The NBA trade deadline came and went last week, as contending teams shored up for the stretch run, and those out of the playoff hunt tried to deal some of their veteran players for assets with more long-term value.
The Rockets, of course, with the fourth-best record in the league at the time of the deadline (and today), fall into the former camp, and true to their position, they made a push to acquire players to put them over the top, to try to pass the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the West, and to position themselves for a championship.
We’ll look at the move they did make, the move they didn’t, and the X-factor that could improve their playoff chances.
The move they did make: The Lou Williams trade
The Rockets acquired Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers for Corey Brewer, whose play had sharply declined this year, and a first-round pick which will almost certainly be near the end of the round. Neither asset held much value to the Rockets at this point, and in Williams, they acquire another potent shooter and creator off the bench, someone who, in a similar fashion to how Eric Gordon has been used this season, can continue to keep the Rockets’ offense high-flying even when James Harden and the rest of the first unit are on the bench. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Gordon and Williams are regarded as the two favorites for the Sixth Man of the Year award.)
Williams immediately came in and started lighting up the stat sheet, hitting two corner three-pointers on his first two touches with Houston, against the New Orleans Pelicans. Williams finished with 27 points that game, following that with 17 against Minnesota and 28 against Indiana. The Rockets are 3-1 since acquiring Williams, and the extra offensive juice he provides could be the piece that turns the Houston offense from something already incredible to watch into a completely unstoppable unit.
The move they didn’t: Acquiring Andrew Bogut
With Sam Hinkie out as GM in Philadelphia, the Jerry and Bryan Colangelo braintrust is now running things and is much less concerned with Hinkie’s long-term plan (affectionately dubbed The Process by fans, after Hinkie’s mantra of “trust the process”). At the deadline, the 76ers dumped Nerlens Noel to Dallas for a first-round pick that’s so heavily protected it probably will revert to two second-round picks (in the NBA’s byzantine scheme of pick trade protections, this is not that uncommon) and Andrew Bogut, who didn’t fit in in Dallas and was almost immediately waived by the 76ers.
That freed Bogut to sign with a contender, and the Rockets made a hard push for him. While the Rockets’ high-flying offense has been one of the most fun aspects of this NBA season, in the playoffs defense tends to matter more than it does in the regular season, and a post defender and rim protector of Bogut’s caliber could have been the piece to put the Rockets over the top. (Defensive rating, a measure of a team’s points allowed per 100 possessions, already has the Rockets lagging behind the Warriors and Spurs by about five points per 100.)
Alas, Bogut opted to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers and join LeBron James’ quest to make his eighth straight finals appearance. On the bright side, at least he didn’t sign with a different Western Conference contender.
The X-Factor: Kevin Durant’s injury
The Warriors are still a very good team, but remember that they let their best post defender in Bogut (along with a couple of other players) go in order to clear room to sign Kevin Durant. Now they don’t have any of those players available. While Durant’s injury was not as serious as initially feared — it’s a knee bruise expected to keep him out a month, not there’s still a chance he either misses the rest of the season or doesn’t come back at full strength. This could pave the way for one of the other serious contenders in the West (essentially, the Spurs and Rockets) to either pass them in the standings or defeat them in a playoff series.
The Rockets have done everything in their power to position themselves as that team. Over the next couple of months, we’ll get to see just how successful they are in their championship push.