The Rockets have won 40 games before the All-Star break. They’re currently on pace for 57 wins for the season, which would be the most in a year since the Clutch City days. So it feels a little strange saying this, but the Rockets need to make a deal before the trading deadline.
Wednesday night’s loss to the Miami Heat, the Rockets’ second loss to the Heat this season (officially a sweep), illustrated the need for one or two minor, yet critically important moves if the Rockets are to compete for a title. Because thinking title is where we are right now. The Warriors, Cavs and Spurs may all be championship favorites ahead of Houston, but a 57-win third seed is as live of a dog as it gets. We should all have title aspirations.
Now I know that the last game before the break is supposed to be a tough one to get mentally up for, but I don’t totally buy that rationale. A truly good team should win that last game before break against a team they’re supposed to beat.
Take a quick look around the league at the other top teams. The Spurs pounded the Magic by almost 30. The Cavs beat a tough Indiana Pacers squad by 9. The Raptors won. So did the Golden State Warriors. “Last game before the break” is too simple a way to brush aside what really boils down to a bad loss.
The only winning teams other than the Rockets to drop one to an inferior opponent heading into the break were the Memphis Grizzlies, who were edged out at home by the Pelicans, and the Celtics, who lost in controversy last night against the Bulls while on the second night of a back to back.
Yes, I know the Heat have been playing good ball lately. But they’re still a 25-32 squad in the lowly and downtrodden back half of the East. The Rockets were rested, playing at home, and until Patrick Beverley went down mid-game with a sore groin, mostly healthy.
But if the loss can’t be easily brushed aside as a mental lapse, then it goes to reason there are other issues in why the Rockets took one on the chin Wednesday night. And it’s a lot of the same problems we’ve been suspecting all season might arise in the long run. But its nothing that can’t be fixed at the deadline if the Rockets are inclined to make any moves.
First, they could use another ball handler and/or another shooter. Ideally, this player(s) would actually be one in the same person. But a slight upgrade to the back court depth is something the Rockets could definitely use.
Never was that more evident than when Beverley never returned after the halftime break. With Bev gone and Mike D’Antoni having little faith in Tyler Ennis or K.J. McDaniels at the guard slot, there’s James Harden, Eric Gordon and then a barren wasteland. Gordon can handle some playmaking duties in a pinch, but it’s not ideal (he’s at his best as a pure scorer), and his playmaking has taken a noticeable dive since he’s been battling through nagging injuries of late.
But that’s the Eric Gordon package. We can just say that the guy has a bit of an injury history and leave it at that. After him? It’s all Corey Brewer all the time.
But the other questions is, can Beverley be trusted to be healthy either? I know it’s a function of his tenacious and frenetic play, but Bev’s injury history isn’t exactly a clean slate. If either of those guys (or even both, who knows) is hobbled come playoff time, the Rockets could be in a world of trouble against just about anyone in the postseason.
Remember, Houston was barely a .500 ball club when Beverley missed 11 games to begin the season, and they only caught fire in December after he returned. ESPN’s Calvin Watkins addressed this in his piece yesterday as well. No matter what the status of Bev’s injured groin, the Rockets should look to add another guard.
Daryl Morey should also explore the big man market. Hassan Whiteside completely punked the Houston frontcourt, and though there are only two top teams in the West with intimidating big men, Memphis and Utah just so happen to also be two of the teams that look like real possibilities to meet the Rockets in the first round. They’re also two of the teams the Rockets have struggled against the most in the regular season.
As much as we all like Clint Capela, the 22-year-old still lacks the consistency against some of the tougher frontcourts. Nene can only play well in short bursts at this stage of his career, and the 6’8” Montrezl Harrell is simply at a size disadvantage against the Rudy Gobert’s, Marc Gasol’s, and Zach Randolph’s of the world. Without some added reinforcements on the front line, a seven-game set against either Memphis or Utah makes me extremely nervous.
D’Antoni recently told the Houston Chronicle that he’s hoping for a quiet deadline, saying:
"We have great chemistry in the locker room and we have enough to win. I'm sure Daryl will be diligent as every general manager has to answer the phones and talk. That's their job. But I'm real happy with our group. We have a good group of guys. It's been fun, really a lot of fun to coach them."
But I can’t believe there’s not a part of the coach that wouldn’t love an upgrade to his available weapons for a playoff run.
So what’s out there right now? As far as big men go, there are the bigger names that the Rockets should avoid. Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Brook Lopez — all too cost prohibitive and would throw an albatross around the neck of Capela’s development.
But early in the year, the Rockets were rumored to be looking at Kosta Koufos. Guys like Amir Johnson and Taj Gibson are also said to be available at the deadline, and if the Rockets want to add a big, they should be perusing this second tier of frontcourt guys to add to and complement their current rotation.
As for backcourt players, Darren Collison is said to be available, as is current Sixth Man of the Year contender Lou Williams. How cool would it be to have the top two Sixth Man candidates together on the same team?
William is making $7 million per season and Collison makes just $5 million, so neither player has a prohibitive salary, and both would fill the need for another shooter and playmaker in the back court. Both the Kings and Lakers are looking for young players and/or draft picks for either of those veterans.
There’s also a third option being floated around the rumor mill at the moment, and that’s making a little bit of a larger deal for swingman Danilo Gallinari. Apparently, the Rockets have been showing interest. According to Blazer’s Edge:
“Gallinari’s father and agent, Vittorio Gallinari, reportedly said that the Houston Rockets have shown interest in his son. ‘I never called Mike D’Antoni (Rockets head coach) but I think that the interest of Houston for Danilo comes from Mike’s desire to coach him again.’ D’Antoni coached Gallinari with the New York Knicks in the 2008–09 and 2009–10 seasons. Gallinari is averaging 17.2 point per game as a starter for Denver this year.”
That move would certainly provide coach D’Antoni with another versatile weapon to utilize, but Dano and his $16 million salary definitely aren’t going to come cheap. That’s a major shakeup that would likely require more than one rotation contributor. A little more change than what the Rockets need at this time.
Regardless of how the deadline shakes out, the last half of the NBA season looks to be an exciting one if you are a Rockets fan. The team is winning, heading to the playoffs, and James Harden is an MVP candidate. It has the chance to be a memorable finish if the Rockets can just shore up a few areas, and the upcoming February 23 trade deadline could tell the story as to just how far the Rockets can go this year.