Even amidst a 36-17 start that has exceeded the expectations of most experts who cover the NBA and has certainly far exceeded the expectations of the wagering public (the Rockets were forecast for a 48-34 record by wagering outlets in the preseason), the Rockets have needs, needs that have frankly become magnified in the absence of Dwight Howard for the past few weeks, and will continue to be so in the next few weeks.
Another big man would certainly be helpful, as depth and/or insurance to protect against Dwight's balky knee. Hopefully, names like Utah's Enes Kanter or even Brooklyn's Brook Lopez could be in play for the Rockets (although matching salaries on Lopez, admittedly, may be tricky).
But as much as size would help, what the Rockets clearly need, Dwight or no Dwight, is another creative offensive player to take some of the pressure off of James Harden, who right now is the only Rocket who can consistently go get baskets for this team in more than one or two ways.
Enter Goran Dragic.
Deals are all about leverage, an intricate combination of supply, demand, timing and the cumbersome rules that govern every NBA general manager's ability to construct a roster. The trade deadline is next Thursday, February 19, and Daryl Morey's making a deal of some sort at the deadline has become an annual tradition, like the All Star Game or Kendrick Perkins actually scoring in double figures that one time each season.
The Rockets have an acute need for a creative offensive perimeter player. The Suns have three point guards who are all pretty-to-very good offensive perimeter players -- Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Dragic. So we have both supply and demand here.
Dragic's contract situation makes him the logical target, what with Bledsoe and Thomas both in the first year of lucrative four deals they inked this past offseason. Rockets fans are acutely aware of how Dragic's contract works because it was the very structure of his deal that led to his leaving Houston more than two seasons ago, when Morey refused to give Dragic a deal that included a player option for the fourth year. (The deal is in its third year right now.) The Suns, as it turned out, were happy to do that, and gave Dragic a four-year $30 million deal with a player option for Year 4. (The Rockets moved on and gave Jeremy Lin a three-year $25 million deal instead, and let's just say we'd ALL like to have that one back.)
Dragic's deal has been one of the best bargains in the league over the past two seasons, with the former Rocket performing at a near All-Star level for the Suns, making it a virtual certainty he will opt out of his deal at the end of the season, regardless of which team he winds up playing for to close out 2014-2015. On the open market this coming offseason, Dragic should be able to land around what Bledsoe got ($14 million per year).
So if you're the Suns, dealing Dragic makes sense because you realistically are not a title contender and he is a major asset at a position where your cup runneth over. If you're the Rockets, the point guard position has devolved into a major weakness on this team, with Patrick Beverley's offense unraveling to the point that he would need to defend at a Defensive Player of the Year level to make sense getting starter's minutes for a contender. (NOTE: Beverley is not defending at a near Defensive Player of the Year level.)
The Suns reportedly are looking for a first-round pick in a deal for Dragic, but my guess is that there will be enough interest to drive that price up, even with the possibility that Dragic represents a pricy rental for a team if he were to leave in free agency.
The Rockets have the Pelicans' first-round pick that they received in the Omer Asik trade, which would remain unprotected if the Pelicans stayed where they are now in the draft's pecking order (around the 13th or 14th overall pick). You'd need to include some players in the deal to make salaries match up, and the ESPN Trade Machine says that a deal including Terrence Jones and, say, Kostas Papanikolaou would get it done.
If you're the Suns, that deal gives you a late lottery pick, a young, cheap (for one more year) 3/4 wing who was a starter for a playoff team last season, and a dude with a really long last name. If you're the Rockets, you have a point guard who actually allows you to say with a straight face that you're keeping up with the "point guard arms race" in the West and someone that you can reasonably say is a third star player on a contender. (You would also have the Bird rights on that player, so if you wanted to re-sign him for whatever it took, you could.)
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More important, Dragic gives the Rockets a plus offensive player who can take some of the pressure off of James Harden. With Dragic, it doesn't have to be that every play somehow run through Harden in order to get easy baskets. Dragic has a skill set similar to Harden's, with range on his jump shot and an ability to get into the teeth of a defense and attract attention.
So we ask of you, Daryl Morey, keep tradition alive. Make the deal. And let's just hope that when it comes time for Dragic to re-up, he wasn't spending a lot of time sitting next to Dwight Howard on the bench...