Rockets in improved position at this deadline

Rockets in improved position at this deadline
February 18, 2014, 5:15 pm
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The NBA's trade deadline arrives on Thursday, Feb. 20 at 2 p.m. central.

For the Houston Rockets that usually means one thing. Be ready for some roster changes. Each of the last six seasons, with general manager Daryl Morey calling the shots, the team has pulled the trigger on at least one trade. A total of 17 players have been shipped out, not to mention several future draft picks and cash have been shipped out at the deadline in those six seasons. In exchange, 15 players have been brought aboard, only one of which remains with the team. That's Francisco Garcia, who was acquired at the deadline last season and re-signed as a free agent this past off season.

But before any assumptions are made that this year will be no different regarding trades for the Rockets, there are some notable differences. Houston is much more of a contender than in any of those previous seasons, has a significantly younger roster as well and while they have had plenty of injuries, they don't carry a roster of players with major & lingering injury concerns.

This year at the All-Star break, following the offseason signing of Dwight Howard in free agency, the Rockets are 36-17. They have the longest current winning streak in the league at seven games. But most importantly, they are third in the western conference standings and also are tied for the fifth best record in the NBA.

Their records at the all-star break over the last six seasons have been 29-26 (2013), 20-14 (2012), 26-31 (2011), 27-24 (2010), 32-21 (2009), and 32-20 (2008).

But more specifically, note their position in the standings in these six seasons. Last season, the team was in eighth place in the west. In 2012 in the lockout-shortened season, they were tied for fifth place in the west. In 2011, the Rockets were five games below .500 and well outside of the playoff picture in 12th place in the west. In 2010, the Rockets were three games above .500 and were resting uncomfortably in ninth place in the west. In 2009, they had the fifth best record in the west, one half game from fourth place, but just one game out of seventh place. In 2008, they were closest to matching this team's 19 games above .500 at 32-20, yet were still just in a three-way tie for seventh in the west.

Houston entered the season as the fourth youngest and fourth least experienced team in the league with and average age of 25.52 and average experience of 3.3 seasons. Despite their youth, the Rockets also have a record of 10-8 against the seven other current western conference playoff teams.

Each of those things, presents Morey with a much different set of circumstances than he's been faced with in the past. For most of those seasons, he was trying to position the team to acquire a star-level talent. In each of the past two offseasons, those efforts paid off with the trade for Harden and the free-agent signing of Dwight Howard. Now he has an upper-level team, yet one that has been together for only 53 games. Also, due to a litany of assorted injuries to nearly every player, Houston has used 10 different starting lineups, none for even 20 games and none for more than seven consecutive games.

He now clearly has a team capable of competing with the best teams in the NBA, yet short and long-term flexibility are always at the forefront of his maneuvering. The team is now slightly more than halfway through the three-year, restricted free agent contracts signed by Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in the summer of 2012. Those two contracts are backloaded with with more than $15 million in actual salary for the upcoming 2014-2015 season.

Even though the final season of either contract only counts a little more than eight million against the cap, reportedly other general managers are extremely hesitant to ask their owners to pay out that much cash to either player. The Rockets acknowledged earlier this season they were actively shopping Asik, who reportedly was seeking a trade. They have not commented on other players on the roster.

Asik was displeased with the acquisition of Howard and upon being removed from the starting lineup just eight games into the season, he clearly was upset still being in Houston. While he may still be upset that he is with the Rockets, he has returned to his role as the backup center without incident. Asik, who finally returned to the rotation after missing 31 game with a right knee injury, makes the team better. As the Rockets only true center off the bench, he allows the Rockets to have a legitimate paint presence even when Howard is not on the court. In the event, Howard gets in foul trouble, the team is much-better equipped to handle that with a healthy, motivated Asik, than without.

Lin clearly has a ton of value to the Rockets filling in for both Harden and Pat Beverley in the starting lineup and often finishing games alongside one or both of them. Lin is enjoying his best season shooting the ball, had his first career triple-double and it seems unlikely this year's team becomes better if he's moved. Other Rockets reserves like Omri Casspi and Donatas Motiejunas could draw some interest around the league, especially Motiejunas who is just 23 and has become a productive player recently.

Starting power forward Terrence Jones is just in his second season, first as a starter, after being drafted 18th overall in the 2012 draft. Coming off an appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge at all-star weekend, certainly Jones will generate interest, but again for Morey to move a starter off of a team playing this well would be a surprise.

Essentially that's the new dilemma that Morey faces. How willing is he to aim for an improvement to this year's group and beyond at the expense of potentially getting in the way of what the current group is building? It becomes an especially difficult question to answer when the trade deadline comes when the team is without question playing their best basketball of the season. They've won five straight against likely playoff teams and have plenty of room to grow.

Here's a look at the Rockets trades at the deadline during general manager Daryl Morey's six seasons.

- Houston traded Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas, Cole Aldrich and $1 million to Sacramento for Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt.

- Houston traded Jordan Hill to the Los Angeles Lakers for Derek Fisher and a conditional 2012 first-round draft pick.
- Houston traded Jonny Flynn, Hasheem Thabeet, and a conditional 2012 second round draft pick to Portland for Marcus Camby.

- Houston traded Aaron Brooks to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a 2011 first round draft pick.
- Houston traded Shane Battier and Ishmael Smith to Memphis for Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll and a conditional future first round draft pick.

- Houston traded Tracy McGrady to New York, Houston traded Carl Landry, Joey Dorsey and cash to Sacramento. New York traded Jared Jeffries, Jordan Hill, a condition
right to swap 2011 first round draft picks and a future first round draft pick to Houston. New York also traded Larry Hughes to Sacramento and Sacramento traded Kevin Martin and
Hilton Armstrong to Houston. Sacramento also traded Sergio Rodriguez to New York.

- Houston traded Rafer Alston to Orlando. Orlando traded Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and a 2009 first round draft pick to Memphis and traded Brian Cook to Houston. Memphis traded Kyle Lowry to Houston.

- Houston traded Mike James, Bonzi Wells and cash to New Orleans and traded the draft rights to Malick Badiane and cash to Memphis. New Orleans traded Bobby Jackson, Adam Haluska and a 2008 second round draft pick to Houston. New Orleans traded Marcus Vinicius to Memphis and Memphis traded the draft rights to Sergey Lishouk to Houston.
- Houston traded Kirk Snyder, a 2010 second round draft pick and cash to Minnesota for Gerald Green.