Can you fail when you are trying to fail? If you’re trying to fail, and you succeed, haven't you succeeded?
It’s a paradox. It’s the type of question that everyone involved with a tanking NBA team has to ask themselves. When everything is going according to plan. there’s a sense of uneasiness. What happens next?
That’s the question that Rafael Stone needs to answer this summer definitively. Pivotal decisions lie ahead for the Houston Rockets General Manager. If he makes the wrong ones, it could cost him his job.
The coaching decision
Stephen Silas was the first casualty of the tanking process. This was expected. Let’s move on.
You’ve heard the names. The most prominent one in the rumor mill at the moment is Nick Nurse. He’s probably the Rockets’ dream hire at the moment. What other options are there?
From a basketball perspective, Ime Udoka is in a similar tier. Still, his ugly exit from Boston looms. Let’s be clear - there are real downsides to hiring a guy who may be guilty of sexual harassment.
This is a delicate subject. We want to believe victims, but we weren’t in the room, etc. You’ve probably done this dance. If you weren’t a Louis C.K. fan prior to the allegations, get a sense of humor.
This is tricky. Let’s talk about some candidates who don’t have nasty sexual harassment allegations in their background.
Frank Vogel and Kenny Atkinson would both be solid hires. Neither is necessarily a towering basketball intellect, but each has a proven ability to lead a team to overperformance. Vogel is especially attractive as an NBA champion.
Outside of that group, none of the experienced candidates are particularly appealing. The notion that the Rockets absolutely need a “proven commodity”, in my opinion, is overrated.
What good is a proven commodity if they're proven to be mediocre or worse? Would you take five dollars over a mystery box? With that in mind, Scott Brooks, James Borrego and Mark Jackson would be poor decisions.
By contrast, a gamble on someone like Sam Cassell, Adrian Griffin Jr., or Becky Hammond would be interesting. The same holds for the in-house option Mahmoud Abdelfattah. There would be understandable reservations about hiring another first-timer.
At the same time, just because Silas failed doesn’t mean any first-time coach would do the same. That would be like refusing to date a woman named Samantha because a Samantha hurt you. If that’s the only similarity between the two people, it’s a pretty superficial one.
Either way, Stone needs to get this right. Still, it’s only half of the equation. If the Rockets don’t improve their roster, nobody’s going to be able to coach them to the type of meaningful improvement the fanbase should be demanding.
To some extent, this is out of Stone’s control.
If the Rockets land a top-two pick, his job gets pretty easy. If the Rockets are drafting Victor Wembanyama, he wins automatically.
Even if they’re drafting Scoot Henderson (save me your Brandon Miller hot take, that’s already over), this isn’t complicated. The draft makes Stone’s biggest decision for him if the Rockets land a top-two pick.
There’s also a certain Bearded man who has a say in the Rockets’ fortunes. I’m on the fence about James Harden myself. The back end of that contract could prove highly problematic.
With that said, if you’re drafting Wembanyama, and Harden wants to return, it’s a no-brainer. The hope in that event is that their timelines intersect.
In theory, Wembanyama could be a top-five player by his third year in the league. If Harden is still a top 50 player by then, and Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. have reached even median outcomes, you should be a serious title contender.
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here - or are we? Everything that happens this summer needs to happen with a one-year, two-year, and five-year outlook existing concurrently.
Let’s focus on that one-year outlook. We know Stone is going to target veterans. This team needs as many three-and-D guys as possible, at every position. The type of team Stone builds will tell us a lot about his basketball philosophy.
If the Rockets don’t land a top-two pick, those philosophies become all the more crucial. Does Stone trade the pick? Does he trade down? This is a scenario that should make or break his tenure with the Rockets.
The last thing Stone should do is make desperate decisions in a bid to maintain his employment. There’s an irony in that - often, that’s how a general manager loses his job in the first place.
Sure, you can delay your firing. Still, a rushed win-now move that looks shortsighted at first and proves to be so in a few years can be a death sentence.
Here’s hoping Stone is doing what’s best for the team - not for himself.
If that last sentence sounded accusatory, it wasn’t supposed to.
We just don’t really know what Rafael Stone is doing. That’s part of a tank - intentions are obfuscated. You’re trying to lose - who can make heads or tails of that?
Does Stone really think Daishen Nix is a lottery-level talent? Or, did he insist on including him in the rotation because he knew that he wasn't? It could be somewhere in between - Stone saw something in Nix - something good, and something bad. He opted to heavily feature a boom-or-bust prospect knowing that if he busted, his goals were accomplished.
Speaking of point guards, the Rockets need to roster one next season. If they don’t land one of Henderson or Harden, continuing the Kevin Porter Jr. experiment should not be an option. Get Mike Conley. Bring in Patrick Beverley.
Arguably, that’ll tell us as much as we need to know about Stone. If he’s so enamored with the idea of turning Porter Jr. into James Harden that he’s going to ignore the hard data, this organization is in trouble. By contrast, bringing in a heady veteran will show us that Stone always had a plan.
If that plan doesn’t succeed, he should be the next casulty of this tank job.