I am a guest in your house, and you’ve just offered to make me a sandwich. I accept. Who doesn’t love a good sandwich?
You’re excited. You’ve got all sorts of good ingredients. You ask what I’d like on it — these days, you can’t be too careful with the allergies and the dietary restrictions and whatnot. “Go nuts”, I tell you. I have entrusted you to make this sandwich for me.
Time to get busy. You break out the bread. You squirt a little hot mustard on it. I’m going to stop you right there:
“What kind of sandwich is this?”
Rafael Stone is not finished
That’s exactly the bind Rockets fans are currently putting Rafael Stone in. He has always had a clear imperative to put his product together for the 2023-2024 season. Yet, the fanbase is calling for his job midway through 2022-2023. Why? John Wall told them to.
Here’s a guy giving you all of the reasons why you shouldn’t date his ex-wife. Go ahead and take him at face value if you don’t care for thinking critically.
Does Wall have legitimate grievances? Sure. This is a former superstar who was deprioritized in favor of trying to convert an off-guard into a point guard. He was scorned, and he’s rightfully displeased.
None of that bears on the legitimacy of the Rockets’ plan.
Has Stone done well?
Before answering that question, there’s a fact to establish: the Rockets are tanking.
Not softly rebuilding. This isn’t about trying to find an identity yet. It’s not about crystalizing good habits. It’s about blatantly and intentionally putting together a losing product to maximize lottery odds.
If you don’t like it, you should have been out on Stone long before John Wall told you to be. This has obviously been what the Rockets have been doing for the last few years.
I’m going to put the anti-tanking crowd aside. Whether you like it or not, this is what Stone is doing. The question is whether or not he’s tanking well.
It’s a micro-level question and a macro-level question. On a micro-level, there have been mistakes. The Rockets probably should have taken Jarrett Allen along with the draft capital in the Harden trade. If he was leading to too many wins, they could have sat him or traded him — even for more draft capital.
Stone waited too long to trade Christian Wood. He’s waited too long to trade Eric Gordon. If you think he’s been a perfect GM, you may be a naively optimistic person. Still, from a macro view, I think he’s done a fine job.
Building through the draft
More than anything, I would argue that Stone has drafted well. I’d also argue that matters more than anything else.
Curmudgeons who refuse to give him any credit will gloss over the fact that this man targeted and acquired Alperen Sengun. He landed him at 16th in the draft in addition to two heavily protected first-round picks that might never convey.
He’s probably going top five in an average redraft. Sengun can’t play a game of NBA basketball without receiving a heap of platitudes from NBA legends.
The San Antonio Spurs, alleged bastions of perfect NBA management, took Joshua Primo instead of him. All told, at least nine teams ought to be kicking themselves for letting him slide, and that’s being conservative. If he’s better than Franz Wagner, Josh Giddey or even Scottie Barnes, it won’t come as a shock.
Tari Eason could be a significant draft-day steal as well. Usman Garuba looks like a quality 23rd-overall pick. In fact, the only player on the Rockets who’s distinctly off-course in terms of justifying their selection is Josh Christopher.
So, you might ask, why are the Rockets losing so much? If Stone has been nailing the draft, what gives?
Well, volume-scoring guards like Jalen Green have a notoriously long developmental arc. When they’re sharing a backcourt with another volume-scoring guard, that holds doubly true.
Jabari Smith Jr. is raw as well. I’ve come a long way toward accepting Sengun as a potential franchise player, but I’ll still maintain that his defense needs work. Still, none of these are the primary reasons the Rockets are losing.
They’re tanking. Flagrantly, unequivocally tanking. Intentionally putting bad lineups together. Running a five-out offense with three bad shooters. Tanking.
If the Rockets draft Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson, it’ll all have been worth it. Obviously, that’s far from a given. At the same time, the Rockets could draft Brandon Miller, acquire a point guard, run a new offense through Sengun next season and still make significant strides.
The point is this: Stone isn’t done making his sandwich. Next year, he has to be. Judge it once he’s got the salami on it.
Can the fanbase stand this?
Narrative is too powerful in the age of social media.
Meanwhile, the constant losing is wearing on a lot of voices in our community. The most influential voices, probably subconsciously, are giving the masses “Fire Stone” because it’s what they want to hear. It’s the new “Kevin Porter Jr. is a point guard”.
They’re calling for his job a year too early. This was his plan. You may not like the plan, but Tillman Fertitta can’t fire him for doing exactly what, in all likelihood, he told him he was going to do.
Time for another analogy. You’re messing around with your friends. You’re playing the game where you ask each other if you’d do horrible things for excessive amounts of money. You know the game.
Something weird happens. Your rich friend says that he’ll actually give you a million dollars to do the horrible thing. You accept — you can handle this.
Now you’re two-thirds of the way through a bowl of who-knows-what. You can’t do it. You’re begging for mercy.
Fine. With that said, you don’t get the money if you don’t finish the bowl. You’ve got two options. Sure, you could abandon the task. At the same time, you’re already two-thirds of the way through. Here’s your other option:
Shut up, eat it... and enjoy the dividends later.