The fun continues in Houston, where the Rockets have traded Samuel Dalembert and the No. 14 pick in Thursday’s draft to the Bucks for three role players and the No. 12 pick. Which is another way of saying that Houston gave up the only actual center on its roster to move up two spots in the draft.
The Rockets now own the No. 12, No. 16 and No. 18 picks (the last acquired on Tuesday for Chase Budinger), and whether the target is Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Josh Smith or Unidentified Player X, it’s clear the Rockets are up to something.
The Budinger deal was fine even in a vacuum, separate from any potential future larger deal. The Rockets turned a player made somewhat superfluous by the emergence of Chandler Parsons into a mid-first-round pick — the kind of win on the fringes that general manager Daryl Morey has been good at engineering over the last few years. The deal presented little chance for major harm and a slightly larger chance at a bigger-than-expected benefit, especially since the player Houston drafts will earn substantially less than Budinger after this season.
Wednesday’s deal creates a potentially damaging hole in Houston’s roster — and fills one in the same spot for Milwaukee, which boosted its chances of making the playoffs without damaging its present or future cap flexibility. Dalembert isn’t a star and won’t ever log 38 minutes per game, but over 25 or 30 minutes every night, he can protect the rim, clean the glass and use his long arms to make things more difficult for opposing offenses. The Bucks had precisely zero players who could do that after the Andrew Bogut/Monta Ellis trade at last season’s deadline, and their defense collapsed as a result. Ekpe Udoh has the wing span and defensive ability to play center on some nights, but he can’t play 48 minutes, and he doesn’t quite present the same type of shot-blocking threat as Dalembert.
Dalembert is not a night-to-night stopper or an All-Defensive player, but he is an upgrade in Milwaukee and ensures the Bucks can have a decent big man on the floor for entire games if they wish.
The Bucks have a chance to be a good offensive team, though they’ll need Mike Dunleavy to replicate a very effective season, some improvement from Brandon Jennings and the return of free-agent forward Ersan Ilyasova. The latter is far from certain, and if Ilyasova departs, the Bucks will have to find some scoring punch.
But Milwaukee has addressed a need without adding much salary in the short- or long-term. Dalembert will make $6.7 million next season, only about $1.4 million more than the Shaun Livingston/Jon Leuer/Jon Brockman combination that the Bucks dealt to Houston. Of those four contracts, only Brockman’s (for $1 million) is guaranteed in 2012-13, meaning both teams could shed even more salary by cutting these players over the next few days. (Milwaukee, however, plans to keep Dalembert, according to SI.com’s Sam Amick and others.) Brockman spent most of last season out of the rotation; Leuer went in and out (but mostly out); and Livingston faded after a promising start — there are only so many guard minutes to go around with Jennings, Ellis and Beno Udrih and others here.
Houston remains similarly lean in terms of salary. Even factoring in cap holds for free agents Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic, the Rockets are flexible enough that they could take one max-level salary and a second mid-level one while sending out only Kevin Martin and a spare part or two in exchange. They’d also have to deal those first-round picks to make the math work in mega-salary deals, but that is probably the idea here.
The Rockets have probably been one of the best teams in league history to miss the playoffs three consecutive seasons. They’ve finished ninth in the Western Conference each time, with records over .500 and a positive overall scoring margin across those three seasons. This is essentially a playoff team. The Rockets haven’t been a title contender, but they also haven’t been an obvious lottery team.
Jettisoning the only center on the roster by itself takes them more in the direction of “obvious lottery team,” even if they could draft one at No. 12. The Rockets didn’t have the most dynamic center duo in Dalembert/Marcus Camby, but their defense was much better when one of those guys was on the court. Houston played small for long stretches, with Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson at the big positions, but the results were uneven, and it’s doubtful those lineups can work as the foundation of a team over 82 games — especially with Scola in decline.
The Rockets know that, which is what makes all of this so interesting. This is a team that has chased Nene, Gasol, Howard and Chris Bosh over the last 24 months and missed on all of them. Who might it get this time around?