Houston Rockets Trade Deadline Report Card: Grading the Team's Assets

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IFebruary 12, 2011

Houston Rockets Trade Deadline Report Card: Grading the Team's Assets

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    Feb. 24 weighs on each member of the Houston Rockets like a sack of bricks compounded by a tractor trailer filled with washing machines.

    It hangs over the locker room and leaves a signature stench like fish guts suspended by a clothesline.

    The date forces players to keep their realtors on speed dial and their humility and interview savvy available for whenever the questions come. If only that dreadful day arrived as quickly as the "what next" inquiries do.

    The trade deadline provokes shivers throughout numerous rosters. It looms as the inevitable period when, if something is meant to change, it will. For the 25-29 Rockets, it might cause some to suffer from hypothermia.

    The cold nature of the NBA business may dwarf Houston's rare inclement winter weather of late for its professional hoopsters. The Rockets won three in a row, including a tenacious triumph in Denver, before Tuesday's embarrassing, disgraceful loss to the 13-win Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Kurt Rambis' squad, which was also playing on the second night of a back-to-back, stole the affair despite the absence of four rotation regulars—leading scorer Michael Beasley, Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster and Darko Milicic.

    As Houston's postseason hopes fritter and slip-slide away, GM Daryl Morey insists he does not consider anyone "untouchable." He reiterated that stance Thursday morning during his weekly radio show on the city's top sports talk station.

    As someone in the know, I have been asked by many, including Bleacher Report editors, to rank the players most likely to exit via a transaction. It is impossible to do, though, because no two opposing executives seem to view the Rockets' assets the same way.

    One franchise's brain trust might still covet Aaron Brooks above anyone else. Another might demand Luis Scola. A third might see a way to tap into more of Chase Budinger's faculties.

    Since I cannot talk to the GMs to gauge their opinions, I have to rely on game action and their stated desires to evaluate trade possibilities. It makes more sense to grade each player/asset and examine his/its appeal than to fashion a ranking based on 100 percent guesswork.

    Morey's chief target remains obvious and out of reach. The Rockets want Carmelo Anthony as much as the New York Knicks. The difference: 'Melo wants to come "home" to New York, and the Knicks front office spent the previous two seasons gutting the roster, so it could use the resulting cap space to woo the next franchise savior.

    Amar'e Stoudemire snatched his $100 million paycheck. Donnie Walsh would love one of his final acts as an executive to include pairing his pogo stick pick-and-roll finisher with the game's best pure scorer. The hullabaloo surrounding the marriage Anthony and Walsh hope the Nuggets will make happen in the next two weeks cannot diminish how much Morey would love to steal 2011 free agency's top prize.

    Anthony's uncertain future continues to drive the market because what Denver GM Masai Ujiri does with him also determines the availability of Chauncey Billups and Nene. The Rockets consider the Brazilian big a terrific puzzle piece worth the painful price.

    Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and other established names will continue to surface in deal discussions until Feb. 24 passes.

    The players cannot leave that date in the rearview mirror soon enough. They know a plane ticket and an address change could come at any moment. No one is safe. Not Yao Ming. Not Scola. Not Shane Battier. Not Brooks.

    With that in mind, I decided to group the assets and expiring contracts the Rockets can dangle. I listed the rest of the players in alphabetical order.

The Trevor Ariza Trade Exception

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    What Is It? Morey acquired the $6.3 million exception when he sent Ariza to New Orleans in the four-team transaction that landed Courtney Lee in Houston. It works as cap space but can only be used in a deal. It expires after one year. A team gets one when it jettisons more salary than it receives.

    As salary cap guru Larry Coon notes, the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement does not explain or define trade exceptions in a simplistic way.

    It is, in fact, complicated as hell. No one breaks it down better than Coon. Click here and explore his FAQ if you have not done so yet.

    Why Teams Would Want It: This snazzy exception will attract suitors as a potential means to facilitate an expensive deal. The Rockets may use it in a one-for-one move that supplements a multi-player swap. If Morey allows it to expire, as he did with a recent one, it becomes a useless relic.

    Drawbacks: A traded player exception may not look as sexy with CBA doomsday approaching. A work stoppage figures to lessen the number of teams willing to take on additional salary and what the rest will pony up to secure impact performers.

    Grade: B

2011 First-Round Pick

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    The Skinny: Morey convinced Walsh the previous February to relinquish two successive draft picks—first-rounders in 2011 and 2012—in the three-team deal that saw Tracy McGrady, Carl Landry, Kevin Martin and Jordan Hill switch uniforms. You think the Knicks GM wants those back now? Oops.

    Houston can swap positions with New York if it so chooses. The pick is top-1 protected.

    Why Teams Would Want It: Draft picks qualify as "throw-ins" because they carry no monetary value. The chance, though, to gamble on that unknown selection becoming an integral contributor tantalizes GMs in the throes of rebuilding. How many other squads can package talented youngsters, expiring contracts and sweeten the payoff with a first-rounder?

    Drawbacks: A potential lockout, again, plays the bummer role here. A draft with no immediate franchise changers—or so many scouts think—makes the prospect of moving down or staying put easier to stomach. Is there a talent in the Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose or John Wall mold worth the trouble?

    The Knicks' firm grip on the sixth seed in the weaker Eastern Conference also makes it doubtful they will pick higher than the squad that retains possession. Right now, given a mediocre 25-29 record fit for the lottery, the Rockets would swap only if they decided to move down.

    Grade: B-

Aaron Brooks' Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $2,016,692

    Age: 26

    Why Teams Would Want Him: He torched the Lakers in a playoff series two years ago and boasts the speed necessary to assault the rim at will. He can light it up in a hurry and wants to shoot in clutch situations. His competitive streak keeps him employed even more than his dribble-drive game. The youngster, in the final year of a rookie deal, can still grow.

    A trade partner with a jones for an All-Star caliber scoring guard will dial Brooks long-distance and want to see if he can do the same in a new uniform.

    Drawbacks: His rookie paycheck makes it difficult to peddle him as a transaction centerpiece. To get Anthony, Nene or other coveted veterans, Morey would need to surrender several more players to make the money match.

    Brooks has blanked himself and misfired in a vital contract year. His season-long frustration with his role and minutes behind Kyle Lowry caused him to storm to the locker room. His shenanigans earned him a one-game suspension and a huge slice of humble pie.

    He does not use his quickness enough on the defensive end and often gives up many more points than he drops.

    Case in point: season-high outings for Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn in the Timberwolves' Tuesday win at Toyota Center.

    Grade: B-

Chuck Hayes' Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $1,972,500

    Age: 27

    Why Teams Would Want Him: Gritty post defenders are difficult to unearth. Why not rent an inexpensive one for half a season and see if he fits? His dogged play in the paint is a sight to behold. He does not cede an inch to his opponent, even when it seems a substantial height difference should handicap him every night.

    Drawbacks: One of the shortest starting centers in NBA history cannot provide much rim protection or financial relief. If a trade partner wants a defensive specialist for a few months, it can bring on a certain small forward with a more appreciable offensive game and a contract that yields about $5 million more in savings this summer.

    Grade: D+

Ishmael Smith's Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $473,604

    Age: 22

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The undrafted rookie has played sparingly but showed potential as an emergency backup point guard. His court vision is exemplary, and his foot speed rivals that of Brooks. He plays with a fearless abandon easy to admire and embrace. 

    Drawbacks: The Wake Forest product cannot shoot a lick, tends to overhandle the ball and figures to remain a third-stringer, barring an incredible development in his game. As with Hayes, his poor grade reflects more on his puny contract than his on-court performance. The Rockets should keep him in the program to see what percolates.

    Grade: F

Jared Jeffries' Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $6,883,800

    Age: 29

    Why Teams Would Want Him: A defensive specialist that accepts his role without significant complaints will retain his value for that alone. The termination of his deal, though, ranks as the chief reason to acquire him. A lot of owners would welcome an extra $6 million of financial relief. A few will covet the cap space that could help woo Anthony, if he lasts until the free-agent market.

    Drawbacks: Jeffries can play sedulous defense, but his inadequate rebounding negates any positive impact he can make on that end. Battier makes more money and does more on both sides of the ball.

    Grade: C

Shane Battier's Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $7,354,500

    Age: 32

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The respected locker room leader's meticulous approach has drawn rave reviews from every coach who has worked with him. He acts as both a moral compass and a GPS for younger teammates. He spends hours studying scouting reports and his opponents. 

    Did I mention his $7.3 million contact expires this summer?

    Face it: Some owners just want to pocket some extra cash. Others hope the financial flexibility will fund roster improvements. His deal would afford a franchise both.

    Drawbacks: At 32, he has lost a step, and some of his astute defensive tricks no longer produce the intended results. A GM looking to go young may shun Battier in favor of a combination of other vernal pieces. Still, he should not rank as a hard sell in trade discussions. That is, if, Morey can stomach parting ways with such a solid soldier. 

    Grade: A-

Yao Ming's Expiring Contract

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    2010-2011 Salary: $17,686,100

    Age: 30

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The likelihood he does not play another professional basketball game is irrelevant. When his salary clears the books, it will yield massive savings. GMs and owners want the soon-to-terminate contract, not the injury-riddled player. If this sounds cruel or unfair, welcome to the business side of sports.

    The Rockets will dump his deal but not for garbage. If the ideal offer surfaces, nothing Morey has said indicates he will turn it down. Yao's second stress fracture in as many years should end his career and any notion that a coach can ever rely on him again as a cornerstone. If he retires this summer, no matter where Morey sends him, he does so a Rocket lifer.

    Drawbacks: Not many trade targets make $17 million. The Rockets would include his mammoth contract if another team insisted on jettisoning some additional multi-year deals. The Nuggets, for example, could require the Rockets to assume J.R. Smith and another player, if they want Nene.

    Grade: B+

Brad Miller

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    2010-2011 Salary: $4,400,000

    Age: 34

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Two

    Why Teams Would Want Him: At least one GM needs a hunting buddy.

    Drawbacks: An unathletic, flat-footed jumpshooter with the NBA's slowest first step will not appeal much to an organization in rebuilding mode. His age, defenselessness and the money left on his deal make him a burdensome acquisition.

    Grade: D+

Chase Budinger

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    2010-2011 Salary: $780,871

    Age: 22

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Two (but not guaranteed)

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The Rockets might have refused his inclusion in a deal last summer. He seems as expendable as ever. Would a change of scenery benefit both Budinger and Brooks?

    Some executives will wonder enough to inquire about the former Arizona standout's availability. He can still soar and knocks down triples and mid-range bombs with one of the league's best-looking strokes. He comes cheap and with plenty of upside to make amendments in the next few seasons.

    Drawbacks: He has failed to become the consistent reserve slasher that began to emerge last season. Instead of attacking the basket, he camps beyond the arc and settles for what he can get in simple, often crude sets. His man-to-man and team defense are nauseating. The best shooter and athlete on a team should manage and play more than does.

    Grade: B-

Courtney Lee

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    2010-2011 Salary: $1,352,640

    Age: 25

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: One

    Why Teams Would Want Him: Morey dealt away Ariza one year after declaring him a long-term piece with star potential. No one has ever accused the GM of being gun-shy.

    Lee's adhesive, impactful defense would mean more on a more cohesive unit. His 23-point effort in Tuesday's loss also showed he can score when called upon.

    Drawbacks: It is tough to determine if his transient stints with New Jersey and Houston, two miserable defensive outfits, have altered his reputation as a stopper. He did start on a Finals team, but the Magic, Nets and Rockets each wanted him to do more. Is he capable? Can he handle that extra workload?

    He merits a high grade because GMs can wait a little longer on a 25-year-old. Given that Morey almost sold the farm to move up and draft Lee, he might choose to exercise patience.

    Grade: B+

Jordan Hill

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    2010-2011 Salary: $2,669,520

    Age: 23

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One:

    Why Teams Would Want Him: Tall guys with upside tend to get multiple chances to succeed in the NBA (remember Robert Swift?). A 6'10", 23-year-old project with his vertical leap will stick somewhere, even if Houston turns out not to be that place. He has flashed his promise enough to cause some salivation.

    Drawbacks: Inconsistency and lethargy landed him back in Rick Adelman's doghouse by mid-January. GMs have to start wondering how a guy with so much physical ability and brawn could not nail down a rotation spot in New York or Houston. Does Land O' Lakes sponsor his hands? Those buttery palms could not hang onto a keychain or an eating utensil.

    Grade: C+

Kevin Martin

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    2010-2011 Salary: $10,600,005

    Age: 28

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Two

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The Rockets' stick of scoring dynamite averaged 30 points at home in late December through January. An established starter who can put the ball in the basket and get to the free-throw line 8-10 times a game need not worry about his future employment prospects.

    His pump-fakes even work against Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade on select possessions. Everyone seems to bite when he jumps. The difference is whether the referee closest to the play feels like whistling a foul.

    When he puts his head down and charges at the rim, his foray often ends with a dunk or two freebies. He is not a superstar, and never will be, but Morey is not the only GM to view Martin as an elite, efficient shooter.

    Drawbacks: Some GMs consider his contract reasonable. Others loathe it as an albatross. Either way, he makes eight figures for what he accomplishes on one side of the ball. He does not defend or possess the remarkable court vision his crippled predecessor, Tracy McGrady, did.

    Morey will demand a lot if anyone asks about Martin.

    Grade: A

Kyle Lowry

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    2010-2011 Salary: $5,750,000

    Age: 24

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Three

    Why Teams Would Want Him: Blame the Cleveland Cavaliers for signing Lowry to an exorbitant offer sheet. Morey knew he needed to match it, given his change-of-pace guard's propensity to draw charges and dictate tempo. The chip on Lowry's shoulder spans several city blocks. It eclipses the Williams Tower.

    He runs the offense with gusto and espouses contact. Those qualities compensate for his shortcoming: size, and the tendency to settle for low-percentage shots and run out of gas. If a squad needs another floor general, he would more than suffice.

    Drawbacks: When he becomes a trigger-happy, dribble-down-the-clock player, his teammates lose. Even the ones on the bench. He continues to demonstrate poor clock management and an inability to set up quality looks for others in crunch time. The elite point guards conquer the middle and dish for layups and uncontested jumpers.

    Other GMs may scoff at paying him $18 million the next three years.

    Grade: B-

Luis Scola

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    2010-2011 Salary: $7,775,378

    Age: 30

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Four

    Why Teams Would Want Him: It will take an outrageous offer to pry one of the league's best hustle hounds from Morey. It just so happens the Rockets need an outrageous deal to lift them from mediocrity.

    He treats loose balls like drowning family members. He does everything possible to save them. Scola boasts one of the NBA's most expansive post repertoires. It features an array of up-fakes, spin moves and up-and-under finishes. He willingly backs down his man in clutch situations and is an adept passer when given enough time to read the defense.

    He still ranks as a bargain, too.

    Drawbacks: Opponents can expose his slow-footed coverage on a dreadful defensive unit. He needs more frontline help than any team that might go shopping for him could provide. Athletic forwards feast on him. He can be reduced to a jumpshooter in certain matchups.

    How much use does a rebuilding squad have for a 30-year-old who might not produce much beyond his current deal?

    Grade: A-

Patrick Patterson

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    2010-2011 Salary: $1,823,280

    Age: 21

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Four

    Why Teams Would Want Him: The cerebral forward landed with a lottery team that needs frontcourt assistance in spades. The Rockets should hesitate to dangle him before affording him a proper look. His range on defense is terrific, and he could bag 20-footers in his sleep.

    Patterson often scopes out the right play instead of the highlight-reel one, though a few put-back flushes in December were SportsCenter-worthy.

    Drawbacks: Limited daylight decreases the sample size other GMs can use to measure his pro value. What he accomplished in college is irrelevant now. He needs steady minutes and the chance to coalesce with quality players. After occupying Hill's former spot, he has returned to his previous mop-up duty role. He is also undersized as a 4 or 5.

    Grade: B

Terrence Williams

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    2010-2011 Salary: $2,214,480

    Age: 23

    Years Remaining on Contract After This One: Three (with team options for each)

    Why Teams Would Want Him: Doesn't every coach believe he can transform an under-utilized, underachieving, high-flying athlete with attitude problems into a rotation cog and winner?

    Drawbacks: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it...Brooks was suspended for leaving the bench to stomp off to the locker room. Would the Rockets fine Williams for leaving the bench to enter the game?

    Grade: C