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TDS exclusive interview: Kevin Martin looks back on his tenure with the Rockets

Former Houston Rockets star Kevin Martin opens up about his time playing for the organization and his experience as an owner of an Australian basketball team.

Houston Rockets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Brisbane Bullets defeated the Sydney Kings on a toasty night in late-December, center Will Magnay had the best game of his young career. The 6’10” big man who played his collegiate ball at Tulsa University (2016-2017) posted a career-high 23 points (57.1 FG%, 50 3PT%) and 14 rebounds en route to an 87-80 victory for the Bullets. After Magnay walked off the court of the Nissan Arena, Kevin Martin watched from afar as a proud mentor to the NBA hopeful. Martin said:

“For me personally, it is more gratifying to help a player on our team like Will Magnay to take that path to the NBA. Just to be able to give him advice whenever he needs it, and implementing a program to help him accomplish his goal is the best part of the job for me. That’s all of these players’ ultimate goal....is to play in the NBA.”

While players similar to Magnay seek guidance from the 12-year NBA veteran, Martin’s role with the Bullets goes far beyond his mentorship. In October of 2019, the Bullets announced Martin as the new owner of their NBL (National Basketball League) ball club in Australia. According to the Bullets, Martin leads a syndicate that holds a 75-percent share of the team.

At 37-years-old, Martin is striving to maximize his full potential as a team owner in Australia, and one that resembles the way he elevated his game on the floor of the Toyota Center as a player with the Houston Rockets.

“I wanted to contribute to a team but wanted to go beyond just being a coach. I always felt I could be a front office kind of guy, and this was the perfect opportunity for me and my business partner [Jason Levien] to approach. For me, I felt like I maxed out everything on the court and I wanted to experience the game outside the lines. As a basketball player, I mastered my craft, and that’s what I am trying to accomplish on the business side of the game.”

In February of 2010, the Rockets acquired Martin in a three-team deal that sent Tracy McGrady to the New York Knicks. His arrival in Houston indicated the start of a new era for the organization, and a fresh new beginning in Martin’s career.

After six and a half seasons playing in Sacramento, the 6’7” shooting guard from Western Carolina was ready to depart. Martin’s relationship with the organization became amiss after countless of ill-advised roster and personnel changes by Kings’ management. His patience grew more scarce following Sacramento’s decision to pass on the opportunity to select Ricky Rubio in favor of Tyreke Evans during the 2009 NBA Draft.

The trade to the Rockets allowed Martin to play alongside a collection of talented young players and a sense of comfortability to ingrain himself into a system he was familiar with by reuniting with Rick Adelman — who served as his head coach for three seasons (2004-2007) in Sacramento.

“Based on the conversations we had prior to the trade deadline, I knew my time had come to an end, and I expressed my desire for a change. Before the draft, I pushed for Rick Rubio because he was the perfect point guard. His game possessed the style of play that made the Kings successful over the past 10 years. They [the Kings] went in a different direction because that’s not the player Tyreke [Evans] was — and at that moment, I knew it was time.”

A large part of Martin’s excitement that came with joining the Rockets was the idea of creating a dynamic duo with eight-time All-Star, Yao Ming. At the time, Yao was the face of the franchise and arguably the best big man in the league. Unfortunately, a reoccurring foot injury prevented the two from establishing a one-two punch. Already sidelined by the time Martin arrived in Houston, the pair played just five games together before Yao was forced into retirement following the 2011 season.

Without their star big man, Houston failed to qualify for the playoffs during Martin’s three-year tenure, but stayed competitive in a tight Western Conference. The Rockets finished ninth in the standings for three consecutive seasons while winning 52 percent of their games between 2010-2012.

“I think we could all look back and say those three years were some of the best of our careers. In coach Adelman’s system, a lot of us did not need the ball in our hands to make plays — so everybody got involved. The way Chuck Hayes could pass the ball. We had a championship-caliber point guard in Kyle Lowry. We had shooters in myself and Chase [Budinger]. Plus some great veterans in Shane Battier and Brad Miller. Unfortunately, we were unable to crack into the top eight, and we hated it for our fans. But at the end of the day, we were missing that piece in Yao.”

Martin’s best year came during the 2011 season. Already entrenched as Houston’s best offensive player, he averaged a team-high 23.5 points across 80 games and experienced his best season as the primary scoring option for a franchise. His unique style was an early indication of what was in store for a league transitioning into the 2010s.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Martin attempted a career-high 459 3-point field goals and finished the year connecting on 38.3% of his shots from the outside. When the defense was forced to play out on the perimeter, he attacked the basket in hopes of getting to the line instead of settling for a contested mid-range jumper. Martin shot 88.8% from the charity stripe and finished second in the league in averaging 8.4 foul shots during the season.

What is now seen as the precursor to Moreyball, Martin’s knowledge of floor spacing originated in Sacramento under the stewardship of Adelman and Peja Stojaković.

“That style of play was a part of my foundation learning under Rick Adelman and Peja Stojaković at the beginning of my career. Spacing out, shooting the 3-ball and getting to the line, it’s just a fun and exciting way to play basketball.”

Houston finished the year with 43 wins but fell three games shy of the playoffs to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. The euphoric state of mind Martin went into the offseason with came to an abrupt end in December. As part of the infamous three-team deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Rockets’ management shipped Martin to New Orleans in an attempt to acquire Pau Gasol.

Forty-five minutes later, the league nixed the deal, and the decision had massive implications as players returned to their respective teams. The notion that management was ready to move on made the 2012 lockout-shortened season a resentful year for Martin. His relationship with the organization grew more tense in the midst of an injury-plagued season that caused Martin’s play to decline in his final year in Houston.

“When I saw guys who are more talented than me like Chris Webber or Ron Artest in Sacramento get traded, I knew I would never be immune to that happening to me. I was never dumbfounded over the business side of the game. But the worst part about being traded to the Hornets was the fact that it got vetoed, and every player had to return to their team — knowing that the GM felt differently. For myself, it was more so of if you are ready to move on... that’s fine with me. Now I am ready to go — that was a tough season.”

Following the trade that sent him to Oklahoma City four days before the start of the 2013 season, Martin ended his career in San Antonio after a brief three-year stop in Minnesota. The lessons and experience Martin sustained on a journey that began in Sacramento during the summer of 2004 is now a pivotal intermediary for aspiring NBA hopefuls playing on his Australia team.

“I loved my time in Houston, and I met some great guys along the way. For me, it was a real joy to be apart of Rockets’ basketball, and to be included into the rich history they have built over time. I am just very grateful to have had that opportunity.” — Kevin Martin.