In a year where most expected the Houston Rockets to win 45-55 games, they are on pace to win 57. This puts them in the unexpected position of moving their chips closer to the middle of the table. Houston GM Daryl Morey knows this version of the Warriors are hard to fathom beating, but he also knows his Rockets are one of the few teams that might, and that one Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or Draymond Green injury would propel his Rockets to that very top tier of the West. As the Southwest Division landscape settles following the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans, Houston, and San Antonio remain the top two threats to Golden State's seemingly destined Finals run. Morey knows he owes the fanbase a little something here: the start was too good to squander the momentum by doing nothing at the deadline.
Houston's starting five is undeniably dominant. The floor has been stretched like a canvas on which James Harden paints his masterpieces. Ryan Anderson's 28-footers and Eric Gordon's ability to pull-up from the wings has enabled Harden to thrive beyond anyone except perhaps Mike D'Antoni's wildest dreams. Harden has emerged as a maestro, whipping cross-court passes, and finding baseline cutters with ease. And yet...the bench was mostly empty. The fact that Corey Brewer was still earning rotation minutes was a talking point on several NBA podcasts I listen to.
Morey Balances A Playoff-Push With Future Flexibility
For those that follow the NBA on a deeper level, a subtle question has emerged in the last several weeks: What is the value of your team's 2017 1st round pick? For a team like the Celtics, who own Brooklyn's coveted pick, the value is undeniably immense. In a draft class whose hype-volume is now on overdrive (predictable after a notably weaker 2016 draft class), that Celtics via Nets pick, even if it somehow ends up as the 3rd overall (64% chance when they finish with the worst record), will land Boston a talent that ten teams would be drooling over. But what about the 25th pick? The late 20's don't offer much in the way of expected return. They are the true "lottery tickets." Most picks made after the lottery will not remain in the league eight years later. As in, the careers of those picks are hard to predict. For every Isaiah Thomas (60th) and Draymond Green (35th), countless names of tall humans remain mostly anonymous to even serious fans. While 1st round picks mean guaranteed contracts (increasingly valuable in these in-between years of salary cap restructuring), the late first rounders don't guarantee you a ton of value. Especially when you consider the way early 2nd round picks have been given smaller deals that offer more cap flexibility (years and dollars).
Given this context, Morey leveraged Houston's soon-to-be 24th/25th pick in the 2017 draft to spice up the bench with a dynamic scorer. Enter Lou Williams. The one-way dynamo who gets to the free-throw line like few reserves in the NBA can. Over the last three years, Sweet Lou has averaged the following free-throw attempts per 36 min: 7.1, 8.0, 8.8. In addition, Williams is connecting on 38.4% from deep, a career high.
By giving up the late first rounder, Morey did three things: 1) He got out from under Corey Brewer's deal; 2) He added an off-the-bounce force who can score when Harden rests, adding a legit 8th/9th man to a playoff roster that looked thin; 3) He gave Houston the opportunity to rest Harden more often in March and early April, as the Rockets gear up for a playoff push.
It's a fair question whether or not Lou Williams will get to the free-throw line in a physical playoff series. His ability to deceive refs, throw himself off balance and get to the stripe may not fly in May. On the other hand, James Harden should be fully rested as the Rockets attempt to take down the mighty Spurs in a second-round series that should go 7.