Trade deadline proves Houston Rockets clearly in win-now mode
Reported trade for Lou Williams, discussions on other moves have Rockets gearing up for long playoff run
Magic Johnson’s new role and project with the Los Angeles Lakers is all about building for the future. So is GM Daryl Morey’s task with the Houston Rockets. That is, as long as the future is the next four months, four weeks or four minutes.
If you didn’t already think the Rockets were all-in for June, then the reported trade for Lou Williams is the wake-up splash into the pool with both feet. Houston added a former Sixth Man of the Year winner in Williams to the leading candidate for this year’s award Eric Gordon.
In Williams and Gordon, the Rockets now have the top two scorers off the bench this season. In a season when the Rockets are already pumping up 3-pointers at an out-of-this-world pace, all they’ve added is more, more, more.
Of course, the trade deadline is often about teams getting the piece or two that they think will move them up to the next level, wherever they might currently be in the pecking order. The Lakers, for instance, value that 2017 first-round Draft pick from Houston a building block to reconstruct royalty from rubble.
But no team outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors plays now with more a sense of urgency than the Rockets. Because they know all too well how fast things can go bad.
It was less than two seasons ago that the Rockets made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals on the strength of their James Harden-Dwight Howard tandem before falling to the Warriors. Even in defeat, the world was their oyster, ready to slurp. Until they got a pearl stuck in their throat.
The Rockets went into the next season feeling full of experience and confidence and themselves, pronouncing themselves as true championship contenders from the locker room all the way up to the executive suite. And that aura of invincibility lasted all through the first week when they became the first team in league history to lose their first three games by margins of 20, 20 and 20. Coach Kevin McHale was gone after 11 games and the passive-aggressive rift between Harden and Howard brought it all down into a 41-41 smoldering heap.
So no more distant plans. No more looking ahead beyond the horizon. Howard left in free agency for Atlanta, Mike D’Antoni was brought in as coach and all the Rockets have wanted to do since opening night is put their pedal to the metal and see how far and how fast their free-shooting offense can take them. Right here. Right now.
The Rockets are so much about living for the present that the only things missing are the saffron robes of Zen Buddhist priests.
The additions of the veterans Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Nene have been perfect fits the MVP race leader Harden. Young talents Clint Capela and Sam Dekker have blossomed.
So the Rockets approach the trade deadline with the fourth-best overall record in the NBA, third-best in the Western Conference and the innate sense that they can line up with anybody.
The only real questions are about the health and durability of Gordon and Pat Beverley in the backcourt and the possible need for a backup big man in a season when they’ve handled Nene as carefully as Grandma’s fine china.
Nobody knows better than Morey and team owner Leslie Alexander how fast it can all crumble. When they reeled in Howard as the big fish agent in 2013, they didn’t expect him to bolt after three seasons and leave a teammate as talented as Harden behind.
Now Harden is playing at historic levels and even though he is entering what should be his prime at 26, nobody’s taking any chances with injuries, unforeseen problems or a meteor falling out of the sky. Though there is still separation between the Rockets and the West’s elite pair of Golden State and San Antonio, that gap — especially to the No. 2 spot — is not out of reach.
So they add Williams for a virtual embarrassment of offensive weapons. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, they pursue the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Iman Shumpert. Maybe chase after the Denver Nuggets’ Wilson Chandler.
Let D’Antoni worry about where to fit them all into a 48-minute game. Let others worry about what happens down the road. The Rockets can see the future, too, but are only working on the present.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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