The Houston Rockets, for a better part of a decade, didn't particularly value draft picks. Let me rephrase that statement. They didn't value them for themselves but as a tool to add "win now" type players to a team that featured one of the best players in the league year in and year out in James Harden.
From the time Harden came to the Rocket in 2012 to the time he was traded away in 2021, the Rockets only had two first-round picks in that span. They drafted Clint Capela and Sam Dekker with those two picks. Neither was in the lottery. The Rockets front office felt that with a player like Harden, you have to prioritize players who have been in the league and have a proven track record.
Year after year, the Rockets would mortgage their future for a chance to win that year. The most egregious example is the Russell Westbrook trade that brought the former MVP to Houston and the Rockets trading away Chris Paul, who was coming off the worst year of his career.
Shams Charania of The Athletic subsequently broke down the protections:
Sources: Pick protections in Thunder/Rockets, Russell Westbrook/Chris Paul trade:
2024 FIRST ROUND PICK, PROTECTED 1-4
2026 first round pick, protected 1-4
2025 swap, 1-20 protected
2021 swap, protected 1-4 — OKC can swap Clippers pick or Heat pick.
Luckily the 2021 swap never happened as the Rockets landed the number two overall pick, but you can see how this could put a franchise in a huge hole, especially after both players requested trades a year later.
Most franchises would take years to replenish their team with young talent that can contribute immediately via the draft, but the Rockets and Rafael Stone seemingly did it in only one draft.
Why Rafael Stone's 2021 draft is a masterclass in evaluating talent
The Rockets knew before the draft that they had a chance to make three picks in the first round. That is more first-round picks in one year than they had the previous eight drafts. The Rockets then surprised everyone by trading with the Thunder and adding the 16th pick. Drafting one player who can be a part of your rotation for years is difficult enough, but drafting three in one draft is a monumental task.
As we all know, the Rockets drafted Jalen Green with the second pick, Alperen Sengun with the 16th pick, Usman Garuba with the 23rd pick, and Josh Christopher with the 24th pick. Green being picked number two didn't raise many eyebrows, but when the trade was announced during the draft and the Rockets selected Sengun, there were plenty of people saying who? Despite some draft experts having Sengun high as the top 10, not many people outside of draft experts knew too much about the Turkish MVP.
Garuba has shown flashes but has dealt with injuries all year long. The selection of Christopher was probably the pick that most people criticized. Christopher played one year at Arizona State and had an underwhelming year mainly because he was playing with two veteran guards who weren't known as players who got their teammates involved, to say the least.
This is where Stone and his recruiting team need to get even more praise. Fifteen other teams passed on Sengun, 23 other teams passed on Christopher, and now all three players are thriving as this season winds down. Sengun has been great all year, showing an array of skills that not many big men possess. Green started slowly but has been the best rookie since the All-Star break and it's not particularly close. Christopher since coming back from a stint in the G-League has been one of the most consistent players on the team. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, it all came together.
Win vs. Lakers shows why this draft was special
In the Rockets’ 139-130 win over the Lakers, Green had a career-high 32 points and dominated overtime. But that's not where the story ends. Josh Christopher had the second-best scoring game of his career, finishing with 21 points, and Sengun dominated the paint, scoring 21 points with 14 rebounds and two blocks and doing a great job of keeping LeBron from getting to the basket.
Christopher went 8-13 from the field, and had 6 rebounds to go with his 21 points. The three rookies were in sync all game long, as Sengun made the right reads on the offensive end, Christopher continued to attack from outside all game long, and Green had the best game of his career.
Usually, you would think the veteran team would have the advantage going into overtime, but that wasn't the case. The Lakers were 6-1 in overtime games before last night, but it didn't matter, as the young Rockets and Eric Gordon dominated overtime and finished off the veteran-led Lakers.
Think about how many teams have had multiple years of being in the lottery and are still looking for players that will be part of their future. Orlando, Sacramento, the Knicks, it goes on and on. There are a number of mediocre teams who rarely make the right decisions during the draft, but the Rockets have replenished their team with three players who at the very least will be significant contributors and possibly All-Stars at some point in their careers.
This is why it should be talked about more how great of a job Stone and the Rockets have done in turning over this roster in a little over a year. The Rockets went from no draft picks and no flexibility under the cap for years to come to now draft picks for several years and the best draft class of 2021. I would say that is pretty special.