Blackjack is a simple game. The objective is to collect enough cards to add up to 21, or as close as possible, without going over 21.
If you have 17 or more, you hold. In theory, if you have 16, you’re supposed to decide based on the card the dealer is showing. If they’ve got a six or lower, the numbers dictate that you should hit.
Most decisions will be easy in the run of an average blackjack game. Eventually, you’ll have 16, and the dealer will have six. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably hit.
The Houston Rockets would hold. That’s roughly where this team is at. They’ve got a decent hand. The competition (Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors) mostly holds sixes. If the Rockets had hit, they could have leaped them. They played it safe, and now, they’re going to play out the season with 16.
Was that the right call? What does it mean?
Should the Rockets have made a trade?
The roster has two glaring holes. The Rockets need a backup big man, and they need more shooting.
Backup bigs were expensive at the deadline. The Dallas Mavericks acquired Daniel Gafford by sending the Washington Wizards Richaun Holmes and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick. The Rockets couldn’t easily match that offer. One of those Nets picks would have been far too valuable of an asset to spare for Gafford. The Rockets could have protected it, but then, the Wizards would likely have preferred the pick that’s guaranteed to convey. All of the same caveats apply to Kelly Olynyk.
Yes, the Rockets could have matched the price that the Boston Celtics paid to acquire Xavier Tillman. He’s got a 44.0 True Shooting Percentage (TS%) this year. He’s also a non-traditional big man at 6’8”. Tillman would have been a defensive upgrade over Jeff Green, but Rockets fans shouldn’t be clamoring for such an offensive liability.
On the other hand, they could have easily landed a shooter. The San Antonio Spurs sent Doug McDermott to the Indiana Pacers for one (1) second-round pick. One. The Rockets could have done that.
There’s been a popular argument that the Rockets wouldn't have had room for a shooting specialist in their rotation. Let’s see if we can work that out:
PG: Fred VanVleet, Amen Thompson, Aaron Holiday
SG: Jalen Green, Cam Whitmore, Aaron Holiday
SF: Dillon Brooks, Tari Eason, Doug McDermott
PF: Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Doug McDermott
C: Alperen Sengun, Jeff Green, Jock Landale
Look at that! A few minutes a night for McDermott under the assumption that Jae’Sean Tate gets moved for McDermott.
There’s no reason that a team in the Rockets’ position can’t run a ten-man rotation. Moreover, there’s no reason to be so precious about the team’s rotation. The Rockets should be collecting data. It would have been advantageous to see how Amen Thompson looks in well-spaced lineups, for example.
If the Rockets had acquired McDermott, he would have understood that on some nights, he’d see 20 minutes, and on other nights he’d be a DNP - Coach’s Decision candidate. He’s just one example. Simone Fontecchio went for a price the Rockets could have afforded as well. The Rockets could have landed a shooter, and they could have found time for him.
This isn’t some kind of sweeping organizational failure. Let’s keep our composure here. The Rockets are on pace to increase their win percentage by a higher total than any team in the NBA. That was the goal this year. It would be nice to participate in the play-in tournament, but this is going according to plan. The Rockets aren’t strictly thinking about this year:
They’re thinking about next year as well.
Why didn’t the Rockets make a trade?
For what it’s worth, the Rockets did make a trade recently. It has the potential to be a good one.
Steven Adams, when healthy, is the best offensive rebounder in the NBA. It’s unclear how opposing teams can expect to possess the ball when he shares the floor with Tari Eason. Adams is also an elite screensetter. He’s a solid stationary rim protector even if he can’t defend in space. This is a good backup big for the Rockets in 2024-25.
They can still fix this roster for the 2023-24 stretch run as well. The time to acquire Bismack Biyombo was yesterday. Furkan Korkmaz is available. The Rockets can land the specialists they need without surrendering any assets.
That brings us to the upcoming offseason. There could be fireworks. Why did the Rockets preserve their assets at the deadline? Isn’t it likely that they’re going to go star-chasing?
That’s one option. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. The Rockets have been burning second-round picks like capitalists with a deep reserve of fossil fuels. They sent out two in a deal to clear cap room for a Brook Lopez who wasn't coming. They sent out another two to move off of Kevin Porter Jr.’s contract. It’s possible that they simply felt that they didn’t need to burn more second-rounders on a half-season rental.
Still, star chasing is an option. Some people are worried about that too. Can’t the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz outbid the Rockets? Aren’t they putting too many eggs in one basket?
There are several reasons why that doesn’t matter. Firstly, the Rockets are in a good position. If they try to chase a star and they fail...OK? They still have a young star and five young players with star potential. The Rockets already have next year’s backup big secured. They can add an affordable shooting specialist via free agency and run it back with marginal improvements next year.
Moreover, if you haven’t noticed, stars aren’t always keen to land in Salt Lake City. Let’s say Donovan Mitchell demands a trade - the Jazz will be out of the picture. Would it shock anyone if Joel Embiid or Luka Doncic made it known that they didn’t want to go to Utah?
Would the Oklahoma City Thunder want to trade for any of those players? They’re already the second seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder have a top five-to-ten player and a complimentary supporting cast around him. They may be committed to a core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams moving forward.
That leaves the Knicks. Are we sure they can outbid the Rockets? The Nets' picks are apparently seen as highly valuable around the league. The Rockets have far more young talent that might appeal to a rebuilding team. If a superstar becomes available, the Rockets will have a real chance of landing him.
Whether that’s the right move is another subject - and too lengthy for this article. Let’s get back to the original point. The Rockets had a quiet deadline. They missed an opportunity to add a cheap shooting specialist, but it isn't the end of the world.
They must like the hand they’ve got.