With a drove of cap space, a cabal of top-flight young pieces and a desire to land a second superstar to pair with James Harden, expect the Houston Rockets to be among the most discussed teams on the NBA rumor mill prior to the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
The Rockets are hanging on the fringes of playoff contention in the Western Conference. Led by Harden, they have a one-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 8 seed and could be one player away from guaranteeing that berth.
Houston also has the type of assets just about every team wants. And with so many teams "exploring their options," general manager Daryl Morey better hope his fellow executives have the same cell phone carrier.
Lately, the Rockets have been (unsurprisingly) linked to just about every superstar on the market. With the Memphis Grizzlies' trade of Rudy Gay proving teams are ready and willing to pull the trigger, Houston has emerged as by far the most intriguing "buyer" at the deadline.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of all the latest rumblings floating around the Bayou City.
Danny Granger Trade on Daryl Morey's Radar?
You may not have noticed because the Indiana Pacers have been doing just fine, but Danny Granger has failed to play in a single game this season due to a knee injury. He's due back sometime this month, but the paradigm of the entire Pacers team has shifted in his absence.
Indiana is no longer Granger's team. It now belongs to Paul George, who stepped into Granger's ball-dominant role and made the Eastern Conference All-Star team. George has also been integral to the Pacers becoming the league's most efficient defense, per HoopData.
That leaves Granger's role very much in question when he returns. He could return in his former role, putting the team's chemistry at risk; the Pacers could take a cue from the New York Knicks and keep Granger as a sixth man; or he could simply be traded by February's deadline.
The latter option is at least being considered, according to Bill Ingram of HOOPSWORLD. Ingram also reports that the Rockets have emerged as one of Granger's likeliest suitors.
Count the Houston Rockets among the teams who would happily help the Pacers move on from Granger, as one executive close to the situation in Indiana recently told HOOPSWORLD he thought Rockets GM Daryl Morey had it on his daily to-do list to call and ask the Pacers if they were ready to part with Granger yet.
Based on just about every conceivable angle, Granger coming to Houston makes little sense. He would give the Rockets even more scoring punch on the wings, but Chandler Parsons already does that at a fraction of the cost. And at 29 years old, Granger is far closer to the down slope of his NBA career than the apex, making him the polar opposite of James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
If Morey's goal is to reincarnate the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns, then Granger could be an attractive option. However, if the point of making a star-worthy acquisition is to bring championship contention to Houston (and I think it is), then Granger shouldn't be given a second thought.
Houston Had "Exploratory" Talks With Hawks About Josh Smith?
While Granger makes precious little basketball sense in Houston, Smith has long been an in-vogue topic of discussion. The enigmatic power forward's name has vacillated on and off the trade block all season, with the Rockets seeming like a logical destination.
They have a pretty gaping (or, as some would call it, Royce White-sized) hole at the power forward spot, and Smith is an elite defender who can also keep up with the team's torrid offensive pace. He's averaging 16.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, and is young enough at age 27 that his prime should gel with the rest of the roster.
Though it's likely these discussions took place, it would behoove neither Atlanta nor Houston to make a move before February's deadline. Hawks general manager is hording cap space for this summer like, well, a hoarder and doesn't want to take back any bad contracts.
The Rockets have very little dead weight and a strong stable of young players, but will ultimately have the cap space to sign Smith in the summer. They aren't going to contend for a title this season barring the addition of 1981-82 Moses Malone, so it makes far more sense to hold off on a move for now—especially with Smith balking at extension talks.
Smith may well be a Rocket someday. Just don't expect that day to come during the 2012-13 season.
Rockets to Pursue Andrew Bynum if Rebuffed by Dwight Howard?
Assuming they stand pat and avoid a trade for Granger or Smith trade, the Rockets will have a ton of free money lying around for the summer free-agency period. As it stands now, Houston has right around $39.7 million in committed salary for the 2013-14 season, putting the team right around $20 million under the cap (assuming a five percent increase) before accounting for holds.
In other words, the Rockets should have just enough money to sign one maximum contract this summer. It's been known ever since last summer that Houston management, specifically Morey, covets Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard. The Rockets tried to acquire the All-Star center during the summer, and despite Omer Asik's ascent, need help on the inside.
As of now, Howard has made no inclination he has any interest in joining the Rockets. In the highly likely case D12 rebuffs Houston, ESPN's Chris Broussard is reporting the team already has a seven-foot backup plan:
Unless they've been buried under a mound of cheesesteaks for the past few months, residents of the City of Brotherly Love are well aware of Andrew Bynum's wretched season with the Sixers. He's been out all season long with a knee injury, and the prognosis isn't looking good. Barring some unforeseen recovery, it's wholly possible that Bynum never plays a minute in Philadelphia.
Say what you will about Howard's season in Los Angeles, but at least he's on the floor.
Nevertheless, Bynum will command a maximum contract on potential alone. He was easily the NBA's second-best center in 2011-12, averaging 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game with the Lakers. And he's still only 25 years old, which makes him all the more enticing.
With Philly possibly scarred by the situation and Houston desperately wanting another star, Bynum may well find his max contract with the Rockets this summer.