The NBA's trade deadline is fast approaching this Thursday afternoon, and if history tells us anything, it's that we know Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey will make at least one deal. For Rockets fans, it's a tradition like no other — every season since taking over the reins of the Rockets, Morey has been unable to hold off the transaction bug. He will make a deal, people.
This season, however, the smoke being generated is far more cathartic, as Morey's 15-man roster creation, in this all-in season, is teetering on the brink of a massive, unfortunate facelift. At 27-28 at the All Star break, the Rockets need some sort of jolt just to get back into the Western Conference's top eight teams, and it appears that, if that jolt does occur, it could involve the one piece that Morey coveted and pursued longer than any other — center Dwight Howard.
Morey's dangling of the eight-time All Star center was first reported by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski last week, and was reiterated with some more granular detail yesterday by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:
Dwight Howard could be moved by Thursday's trade deadline. Miami is talking with Houston about a deal that would include Hassan Whiteside.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 15, 2016
For Morey, whose pursuit of Howard was a multi-year emotional roller coaster and a massive project with numerous steps along the way, dealing the 30-year-old center would have to be about as emotional a transaction as the basketball gods could cook up. After all, it was less than nine months ago that the Rockets were on a run to the Western Conference Finals with virtually the identical group that finds itself sub .500 in the middle of February.
So let's look at the possible trade partners for the Rockets and the likelihood that they get a deal done with said teams. For the record, I think ultimately Morey holds onto Howard, makes a small deal or two involving a few role players, and hopes that the Rockets catch fire in April. It's far from a perfect recipe for a return trip to the conference finals, but the Rockets have put themselves in this spot. No one else is to blame.
Now for the possible Howard suitors...
Any deal with the Heat is likely based around a swap of centers, with Howard heading to South Beach and Hassan Whiteside heading to Houston. In doing so, the Rockets are basically trading for a younger, healthier version of what Dwight is now, with some sign-ability issues because of how Whiteside's Bird rights work. It's not as simple as "just give him a max deal in free agency" with Whiteside. The interesting part of any Miami deal is what could be attached to Whiteside. Justise Winslow in any shape, form or fashion is probably pie in the sky. Goran Dragic is a possibility, but his contract (Tragic is nearly one year into a five-year, $86 million deal) is an albatross. More likely, it would be a bunch of salary filler like Luol Deng and Birdman Andersen. (Note: Any potential deal with Miami has to be considered under the dark cloud of reports that Chris Bosh may be dealing with medical issues again. Who knows how this affects Miami's willingness to deal?)
Likelihood: 25 percent
From a "sensible trade partner" standpoint, Boston has always made the most sense for Morey and the Rockets, as the Celtics have a ton of assets (multiple future first-round picks, young players) that fit Morey's likely criteria (short of getting an All-Star in return), which, first and foremost, means no clogging up the salary cap long-term with bad deals. Any deal with Boston would likely include David Lee's expiring contract just to make the numbers work, and would likely not include All-Star Isaiah Thomas or the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected first round-pick. Any combination involving one or more other first-round picks and one young player (Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk) would be a win for the Rockets, and, with Howard, the Celtics would all of a sudden become a contender for the Eastern Conference finals, which would be valuable experience for a young team in future seasons, even if they don't sign Howard long-term.
Likelihood: 20 percent
The drop-off in likelihood of getting a deal done is fairly precipitous, in my opinion, after Miami and Boston. Cleveland makes sense from the standpoint that they are looking to make a deal, and could be having buyer's remorse over the five-year deal they gave Kevin Love this past offseason. Some form of a Howard-for-Love deal — they may need to throw in some more peripheral pieces like Trevor Ariza on the Rockets' side and Timofey Mozgov and/or Anderson Varejão on the Cavs' side — would give the Cavaliers a premier presence on the glass and defensively, and they would not need to be hellbent on re-signing Howard after the season's over either. (Sidebar — how badly would the Cavs like to have the Wiggins-for-Love deal back?)
Likelihood: 5 percent
I mix this one in, courtesy of my SportsRadio 610 colleague, Adam Spolane....
I'm told Rockets, Heat, Hawks discussing 3-way. Howard to ATL, Horford and Teague to Mia, Dragic and Whteside, Anderson to Hou.— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) February 15, 2016
This version of the deal nets the Rockets pretty much the same package we discussed above concerning Miami. This deal may make more sense for the Heat, especially if there are health issues with Bosh, as Horford would give Miami an offensively skilled big with post moves and range. Atlanta reportedly is not ready to move on this deal unless the Heat mix in Justise Winslow, which makes sense.
Likelihood: 5 percent
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PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
This one is completely courtesy of Bill Simmons's podcast, in which he makes a decent case for the Rockets, Blazers and Nets doing some business together in a trade ménage à trois....
Portland gets Dwight Howard. Houston gets Joe Johnson and Mason Plumlee. Brooklyn gets Ty Lawson and Tim Frazier from Portland. So Brooklyn saves $12 million, and they get a flyer on Ty Lawson, because they were going to buy out Joe Johnson anyway, so instead of buying him out, cut $10 million off your cap.
Houston would save about $8 million, and that gets them well under the tax. And you could make a case that putting Plumlee in there, playing him 20 minutes a game with [Clint] Capela and [Donatas] Motiejunas, and getting [Howard] and Lawson off the team from a chemistry standpoint - they might actually be better...
Portland's $20 million under the cap, they're going nowhere, they have no reason not to spend that money - they're owned by Paul Allen. Why not take a look at Dwight Howard for 30 games? What's the downside? Just check him out!
Likelihood: 1 percent
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.