The Houston Rockets are not having the season they wanted; that much is clear. What is murky now is the best course of action for the remainder of their season.
Houston is in seventh place in the Western Conference and just two games over .500. However, the Rockets are currently on a five-game winning streak and appear to be getting their act together. They are now only one game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 5 seed.
What general manager Daryl Morey does with the trade market depends on whether he feels getting better can push the Rox into contender status or if a few more bad losses will close them out.
For the purpose of this article, it’s important to distinguish between “rumor” and “speculation.” The former indicates that its source ultimately comes from the front office or an agent, even if it’s second- or thirdhand, and even if it's anonymous. Speculation means an idea spawned entirely in a writer’s mind.
A rumor is not necessarily true, and speculation isn’t necessarily meaningless. Agents will float suggestions to get things moving or pump up the value of their clients. Writers often speculate based on their awareness of the inner workings of a team, so they are in a good position to ponder possibilities—particularly if beat reporters are the ones doing the pondering.
“Rumor” suggests there might be discussions presently taking place, whereas speculation just means discussions potentially could take place.
Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Reports speculated that Dwight Howard is on the block: "Dwight Howard is extremely unhappy in Houston playing second fiddle to alpha dog James Harden, multiple league sources tell SheridanHoops.com. And with the Rockets underachieving more than any NBA team, look for them to try to move Howard later this season."
However, ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins challenged that thinking in an interview with Howard:
“It’s like they always say, if you ain’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, then it ain’t true,” Howard said. “Here’s the horse’s mouth. Of course, as a team we’ve been unhappy in the past with how we played and as individuals and our record and stuff like that and that’s rightfully so. Why wouldn’t we want that?
We expect better from ourselves, the city expects the best from us. We raised the bar and we’ve set the bar so high, so of course we are going to be unhappy with the way we’ve performed. But that’s why we’re out here working, trying to get better every day and that’s what our focus is. So if anybody tells you different about anything else, they’re just lying. It’s just noise.”
Whether Howard wants out or not, there are good reasons to deal him, especially if the Rockets aren’t looking like they are going to get more than a sixth-to-eighth seed this spring.
They have little chance of beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in a seven-game series. They have an even slimmer chance of getting past the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, who seem to be on a collision course for a Western Conference Finals that will be a series for the ages.
And even if the Rockets get to the second round, it's hard to fathom them getting past it.
Second, it appears that Howard is going to opt out of his contract this summer. And at that point, Houston will lose any trade collateral it has in him. Trading him now, at least, gives the Rockets something in return.
Third, Clint Capela is a rapidly maturing 5 who looks very much like he could be the future, so opening up playing time for him now, when it's in the Rockets' best interest to not win, isn’t such a bad idea.
Fourth, just missing the playoffs in the West is more advantageous than ever because the East is actually stronger this year. The ninth team in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers, is only better than three teams in the East. That would give them the No. 11 pick in the draft. The top team to miss in the East would get the No. 14 pick.
The future benefits of trading Howard are much greater than the risks. This is more speculation than rumor, but it’s not at all unrealistic.
The Ty Lawson acquisition has clearly been a bust, and the Rockets would love to find a taker for their offseason “prize.” Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reported back in December:
In what increasingly has become a fruitless experiment, the Houston Rockets are engaging in trade scenarios to move guard Ty Lawson, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
After a recent resolution in his court case for a DUI charge in 2014, the NBA suspended Lawson for two games on Friday. Since arriving in Houston this summer, Lawson has met his requirements off the floor and has had no new incidents. The push to trade him has been based on a poor basketball fit.
"Poor" might be too kind a description. Lawson is averaging 6.4 points and 4.2 assists in 24.7 minutes per game. He’s shooting 36.9 percent from the field, 32.3 percent from deep and has a minuscule 46.3 true shooting percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.com. His player efficiency rating is 9.6. And his Value Over Replacement Player is minus-0.6, meaning that, hypothetically, a scrub off the waiver wire would be helping the Rockets more than Lawson.
That sort of disastrous play is resulting in little to no interest, as Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported:
Even the Rockets, who have a long track record of expertly drumming up leverage in seemingly desperate trade scenarios, will struggle to find Lawson a new home. The trade market for him is minimal, league sources tell CBS Sports, and the best move for Houston might be to hold on to him.
There are even whispers in league circles that the Rockets might consider waiving the 28-year-old guard, who agreed to make his $13.2 million salary in 2016-17 fully non-guaranteed as part of the trade. But there are voices within the league that I trust who are dubious on that point; better for Rockets GM Daryl Morey to keep Lawson as a potential trade piece in another deal between now and the February deadline.
The chances are better than 50 percent that Lawson is not on the roster come season’s end. There’s a possibility that a team gets an injury to their starting point guard and determines he’s worth the gamble. Or there’s a scenario where the Rockets use him as contract ballast in a deal involving another player—as in trading Ty Lawson and Terrence Jones for Brandon Jennings, hypothetically.
What’s unlikely is that Lawson will ever be a regular, productive part of the Rockets rotation.
Tina Cervasio of SiriusXNBA tweeted that Corey Brewer could be on the block:
And one potential rumor has him being bundled together with Jones for the demonstrably disgruntled Markieff Morris, according to ESPN's Marc Stein:
And a Rockets offer of Corey Brewer and Terrence Jones, sources say, has not only been seriously discussed but the teams could get that deal done.
The problem: Brewer isn't quite clear to be dealt yet. Because the Rockets re-signed Brewer to a salary ($8.2 million) that exceeds his prior salary ($4.7 million) by more than 20 percent -- and because Houston is over the salary cap -- Houston can't deal the veteran swingman until Jan. 15 as opposed to Dec. 15.
This would make a lot of sense for the Rockets on multiple levels. They have a history of turning around players who were feeling castigated by their former teams. Look no further than last year's version of Josh Smith to illustrate that point.
To take Brewer's place in the lineup, they have a man waiting in the wings (see what I did there?) in K.J. McDaniels, who is currently assigned to the Rockets' D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Nor is it like Brewer's 9.8 PER would be especially missed. Frankly, given the chance to play, there's a possibility that McDaniels would be an upgrade over Brewer.
This is a rumor, and it makes sense. Because both teams have plenty of motivation to make the move, it would not be surprising if it gets done, perhaps even by publication of this article (Jan. 15).
Morey has never been one to shy away from making moves, and it's a good guess that something will be done involving one or more of the above players. The only thing that might change is what he asks for in return.
If the Rockets feel themselves falling out of the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round, they may be more inclined to be sellers and looking for a big move involving Howard. If they are feeling confident, a move that combines Jones with the ballast of Lawson or Brewer is more likely.
Stats current through games of Jan. 14.