This has been a successful season for the Houston Rockets. End of discussion. Any suggestion to the contrary is a load of bullocks (not to be confused with a load of Reggie Bullock - hey oh!).
It hasn't been perfect. The Rockets started the year as one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’ve regressed mightily. Injuries to Dillon Brooks, Tari Eason and Jabari Smith Jr. are largely to blame.
With that said, there is still zero rim protection on this team. Replacing Alperen Sengun with a specialist is a non-starter. Sengun, as it stands, is the only above (league) average offensive player under 25 on this roster. Surely, the Rockets are looking at backup big men to address this hole in the roster.
But the Rockets are supposedly interested in Robert Williams III. Seriously?
Could the Rockets trade for Williams III?
If the Rockets do trade for the man named Time Lord, it will be incidental. He’s likely to be included as a throw-in - at least, from Portland’s perspective - in a Malcolm Brogdon deal. Williams III’s injury history should keep his market tepid.
Yet, that's exactly the concern with trading for him. We’ll get into that later. Firstly, let’s take a look at Williams III. Is he even the right guy for this roster?
Does Williams III fit with this Rockets core?
To optimize, the Rockets should acquire a backup big who can play both with and without Sengun. In theory, that means we’re looking at bigs who can either space the floor or defend across positions. The best backup big that the Rockets could acquire should be able to do one of the two things Sengun (currently) can’t do at a high level.
According to Bball Index, that makes Williams III a questionable fit. In 2021-22, he landed in the 5.3rd percentile in their Perimeter Isolation Defense metric among 20 players who qualified as “off-ball bigs”. In 2022-23, he was a bit better, but he still landed in just the 32nd percentile.
Let’s save some time - all the metrics indicate that WIlliams III is an outstanding rim protector. Still, camping him in drop coverage and feeding Sengun to the wolves doesn’t feel like an ideal strategy.
Although, speaking of the Wolves...
The Minnesota Timberwolves have built an elite defense this year with a frontcourt featuring Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has been a defensive liability for his entire career, but against all odds, this is working.
For now. Let’s check in on Minnesota’s dual big lineups come playoff time. The Los Angeles Clippers once solved Gobert with Nicolas Batum. Towns could probably be solved by Nicolas Sparks. These words may be eaten come playoff time, but it feels fair to need to see this before anyone should believe it.
Still, Williams III isn’t Gobert. There’s an interesting quirk in his usage between 2021-22 (the Udoka Celtics) and 2022-23 (the Mazzulla era). Udoka deployed Williams III against all sorts of matchups - he guarded one through five. Under Mazzulla, he almost exclusively guarded bigs*
*All data courtesy of Bball Index and too cumbersome and laborious to spell out.
Can Williams III switch? Not exactly. His feet aren’t quick enough to contain dribble penetration. With that said, his outlandishly long arms equip him to play help defense in several unique schemes. Williams III can be used as a freelancer. That feels like an ideal player to pair with Sengun.
If he can stay on the floor, that is.
Should the Rockets gamble on Williams III?
Williams III has been in the NBA for six seasons. During that time, he’s had one meaningfully durable season. In 2021-22, Williams III played 61 games and 29.6 minutes per contest.
Otherwise, he's eclipsed 50 games one other time - in 2020-21, and he was only playing 18.9 minutes per contest. Make no mistake - this is one of the most injury-prone players in the NBA.
Should the Rockets trade for him? It depends on a lot of factors. They can’t trade a Brooklyn pick for him - they probably shouldn’t even trade a Brooklyn pick for Brogdon. Still, suppose the Rockets are stuck on sending a (please God, protected) first-round pick to the Blazers for Brogdon. Now, suppose the Blazers say “Hey, throw in a couple of extra seconds and we’ll send Williams III”.
Sure! Why not? As long as it doesn’t influence other decisions. If the Rockets like a big in the draft, they should take that big whether Williams III is on the roster or not. The Rockets shouldn’t put too many eggs in his notoriously fragile basket.
If they share that view, there’s some merit in taking a low-risk, high-reward gamble on Time Lord. His preexisting relationship with Udoka is a meaningful advantage as well.
After everything he’s accomplished this year, he should be around for the long haul.