HANG TIME, Texas — If the Lakers require a boost to become a playoff team rather than mere wannabes, the trade deadline deals by the Rockets could be just the leg up they need.
Currently sitting in the No. 8 spot in the West with a 3 1/2 game lead on Team Dysfunctional, Houston is virtually sending a stretch limo and holding open the door for the Lakers.
In trading starting power forward Patrick Patterson for Thomas Robinson, the Rockets did nothing at all to solidify their lineup for the stretch run of the season. By also swapping out Marcus Morris, the final 26 games of the season are being turned over to rookie Donatas Motiejunas, NBA D-Leaguer hustler Greg Smith and whatever Robinson might chip in at the four spot.
“Our goal is to get to the championship,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. “That’s goal No. 1. Goal No. 2 is to make the playoffs this year. The good thing is I don’t think those goals are in conflict with this move.
“We feel like Thomas Robinson has a lot of upside for the bigger goal of getting back to being a contender. And we think we can just just as solid. If we made it harder (to make the playoffs this season), it’s just a little bit harder.”
There is virtually nothing to criticize with what the Rockets did. Patterson and Morris, while solid in their jobs, do not come close to holding the potential of the 21-year-old Robinson, who was the No. 5 pick in the draft just eight months ago and, in the eyes of many, possessed the talent to be taken even higher. The Rockets believe he can be a high-energy, rebounding monster that can run the floor and mesh perfectly with James Harden and Jeremy Lin, while helping Omer Asik far more on the boards and Patterson or Morris ever would. In addition, they picked up a high, second-round draft pick that could be valuable. Plus, the aggregate salaries of the four players the Rockets traded could give them between $15 million and $20 million to spend on free agents next summer.
Already the youngest team in the league, the Rockets are playing the long game and the future suddenly looks very bright. So while hanging onto the No. 8 seed in the playoffs would be a nice bauble, the right to get slapped around by the Spurs or Thunder in the first round isn’t an end.
But it is not exaggerating to say that it could provide the Lakers with the opening they need to save this season and their future. Let’s face it: the chances of getting Dwight Howard to sign a new contract that would keep him around as the foundation of the next generation in purple and gold would be helped by the Lakers making the playoffs. If they finish on the outside, whatever criticism of Howard’s shortcomings that currently exist will only be ratcheted up.
In addition, if the Lakers do manage to claw their way into the postseason, it would mean that they have somehow pulled things together and played better over the final third of the schedule. Unlike the youthful Rockets, who might wander into the playoffs with their jaws agape, a Lakers team with momentum along with Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and a recovered Pau Gasol in the lineup would be least have the veteran puncher’s chance to pulling off the upset and advancing.
Especially over the next few weeks as they move two rookies — Motiejunas and point guard Patrick Beverly — into the rotation, the Rockets have practically eliminated their margin for error and given the Lakers a chance to wipe out all of their wrongs of the past four months.
It’s quite fitting that it’s Oscar Week. The Rockets have just rolled out the red carpet for the Lakers.