The Rockets love the combination of size, passing, defense and all-around game from small forward Chandler Parsons, the 38th pick in last year’s draft. They also love that they control Parsons’ rights for the next three years at a cost of less than $1 million per season. And so on Tuesday they agreed to acquire the 18th pick in the draft for Chase Budinger, who plays the same position as Parsons but will be eligible for a market-value contract in free agency a year from now. (Budinger, also a former second-round pick, will make $885,120 next season in the final year of his contract.)
The sexy storyline is Houston’s Dwight Howard end game: the possibility that the Rockets are trying to obtain a cache of first-round picks to dangle before the Magic, along with an expiring contract (probably shooting guard Kevin Martin’s) and salary-cap relief. Howard’s camp let it be known late Monday, via this David Aldridge piece on NBA.com, that Howard will not sign an extension in Houston after his contract runs out at the end of this season. But the star center’s camp has let a lot of things be known over the last 12 months, and these declarations aren’t worth much before Howard has had the (theoretical) chance to experience playing for Rockets coach Kevin McHale, working for a smart organization committed to winning or talking regression to the mean with general manager Daryl Morey.
The player’s camp, such as there is one monolithic “camp” here, can say what it wants now, but there is no way to know how Howard will take to Houston — or how much he’d end up valuing the extra few million dollars only his incumbent team will be able to offer on his next contract.
But this deal works for the Rockets regardless of whether they can make the tricky steps necessary to actually snag Howard from a general manager in Orlando (Rob Hennigan) who has been in the job for less than a week. It’s the kind of little thing that helps a bit, but not enough to placate those growing impatient with Houston’s inability to land a star or engineer a wholesale transition of the team. But little things on the fringes help stockpile assets, and those assets can facilitate future moves big and small. If the Rockets don’t amass enough for Howard, perhaps they might take a shot at Hawks forward Josh Smith. His contract also expires after this season, and he’d come at a much lower price.
Piling up draft picks also allows for a certain degree of risk; if you have a lot of them, it doesn’t hurt as much to surrender one on the off chance that Terrence Williams figures it out. (Update: Williams didn’t.) The trade is not a game-changer, but it’s a “why not?” move when you consider the cost differences between Budinger and Parsons over the next three seasons and the lack of a real gap in their apparent ceilings.
Minnesota, for its part, gets a nice wing player on a team that has none of them. The Timberwolves’ shooting guard/small forward positions were so bad last season that point guards and power forwards were forced to sop up too many minutes on the wing, resulting in some awkward lineups. Coach Rick Adelman can make awkward lineups sing, but there is a limit, and this team desperately needs some production from Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington and others. Budinger will walk in the door as by far the best three-point shooter among them (he made 40.2 percent last season), a valuable skill on a team boasting a couple of powerful low-post scorers and a point guard in Ricky Rubio who loves to pass and can find shooters at unpredictable times, from unpredictable angles.
Rubio and Budinger should mesh well in that regard once Rubio returns from knee surgery, because Budinger is an active mover off the ball and a very creative, intuitive cutter. And it will be delightful to watch Rubio and the high-flying Budinger work in transition. Budinger doesn’t bring off-the-dribble skills, but he moves well off and around screens, and he’s a smart passer. He has issues on defense, especially chasing players around screens, but he’s a worker.
Giving up a first-round pick always removes the exciting appeal of the unknown, but consider that long-term studies of the draft show that the 18th pick has the typical career arc of James Posey or Dee Brown. The chances of nabbing a player as good as Budinger at that slot are shaky, and for a Minnesota team with playoff dreams next season, dealing for a young but proven commodity makes some sense.