The most important four words in any report on a potential draft-day or predraft trade are: “No deal is imminent.” Still, the Rockets, flush with draft picks and cap flexibility, are always active in their search for a superstar, and so there is little reason to be skeptical of ESPN.com’s report that Houston is shopping the No. 14 and No. 16 selections for higher lottery picks via the Raptors (No. 8) and Kings (No. 5) — with an eye on a potential shot at Dwight Howard.
The steps here are complex and may involve Houston’s surrendering point guard Kyle Lowry, who has perhaps the best contract in the league. Lowry will make just $5.75 million next season and $6.2 million in 2013-14, and as if that wasn’t enough of a bargain for a very good starting point guard, only $1 million of that $6.2 million is guaranteed, according to ShamSports. The Rockets would be the first ones to tell you that Lowry’s contract ratchets up his value to a place far beyond where his prodigious basketball skills alone might take it.
The prospect of dealing Lowry for the Kings’ No. 5 pick or the Raptors’ No. 8 pick alone seems dicey, even factoring in Goran Dragic’s stellar two-way play during Lowry’s absence due to injuries and a bacterial infection. Dragic is an unrestricted free agent, leaving no guarantees he’ll return to Houston, and on the flip side, the Rockets are open to the idea that he and Lowry might be able to work effectively together. (Lowry doesn’t agree, and he isn’t keen on playing for coach Kevin McHale anymore, either.) Those lineups didn’t have much of an impact either way this season, but the sample size is small (316 minutes), and this season wasn’t exactly conducive to that kind of chemistry development.
(Just a reminder: Houston got Dragic and a first-round pick from Phoenix in exchange for Aaron Brooks. Ouch.)
Nevertheless, dealing Lowry for a mid-level lottery pick isn’t necessarily a bad outcome if the team is confident in Dragic’s return; the average production of a No. 8 or even No. 5 pick is exponentially lower than that of No. 1 or No. 2, but the ceiling remains quite high. The Rockets as constituted aren’t title contenders, and Lowry makes obvious sense for a Raptors team in need of a point guard to succeed Jose Calderon. Toronto’s Jerryd Bayless is a free agent, and though he finished last season on a scoring spree, the long-term track record suggests that he is not the post-Calderon solution. Lowry is better than Calderon now, particularly on defense (it’s a landslide), and he comes cheaply.
The end game for the Kings is less clear. They have a glut of ball-handlers already, especially after the emergence of Isaiah Thomas, last year’s No. 60 pick, as a quality offensive point guard. But, again, Lowry is such an attractive asset that having him never hurts, especially if the Kings are thinking about a broader shake-up that might involve parting with Tyreke Evans in a larger deal. And Thomas must still prove he can grow into a semi-reliable defender.
Lowry is so attractive, however, that I’m skeptical that the Rockets would deal him without some larger goal beyond a higher draft pick in a muddled draft. And as Chad Ford and Marc Stein note in the ESPN.com report, that larger end game could be Howard. The Rockets have long been willing to deal for Howard without any up-front assurance that he would sign there long term. I have never heard anything to dispute reports that Houston was at least in the ballpark of a Howard blockbuster ahead of the March 15 trade deadline — until Howard opted in with the Magic for next season, effectively delaying the issue again. Howard is a transformational player, worthy of such a risk, especially in a market that (like most NBA markets) has very little history of luring the best free agents via straight-up free agency, despite the best efforts of Houston general manager Daryl Morey and his crew.
If the Rockets could somehow snag two top-10 picks, they could theoretically offer Orlando those assets, plus the cap flexibility to take on Hedo Turkoglu’s toxic contract while sending out only Kevin Martin’s expiring deal along with the picks. The math is tight and dependent on a few minor variables, but given the relatively cheap cap holds attached to Dragic and restricted free agent Courtney Lee, plus the fact that center Samuel Dalembert’s deal carries only $1.5 million guaranteed, that basic trade is probably workable with only minor adjustments if need be. (And, of course, if the Rockets miraculously procure these precious picks without surrendering Lowry, they could include him as the main bait in a Howard deal. Orlando’s longtime starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, may decline his player option for next season.)
But there are a ton of shaky steps leading to that destination. It would seem difficult for Houston to acquire two top-10 picks without dealing Lowry, in part because the Rockets are no longer allowed to trade Lee or Dragic at this point. Houston does have some other potential sweeteners beyond its own picks, including Chandler Parsons (whom the Rockets love) and the potential of cap relief via Dalembert’s contract and the lure of its own cap space. But the path to Howard remains difficult. Orlando GM Rob Hennigan just left Oklahoma City to take over the Magic and is already busy cleaning house there. Would he be ready to trade Orlando’s franchise player after a week on the job?
Who knows? Longer-tenured Magic officials, including president Alex Martins, know Howard much better than Hennigan, and if they believe Howard is determined to leave, a deal could be possible at any moment.
Bottom line: All four of these teams are working, and that is no surprise. The other 26 are, too, and you can expect rumors of that work to emerge — to varying degrees — over the next four days. Enjoy.