Daryl Morey is arguably the most aggressive general manager in the league. Just in the last year, he stripped down his roster in pursuit of Dwight Howard, gave $25 million to a pair of players with a collective 27 starts between them, and spent $80 million and two lottery picks on a bench player from the Thunder.
Now, with the team sitting on some $7 million in cap space and a pile of power forwards, most people are expecting Morey to make a big move. Whenever a player hits the trade market, most reporters are quick to assign interest to the Rockets because of this history of making big deals. Just in the past few weeks, they've been linked to everyone from Zach Randolph and Danny Granger to Josh Smith and Andrew Bynum.
But if you are out there expecting Morey to land another superstar at the deadline, I would say that a careful look at the team's finances would indicate that a move might be harder to pull off than one might believe.
Salary Cap Structure
Though the Rockets have nearly $7 million in cap space that they can use to facilitate a deal, they do not have any players outside of Lin, Harden, and Asik making more than $3 million this season. Even with adding in all three of their lower value expiring contracts (Cole Aldrich, Carlos Delfino, and Toney Douglas), the Rockets are only able to absorb a shade under $14.5 million in salary in any given trade.
In most of the scenarios being thrown around, that salary might be adequate. But if the Rockets need to sweeten the deal with young talent, the trades start to look a little more convoluted.
Take an imaginary deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for Pau Gasol. Even with Douglas, Delfino, and Aldrich in the deal, the Rockets would be some $5 million short what would be required under salary cap rules to fit Gasol's $19 million in. Add in Royce White, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Jones, and you have a deal that fits under the cap.
There's only one problem: the Lakers are trading one player away in return for six. That's not going to fly. In order to balance the deal out, the Rockets could take back the Lakers' lowest paid players, Robert Sacre, Antawn Jamison, and Darius Morris, but that once again puts the deal out of reach financially.
The fact is that this complete lack of substantial expiring contracts will be a hindrance to the Rockets as they try to do business this trade season, even with their cap space. If they are motivated enough to do a deal, they can probably find a third team willing to jump in, but that's a lot easier said than done.
It probably won't completely eliminate the chances of a big deal getting done, but along with the following problems, the salary structure will pose serious problems for the Rockets.
Draft Pick Situation
The lack of quality draft picks is what will likely present the bigger problem. Before the season, the Rockets were rich with draft picks. They owned the Bobcats second round pick (which will likely be in the top 2 or 3 in the 2nd round), Dallas' protected first rounder, and Toronto's double-protected first rounder, as well a pair of second round picks from the Knicks.
After the Harden trade, those reserves are significantly weaker. With the exception of the Knicks' second rounders, the Rockets do not own any excess draft picks (except for a ridiculously protected Clippers 2nd rounder that will almost certainly not be conveyed). On top of that, they owe their current first and second round picks to Atlanta and an additional second rounder to the Bucks.
The 1st round pick is protected and will not be conveyed this year if the Rockets fall into the lottery again, but that protection is almost a hindrance to the Rockets. Because of a rule in the CBA forbidding teams from trading future first round picks in consecutive years, the Rockets cannot offer a 2014 first pick in the draft. In fact, they can't even offer a 2015 first round pick because if they fall into the lottery this year, that would mean trading consecutive future first round picks.
All the Rockets can offer in terms of first round picks is a vague term called a pick in the "Next Allowable Draft." In that scenario, the Rockets can offer a pick that will occur in two drafts from the time the first round pick is conveyed to the Hawks. Because of the uncertainty behind that pick (it could be conveyed as late as 2018), nobody is going to give that much value.
Morey Has Used Most Of His Assets
With no draft picks to fall back on in a trade, the Rockets will be forced to use their young talent to close a big deal. Unfortunately, the Rockets have exhausted most of their cache of young assets in recent months. Royce White isn't getting anything more than a 2nd rounder (at best), and Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris are both pretty much known quantities at this point.
Terrence Jones? As intriguing of a player as he is, he hasn't had a chance to show it on the floor yet. Donatas Motiejunas? Same story. Until either one of them gets real playing time and shows they can play, NBA teams have no reason to give up meaningful players for them.
All that could change if either were given a shot to replace one of the admittedly awful power forwards playing in the rotation right now, but McHale does not seem to be in any kind of mood to make a move for either of them. With three weeks to go til the deadline, it doesn't appear that either Jones or Motiejunas will be a major piece in any trade.
With All That Said
Daryl Morey might make a deal that leaves our jaws on the floor at the deadline and surprise us. We at the Dream Shake will continue to cover the hell out of trade speculation, because, well, it's a lot of fun and people want to hear about it. But this year is very different from past ones. The Rockets have a much more stable core, they don't have a huge need to really shake things up, and they probably don't have the pieces to do so if they wanted to.
Regardless, sit back, read all the trade rumors you hear, and fantasize about Dwight Howard suiting up in Rockets red. But when the trade deadline comes around and the only deal the Rockets make is Cole Aldrich for a second rounder, don't be too disappointed.