The Carroll Dawson-era Rockets were built around two stars and not nearly enough help. When a prime Tracy McGrady and a healthy Yao Ming are flanked only by David Wesley, Scott Padgett and Torraye Braggs, they mean little.
The Daryl Morey-era Rockets have always been the opposite — a team full of “yeah he’s not bad” players with absolutely no foundation of star talent around which to put them. And despite the fact they usually always narrowly win every trade they take part in, this hasn’t gotten them anywhere. In the Morey era, the Rockets have only one playoff series win, only two playoff appearances total, and have finished ninth in the Western Conference for the last three seasons.
Fully cognizant of the need for a super duper star, the Rockets’ plan has always been to stockpile assets in order to get one later. They’re always looking for misfits, rejects, late bloomers and draft steals, pieces spurned or underappreciated by other teams that they can nurture into decent NBA players, thereby building a roster out of maximizing minimal assets rather than ever having bigger ones. It doesn’t always work — trading first round picks for Jonny Flynn and Terrence Williams, for example, and inexplicably passing on Nikola Mirotic — yet the Rockets have built an entirely decent roster out of it.
Dwight Howard is the new target man. He’s a super duper star; moreover, he’s a center, a position at which Houston have so badly wanted to find an answer that they even gave Hasheem Thabeet a look. Even if he were to bolt after one year, Houston wants him, because a team with Dwight Howard is a team that won’t come in ninth. With this in mind, today they agreed to trade Chase Budinger, along with the draft rights to 2006 pick Lior Eliyahu, to Minnesota in exchange for the No. 18 pick in Thursday’s draft.
The inclusion of Eliyahu is not insignificant. He has not played in the NBA in the six years since being drafted, but he could have, and despite frustrating inconsistency and well-founded accusations of softness, Yahoo is a truly quirky inside-outside talent. Houston worked him out earlier this week, ostensibly to look into finally bringing him to the NBA next season, knowing him to be on the cusp of making the jump. (Give him a three-point shot, and he could be the next Scott Padgett!) Nevertheless, the deal is mainly about Budinger, who joins a cluttered but decent Timberwolves roster with the hopes of solidifying it.
With quality point guard play and a star big man, Minnesota now sorely lacks anything on the wing. Michael Beasley is a free agent whose production has gone down without his consistency or defensive effort coming up. Wesley Johnson is 25 next month and producing only what Trenton Hassell did at the same age. Wayne Ellington is an undersized two who can’t dribble or create his own shot and is merely a decent spot-up shooter. Martell Webster is much the same, except bigger and more frequently injured. The three point guard lineup that worked pretty well at times last season was only called upon out of necessity, as not one single wing player for Minnesota could be called reliable.
The question, inevitably, is whether Budinger is that, and whether he represents better or comparable value to what Minnesota would have gotten with a non-lottery first rounder. Budinger is a fantastically average player, a spot-up shooter, ball mover and adequate defender, signed for the minimum next season, but hitting unrestricted free agency next summer. On the plus side, he might instantly become Minnesota’s most reliable and consistent starting wing man; on the down side, he just lost his spot in Houston to the similarly unremarkable Chandler Parsons. Minnesota’s wing options that low in the draft were likely limited to flyers on either Evan Fournier or Quincy Miller, projectable but raw talents not providing much stability to a team already short of it. Failing that, the BPA route would likely land them little more than a backup to Kevin Love. It is possible to say, therefore, that the Wolves couldn’t do better than Budinger with their pick. At the very least, he takes the risk factor out of it.
The Rockets, meanwhile, tread water for at least two more days. Houston now has the Nos. 14, 16 and 18 picks in the draft, and it won’t stay that way. Inevitably, somehow, those picks will be moved around to find veterans of some caliber. Ideally, and with plenty of filler, they’ll be the foundation of a Howard trade.
Of course, any team that was to trade its super duper star to Houston for these pieces would very soon be in the same situation — too good to be terrible, but starless. As noble and preferable of a situation as Houston’s .500 caliber ball of the last few years has been to, say, the implosion of the Charlotte Bobcats, it’s also something of a purgatory. If they don’t manage to get Dwight, the options are considerably limited. Just like the Nets, it’s Dwight or bust. If all this posturing gets them only a Josh Smith type, the problem isn’t solved. And any intermediate step — such as the rumored and already denied offering of Kyle Lowry, Nos. 14 and 16 to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and No. 5 — is a long shot chance to succeed.
But then, so is any of it. In NBA purgatory, Houston don’t have a choice but to shoot for the moon. And for the cost of only the decent-but-replaceable Budinger, they might as well be all in.