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Rockets, Blazers could emerge from draft much improved

Jun 26, 2012, 7:59 PM EST

Daryl Morey AP

Five years from now, we may remember this as the New Orleans Hornets draft. It’s the one where they landed Anthony Davis and set the franchise on a path to contention.

But there are other teams that could be making bold moves to become contenders.

Specifically, Houston and Portland could come out of Thursday night significantly better than they went into it.

The Rockets have already started to make moves — trading Chase Budinger to Minnesota for the No. 18 pick. That gives them picks 14, 16 and 18 and no team wants three picks in the teens. These are trade bait to move up the first round — rumors have the Rockets talking to the Kings at No. 5 through the Raptors at No. 8 and all points in between. The goal: turn these picks and a couple of players (maybe Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry, others) into better picks.

Which they would then trade for a star.

The ultimate goal would be to go after Dwight Howard, but that’s not likely. Not only because the trades and moves are hard to string together before Thursday, but also because all indications are Orlando and new general manager Rob Hennigan aren’t ready to make a deal yet.

But if not him, maybe the Rockets trade for Atlanta’s Josh Smith. They’ve long had interest in Pau Gasol, and while the Lakers are more in win-now mode, they also need to lower payroll in the coming years. There are a lot of options.

But the Rockets and GM Daryl Morey are thinking big.

Portland may not be moving as big, but they don’t need to. They come with the advantage of having LaMarcus Aldridge in house. They have an All-Star power forward as good as most in the game to start building around. They will keep Nicolas Batum, who gives them a coveted swingman.

But they need a whole lot of everything else.

What they have are two picks — Nos. 6 and 11 — where they can get good players to develop. New Blazers GM Neil Olshey is reportedly high on Weber State point guard Damian Lillard. Or they can trade a pick for a player they need. Portland also has cap space where they can go after free agents this summer.

Olshey is aggressive and has a lot of cards to play. By the time we get to the second half of July, they could be a radically constructed team.

Earlier Tuesday on Twitter, talking about the Rockets, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz hit on why I would be happy right now if I were a fan of either team:

You can get stuck in the middle in the NBA. You can be pretty good, make the playoffs as a low seed, get a little talent in the draft and just kind of survive for years and years. The product isn’t bad, but you’re never talking titles, either.

Both Portland and Houston are trying to get out of that place. If he Rockets did trade for Howard, they’d be contenders. And if he left after one season, they’d fall to rock bottom. But you can rebuild from there; you might luck out in the lottery. You’re no longer “meh.” If you’re a fan, you want your team to go after it all — not just be safe. These teams are doing that.

And it could pay off big.

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