If you don’t want to work an NBA fanbase into a frenzy, do not put a hypothetical trade proposal on the internet.
Recently, it’s been Rockets fans foaming at the mouth. Bleacher Report mentioned the team as a possible conduit in a deal that would have the Golden State Warriors landing Jae Crowder. In return, Houston would send out KJ Martin and Eric Godon in exchange for Jonathan Kuminga.
On the surface, it seems like an obvious move for this team. Kuminga is a recent lottery pick. He’s only on the block because he happened to land on a contending team, and that team seems to need win-now help. Open and shut case, right?
Does Kuminga still have upside?
It’s worth noting that Jonathan Kuminga has been bad in 2022-2023. Not typical young player bad — must-italicize bad bad.
Kuminga’s box plus/minus at the moment is -7.2. For context, the worst mark for any Rocket meeting or exceeding his 14.8 minutes per game is Jabari Smith Jr. at -4.5.
That comparison is especially instructive. Smith Jr. is a rookie, he’s supposed to be bad. As a sophomore, Kuminga should be taking a step forward. Instead, he has regressed.
Is that a death knell for Kuminga’s career? Of course not. At the same time, it’s not exactly encouraging. Typically, players that reach stardom tend to hint at it during their second season.
It’s also fair to point out that Kuminga is not in an ideal developmental situation. He plays for a team that’s trying to win an NBA title this season. If he was getting reps for the freewheeling Rockets, who knows how he’d look?
That’s the problem — the answer is nobody. The Rockets would be taking a leap of faith. What do they have to lose if there's no place to land?
The cost of Kuminga
Let’s be clear on one thing. Gordon and Martin Jr. alone are probably not fetching you Kuminga. I’d wager we can assume the Rockets would have to send the upcoming Bucks pick out as well.
In a vacuum, that’s still a good value trade for the Rockets. Of course, these trades don’t happen in a vacuum. Martin Jr. would be a real loss for this team.
Disqualifying big men, BBallIndex ranks him in the 92.4th percentile in Rim Shot Quality. Granted, he’s only in the 53.8th percentile in Rim Shot Making — room for improvement. That’s OK. All Martin Jr. has done since he joined the Rockets is improve.
The former second-round pick has developed a lot of skills in 2022-2023. He’s officially a passable floor spacer. His team defense has improved. He’s a connective passer now. All of those developments have accumulated to make for a player who impacts winning (so far as that’s possible on these Rockets).
Remember Kuminga’s ghastly Box Plus/Minus? Martin Jr.’s is -0.3. That’s a good mark on a team that loses most nights.
Which, of course, is exactly what the Rockets can’t afford to be in 2023-2024.
Can Kuminga help now?
Put aside your feelings about tanking. Almost every fan of this team can agree on one thing: this is the last year.
Largely, that’s because the Rockets owe next season’s first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder with top-four protection. It was worth gambling on those odds when this team was directionless. The gamble paid off, and now they have Jalen Geen. After three seasons near the bottom of the standings, next season will be time for the Rockets to take a step forward.
Another year in the basement does significant damage to this team’s league-wide reputation. You’ve already heard the whispers — “that’s a bad situation for an elite prospect”.
That’s fine for now. Chris Vernon could try to work on controlling the vitriol that seems to live in his soul, but he can’t control the lottery odds. With that said, after adding another blue-chip prospect, this team needs to improve. The 2023-2024 playoffs are a pipe dream, but the play-in tournament should be a distinct goal. Otherwise, they risk developing a reputation that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy — teams that get pigeonholed as failing often have a hard time attracting the talent they need to succeed.
Giving a third-year Kuminga developmental reps as a primary option doesn’t help the team get ahead. Meanwhile, the team is about to add another blue-chip prospect who will certainly expect some involvement.
Sengun is a passing hub. Green is a walking field goal. Now and later, the Rockets need supporting pieces too, right? For example, a hyper athletic wing who can kill you in transition, knock down open threes, and has chemistry with his teammates?
Rockets should keep the bird in the hand
It’s entirely possible that this take will age poorly. Kuminga has the potential to be a star, and Martin Jr. probably doesn't.
Do you know who else has the potential to be a star? Victor Wembanyama. Scoot Henderson. Amen and Ausar Thompson. Cam Whitmore.
Know who else? Jalen Green. Alperen Sengun. Jabari Smith Jr. In all likelihood, four of those players will be Houston Rockets next season.
They might as well keep a player who compliments them all.