If the trade deadline is a game of Texas Hold 'Em, Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets can afford to slow-play.
And since most other playoff-likely franchises will be bluffing, bidding wildly or going all in, slow-playing might well be a winning play.
It's when you've got a great hand, but your deliberately cautious bidding appears to others as conservatism or even hesitancy.
Last season, it looked like Morey was splashing the pot with a deuce-seven—or, in more colloquial poker terms, high-profile gambling with nothing in his hand. He bet his starting point guard spot on a cleverly constructed contract. He went with the percentages and made a gutsy bet on a bench player as starting center. He stayed in with an unlauded second-round draft pick at small forward.
And as the season dawned—the NBA version of the river card—he caught a Sixth Man of the Year at shooting guard.
As I've said before, don't play cards with Morey.
His hand sure looks like a full house now. Morey has a big name and quintessential team player in Jeremy Lin, a superstar in James Harden, a top-10 small forward in Chandler Parsons, and a candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player in Omer Asik.
The trade deadline is upon us. And as much as I've banged the drum for an upgrade at power forward, a stance I do not back away from, I know Morey does not have to make a trade to make this season a rousing success.
Now, in the interest of fairness, it's important to add that it's not like Morey has that many chips to play anyway.
He's short on draft picks. He has only three contracts worth $5 million or more per season—Lin's, Harden's and Asik's—which means his trade options are limited.
But that's okay. Because if Morey stands pat, he's still got a helluva hand.
From my calculations, only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers will have more cap room this offseason than the Rockets. That's cap room to go after names that are bigger than than the cruller atop Randy's Donuts.
Josh Smith. Dwight Howard. David West. Paul Millsap.
OK, so the offseason looks promising. But what about going after these guys at the trade deadline?
I've made the argument in bits and bytes here many times: I believe the best way to pitch the Rockets to a prospective big-name free agent is to get him into a Rockets uniform for a few months. Let him see first-hand the team-oriented group we have, the high-energy play, the fun and enthusiasm on display nightly at the Toyota Center.
The initial asking price on the names I cited above, however, will almost certainly be too high.
So Morey, who has already been quoted as saying there will not be more major trades before the deadline, can sit back and wait.
A coffee can full of diamonds figures prominently in the brilliant old thriller Marathon Man. At one crucial point in the film, the can is spilled onto a sewer grating. The villain cannot help but fall to his knees, hoping to grab one or two of the glittering gems before they all disappear.
As the deadline draws closer and closer without a trade, that's what those impending free-agent contracts—particularly with teams and free agents who are disenchanted with each other—become: that coffee can of diamonds spilling into that sewer. The current franchise desperately wants to grab some value before it slips away.
And at that point, what the Rockets have to offer—guys like Patterson, Marcus Morris, Toney Douglas, Donatas Motiejūnas, Terrence Jones—might indeed start to look like precious jewels.
If, on the other hand, Morey stands pat—or in non-card-playing phraseology, does nothing—his hand may not be good enough to win it all, but his chips are stacked high enough to keep him at the table for the next deal: the playoffs.
Patterson's offense has improved this season, even as his rebounding has not. He's not the long-term answer in my opinion, but he's not an embarrassment at the 4. Marcus Morris is an adequate backup as well.
Morey even holds a potential ace: Royce White. Yes, rumors say he is out of shape, and he's certainly been difficult to deal with for this franchise. But at least he's on the court.
If White can improve enough to crack the Rockets' playoff roster, he is an X-factor that at worst has to be accounted for, and at best might be the answer at power forward. Sure, in the best-case scenario White will probably only be effective for 15 or 20 minutes a game. But that might well be enough to tip things in the Rockets' favor come playoff time.
If Morey does slow-play, the one thing every NBA general manager has to realize is, this guy is not bluffing. The future looks very flush for H-Town's favorite hoopers.
With the playoffs looming, the Rockets have given some top-tier teams either an L or reason to sweat. Their offense is the league's highest-scoring, and they're second in the league in three-balls launched per game. So hot hands can mean a shocking upset.
As for next season, with Harden in the fold and a solid nucleus forming, this Rockets team has to be pretty darned attractive to free agents who don't just want a serious contract, but also want a serious shot at a ring.
So as the NBA nears its annual poker night, bet on the Houston Rockets to come away a winner no matter what they do.
That's a pretty good hand to have.
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