a quandary. He could leave Cleveland with nothing this summer after the Cavs dealt two first-rounders in January 2015 for him to be their rim protector, a job Mozgov has been unable to retain this season.
Now that Blatt, whom Mozgov knew long ago in Russia, is gone, along with the game pace that Lue is determined to pick up, there is even less reason for Mozgov or the Cavs to believe. A smaller deal with Mozgov, perhaps to add more athleticism in Cleveland, is logical.
Let's not forget that Mozgov looked like a world-beater for a bit last season with his defense. He's nearly 30 already, but he has his admirers around the league—and the fact that he could help fetch something more useful for the East's consensus favorite means he could be a critical element at the trade deadline.
Among the role players Cleveland could use: the Lakers' Lou Williams, a truly gifted and unflappable scorer who could play well off LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the Cavs increasingly go small; Philadelphia's Robert Covington, a rare standout wing defender who is absolutely acquirable; and Memphis' Courtney Lee, a useful two-way player without a substantial role on a team that just lost its center (Marc Gasol) to injury.
Markieff Morris, Phoenix
He long ago asked to be traded, the Suns know he isn't happy and plenty of teams are interested in him. It's a perfectly sided triangle for the trade deadline, except the Suns simply have to hit a home run with this deal.
They have done well to reposition themselves into a reasonably powerful stance with Morris as trade bait. He is back to being productive on the court under Earl Watson after making most of this season a wasteland, so now it's at least fathomable that Morris could redeem himself in Phoenix.
The Suns know they don't want to live with this guy till the end of his contract in 2019, and it's a great contract for trading, too. It's not out of the question general manager Ryan McDonough makes a Morris deal wherein 14-40 Phoenix also trades away one of its many future draft picks and becomes a buyer, of sorts, by improving in the short term in addition to the long term.
The Phoenix locker room hasn't been a healthy place since Dragic and his confidence left. But Phoenix has to maximize the Morris trade piece to have hope that it can make a big jump in future chemistry, too, and let disappointing Tyson Chandler feel more comfortable as a supporting leader.
And if Morris moves on at the deadline, his talent base is such that whoever gets him will be excited, too. Because he’s 26 and so recently signed his contract extension, Morris makes sense for a rebuilding team (Orlando, Philadelphia, New Orleans) even more than one seeking a boost now (Houston, Indiana, Boston).
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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