This was always the plan.
If you couldn’t see it, you didn’t want to. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “The Rockets aren’t tanking - they're just bad”...well, I bet I’d have $60. That’s a meaningful amount of money for a sports writer.
Here’s another meaningful amount of money: $60 million. That’s how much cap space the Houston Rockets have this summer. They could do a number of things with it, and some of them would be more responsible than others.
We’re not strictly talking about free agency. The Rockets can trade into that space. They don’t need to send out equal contract value to bring players in.
With that in mind, Rafael Stone must feel like a kid in a toy store. He needs to shake that feeling. Stone needs to be an adult in a toy store. He needs to be able to say “No, we’re not buying you that one. It’s too expensive, and you'll grow out of it in a month”.
No buts. This family is on a fixed income! Still, we’ll get you something nice.
What should the Rockets get?
The Rockets should not trade Jalen Green
Have you not heard?
The Rockets have "addressed the idea" of trading Jalen Green, per @JakeLFischer— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 28, 2023
Potential targets for Houston include James Harden and Khris Middleton pic.twitter.com/KThyNRpRcQ
Come on, Fischer.
I shouldn’t have to do this. For starters, the report is already poorly aggregated. This tweet implies that the Rockets would consider moving Green for one of James Harden or Khris Middleton - each a free agent this summer.
If you actually read the article, the implication is that the Rockets would entertain trading Green for Jaylen Brown. I’m a big fan of Brown, and I’d love to get him in Houston this summer under the right conditions.
With that said, I would aggressively pass on trading Green, in addition to assets, for Brown. I understand the logic. Brown is excellent. Frankly, the probability of Green ever being as good is probably under 50 percent.
The operative word is “probably”. Rafael Stone can’t sell Green’s ceiling short. This kid just averaged 22 points per game in, roughly, the worst situation imaginable. That’s like losing 50 pounds when you live inside an Olive Garden.
By the way...go find an apartment.
The point is this: Green is cost controlled. His next contract will be a rookie max extension. Brown’s next contract will probably be a supermax, and even if it isn’t, it’ll be a considerably larger cap hit. It won’t be a Green-for-Brown swap, either - the Rockets will have to surrender further assets to make this work.
Of course, there’s another significant player who might be joining the Rockets without costing them any assets. Is James Harden worth the cap hit?
The Rockets can’t acquiesce to James Harden
I’m on the fence about Harden.
The back end of that contract is terrifying. If Harden is returning to Houston, it’s very likely that he’s looking for a four-year max. The man is 34. He’s already losing a step. By 37, he’s likely to be unplayable.
On the other hand, the “Don’t rush the rebuild!!!” crowd is a bit out of touch too. Frankly, it’s naive to think that the exact same core that the Rockets rostered in 2022-23 would make meaningful improvements next season.
It’s too easy. Sure, Stephen “The Boogeyman” Silas held the kids back. They could have been a powerhouse - if not for that meddling Silas!
We want to love the players. We don’t really care if we love the coach. Listen - Ime Udoka is a huge upgrade. Ethical concerns aside, this is a tremendous development for the Rockets. It’s not a panacea. This team has real concerns that need to be addressed to take a step forward.
The supposition that this front office is just going to wait until everyone reaches their peak is naive. There is a real downside to being bad for a long time in this league. That’s how you end up with trade requests from players just as they're rounding into form.
All of which is to say this - I’m not sure if I’d sign Harden. Still, it’s a safe route toward much-needed improvement. On the other hand, reshaping this roster around an aging star would be an unmitigated disaster.
Let’s use the center position as an example. Harden and Alperen Sengun don’t feel like an optimal pairing. If the Rockets were to, say, sniff around for Nic Claxton or Mitchell Robinson, the question is simple: “Why?”.
Is it because they're dubious about Sengun’s long-term potential as a defender, and fundamentally believe that a big man should anchor a defense? Sure. Is it because Harden needs a lob threat? Brutal.
After all, I share those reservations about Sengun. His offensive ceiling remains undeniable. Flipping him to maximize a one or two-year window where Harden is still a star would be shamefully irresponsible.
The Rockets need to flip a switch - carefully
Folks will say that you can’t just “flip a switch”. I completely disagree. Switches have been flipped. With that said, the Rockets cannot currently flip a switch.
Let’s be realistic. This team doesn't have one of the league’s best collections of assets. The Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, and Utah Jazz can all field better offers for available stars.
In a different world, signing Harden and making a massive pivot could make sense. It doesn’t in this world. Say the Rockets sign Harden and trade Jalen Green and picks for Jaylen Brown. Imagine they follow that up by trading any combination of Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., and Tari Eason for the best win-now pieces they can.
What are you left with? James Harden, Jaylen Brown, OG Anunoby, and Clint Capela? What happens when, in three years, that team hasn’t won a title?
You’re left with a likely useless Harden, a suddenly aging Brown, a past his prime Capela and Anunoby. The Rockets will be starting again from scratch. This is a nightmare.
That doesn't mean the Rockets should sit on their thumbs. There are two realistic, responsible paths to improvement.
The first one is a little more modest. Draft the best player you can with the pick that you land. Sign solid veterans and role players. Go get Naz Reid, Cam Johnson, Patrick Beverley, and/or Josh Richardson. With Udoka at the helm, that’s a better team.
The Rockets could even make a bolder plan than that. If they're of a “Wembanyama, Henderson, or bust” mindset, that’s reasonable enough. Shop that third or fourth overall pick. Combine it with more assets to acquire Brown, even.
Just please - please! - not Jalen Green.