The NBA’s player empowerment era has its benefits and its drawbacks. On the one hand, shouldn’t players, as the most important people involved in the league, be empowered? After all, as far-fetched as Kyrie Irving’s players-only league proposition sounded, it’s far more feasible than the league’s owners and general managers taking the floor to produce a product.
On the other hand, the current trend of player independence threatens the viability of small-market teams. That means it also threatens the working people who support those teams. Players are typically drawn to larger markets. The more decision-making power they harness, the more likely the Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Nets, and (in theory) Knicks are to find themselves stacked with the league’s best players.
If you’re starting to feel like nothing is ever easy, you’re not alone. That holds especially true in the case of Zion Williamson.
We’ve seen star players force their way out of small markets like New Orleans before. We’re just not used to hearing murmurings of them attempting to do so while still on their rookie contract.
Those rumors are rampant in Zion Williamson’s case. Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck recently named him along with Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard as potential offseason flight risks.
Williamson’s apparent urge to choose a team feels particularly egregious. After all, this young man is in his third NBA season, and injuries have limited him to barely more than a season’s worth of games (85). His Pelicans look approximately one superstar contributor away from making some serious noise in the Western Conference. Would he really force them to start over already?
If he does, should the Houston Rockets look to acquire him?
The case for the Rockets taking the road to Zion
The case for Rafael Stone pursuing Williamson is pretty simple: when he’s been on the floor, he’s been sensational.
To say that Zion puts pressure on the rim would be like saying Snoop Dogg was well-known or that some people use the internet. With his otherworldly combination of strength, ball-handling, and vertical leaping, Zion dunks when he wants to, full stop. If anything stops him from getting to the rack, it’s his own energy conservation.
At 6’6” and 284 pounds, Zion is somehow a middle ground between Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. He’s a player you’d feel audacious to create in NBA 2K. He is almost unrealistic.
In the 61 games where Zion saw the floor last season, he averaged 27 points per game on an unfathomable 64.9% true shooting percentage (TS%). What makes that particularly remarkable is how TS% is calculated: it weighs three-point attempts more heavily to give us a more balanced representation of a player’s efficiency than field goal percentage.
Zion won’t be mistaken for a three-point assassin. He hit 29.4% of 0.8 attempts per game last season. It’s the fact that he was still one of the league’s most efficient scorers, which makes that all the more impressive.
Maybe he doesn’t fit into Stephen Silas’s five-out philosophy. Equally prudent information: it doesn’t matter. You bend your system to fit Zion’s abilities. If that doesn’t work, you break it.
There are no good basketball reasons to pass on Zion. He can’t defend alongside Christian Wood or Alperen Sengun? You trade one (or both). He’s taking the ball out of Jalen Green’s hands? Green has to learn to be better off-ball. That’s the kind of difference-maker Williamson is in pure basketball terms.
Of course, there’s no telling which of those players the Rockets would have to give up to land Williamson.
The case against the Rockets pursuing Williamson
For any team considering the pursuit of Zion, there are two pertinent questions. Do we play in a big enough market to satisfy his desires, and can he get (and stay) healthy?
The first answer for the Rockets is either “maybe” or “probably”. Houston isn’t one of the NBA’s glamor markets, but it’s comfortably not New Orleans either. Willamson could ask James Harden if he felt like a big enough deal playing in Space City if he’s curious.
Chris Paul forced a trade to Houston. Dwight Howard chose it over sunny Los Angeles. It’s a good market with a loyal fanbase that can usually satisfy a star. Of course, if Zion is as enamored with the idea of saving the New York Knicks as he’s rumored to be, there’s only one market that he’ll prefer to play in.
All of which can be settled in the course of acquisition. The Rockets can get a feel for whether Williamson wants to suit up for him before bringing him on board. It’s that second question that nobody can have an answer to.
To reiterate: Zion Williamson is 6’6” and 284 pounds. He isn’t exactly ground-bound either. Can anybody’s knees withstand the trauma of routinely flying through the air with so much weight above them?
It makes acquiring him a risky proposition, particularly considering what the Pelicans are likely to request for his services. Risks aside, he’s a 21-year-old with indisputable MVP potential. The Pelicans won’t move him anytime soon without a colossal return.
The Rockets should call the Pelicans, but not beat down their door
These Rockets feel like a team who may try to fast-track this rebuild. Fans in Houston are not accustomed to losing. Prior to last season, they owned the league’s longest playoff streak. This front office wants a star, regardless of how that star is acquired.
It’s hard to say what comes next for the Rockets. Will it be Zion Williamson?
We can’t provide a conclusive answer about whether that’s the right course for this team. We doubt anybody can. The best we can offer is that the Rockets should hold discussions with the Pelicans. Houston certainly has enough picks stockpiled to be in legitimate play.
If they’d settle for a package built around Christian Wood and, say, four future first-round picks, Stone should pull the trigger. If they insisted on Alperen Sengun or Kevin Porter Jr., he should probably take that deal as well. Any other cost should prove too prohibitive.
Selling off the bulk of this team’s draft capital for a player with Zion’s question marks is risky. Likewise, acquiring him at the cost of Jalen Green feels pointless. Williamson will need a co-star, and for all the inconsistency Green has dealt with this season, he still holds the most star potential on this roster.
In all likelihood, the Rockets will stay the course and add promising rookies to the roster this season instead. However, if there is a friendly enough deal on the table for Williamson, his potential may be too tantalizing to ignore.