A lot of ideas sound good - until they affect you.
My father likes to say that he was a socialist “until he started making money”. Granted, he’s softening in his older age - the man is clearly a socialist. Still, the point stands.
When the NBA flattened the lottery odds, the Houston Rockets were contending in the midst of the James Harden era. “Makes sense”, I thought. This will dissuade teams from tanking. Of course, Morey had traded all of the team’s first-rounders in his gluttonous pursuit of good basketball players.
Now, the Rockets are tanking. They are, blissfully, almost done. This is the pivotal offseason that’s supposed to shape the next half-decade of Rockets basketball.
Under the previous odds, we’d all be very excited about it. This is a four-man draft, and the Rockets would be all but assured to get one of the four men. These days, it isn't that simple.
Meanwhile, Kelly Iko of the Athletic has reported that, in his opinion, it’s a three-man draft for the Rockets (subscription needed). His read seems to be that if the Rockets don’t land one of Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller, they're going to aggressively shop their pick.
Is that wise?
Can I get an Amen?
Let’s get a couple of shopkeeping items out of the way.
Iko himself says that he doesn’t know this to be a fact. It seems to be more of a sneaking suspicion. Still, this guy is around the team - there’s some smoke here.
It wouldn’t shock me if this front office was dubious about Amen Thompson, either. Personally, I can’t decide where to land. He’s the best athlete in the history of people and he doesn’t know how to shoot a basketball, you say?
Cool. Cool, cool, cool.
Let’s assume that the team is out on Thompson. If you’re reading the tea leaves, it does seem like the team is very set on making significant strides next season. However you feel about him as a prospect, Thompson is likely to struggle as a rookie.
Some will counter that the Rockets shouldn’t short-change their future in favor of their present. I get it - I really do. At the same time, the present has implications for the future too.
There is a doomsday option on the table if you draft Thompson. This kid has a broken jump shot and he’s going to have an especially steep learning curve coming from Overtime Elite. He’s not likely to be a good rookie.
So assume the Rockets overpay a couple of decent veterans in addition to drafting Thompson. That’s their off-season. Where do Thompson, Patrick Beverley and Nerlens Noel get this team next year?
Well, if you’re giving Thompson the leeway to figure the league out, I’m not sure if the Rockets aren’t worse than they’ve been this season. If you’re not, you just picked a player with the fourth overall pick to give him free rein in garbage time.
A fourth consecutive season in the gutter could have real implications for the foreseeable future. In today’s NBA, players tend to grow impatient. This could mean forthcoming trade requests. It’s also free agency poison. More significantly, players have more say than ever in where they get traded. The Rockets need to be better soon.
I don’t mean to say that drafting Amen Thompson would be a disaster. There are plenty of counterarguments. Thompson has incredible upside - he could be better than any player the Rockets currently employ in time. Still, I think the front office is reasonable if they’d prefer to avoid Thompson.
What should they do alternatively?
Who could the Rockets trade for?
So we’re assuming the Rockets’ pick lands anywhere from fourth down, and that Miller is off the board. What now?
There’s no understating how important this decision is. This is the finishing touch on Phase One - Stone said it himself. It’s got to be the right one.
With that in mind, there are potentially available stars that I think the team should avoid. Mostly, they're bad defenders.
For example, I hope the name Karl-Anthony Towns is sitting somewhere in Rafael Stone’s office with a big red circle and a slash through the middle of it. I’ve caught a lot of flack for entertaining Alperen Sengun trade scenarios. If the team is going to commit to a defensively limited big man, I’d much rather it be Sengun than Towns.
Most importantly, Sengun is younger and has more opportunities to improve. He’ll also be easier to trade if the front office decides to go that route. Finally, a motion-based offense structured around Sengun’s prodigious passing skills is just more appealing than watching Towns take turns iso’ing with our backcourt.
Similarly, I’d skip on Trae Young’s heliocentric stylings. Yes, he’s made strides on the defensive end this season - he’s still a liability.
There’s a broader point that's relevant here. The Rockets are supposed to be transitioning into a new era starting next season. This team’s culture has been (perhaps unfairly) maligned by national media. Rafael Stone needs to establish a winning culture, and that often starts with defense - and not with players forcing their coaches to get canned.
With that said, any defensive ace won’t do. The Rockets should avoid aging veterans - unless they’re signing Harden, and, well, we’re not going to get into that here. Barring the prodigal son’s return, they should avoid Kawhi Leonard or Paul George if the Clippers implode.
With that in mind, OG Anunoby is a target I find intriguing. Yes, it was reported that the Raptors sought several first-round picks for the elite two-way wing. None of those picks had already conveyed fourth overall. If their front office likes Amen Thompson, I suspect Anunoby and their own pick could be had at the cost of the fourth overall pick and change.
It’s been rumored that the Celtics could move Jaylen Brown as well. He’s an unrestricted free agent after next season. It would take more than just the pick, and it would likely need to involve a third team to get him. Boston won’t care to develop Thompson. Still, where there’s a will there’s a way when it comes to NBA transactions.
I still love the idea of Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton too. Although, it feels more likely that the Nets will be buyers this summer. Joe Tsai might be too proud to tank, and in fairness, this roster is well-positioned to improve with the addition of an offensive focal point.
On the other hand, the Rockets don’t have to be so bold, either. They could extend their rebuilding timeline by trading down. Walking away from this summer with Jarace Walker, Cason Wallace, Gradey Dick or Anthony Black in addition to an extra future first-round pick would be sound asset management.
That doesn’t mean tanking again next season. The Rockets could fill out their rotation with the best veterans they can find and bank on internal growth to make strides. Recently, it certainly looks as if these guys are developing.
The options are practically limitless. Whatever the Rockets decide, they'd better hope it’s the right decision:
It’s going to affect them later.