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Should the Rockets trade for Lonzo Ball?

The former lottery pick has a troubling injury history. Should the Rockets gamble on it?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Chicago Bulls
Could Lonzo Ball be the answer to the Rockets’ point guard problems?
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Daryl Morey once said that “opportunity is not a lengthy visitor”. Of course, he didn’t come up with that. Someone else said it, and he put it in a social media bio.

It’s hard to say whether Rafael Stone, his protege, absorbed that message or not. A lot of Houston Rockets fans are questioning his stewardship recently. I won’t get too far down that rabbit hole here. Briefly: I think Stone has drafted very well. However, it may be fair to say that he’s held onto players he should have traded for too long.

Could the Rockets really have gotten P.J. Washington and a first-round pick for Christian Wood? We don’t know, and we never will. Has Stone actually declined several first-round pick offers for Eric Gordon? Same answer.

One thing feels certain: Gordon won’t fetch a first-round pick now. He’s a distressed asset. His play has declined. He also wears the type of perpetual “get me out of here” expression on his face that rival GMs love. Why would anyone offer maximum value for him when the team has a strong incentive to move him?

Opportunity may have left the building a long time ago. With that said, a survey of the league’s landscape presents one potential opportunity:

Could the Rockets flip Gordon for Lonzo Ball?

Why would the Bulls bite?

Meanwhile, the Bulls find themselves in an odd predicament. Actually, it’s a familiar one to Rockets fans:

They suck.

Joking. Although, that’s part of the equation. The Bulls are having a rough season relative to expectations. This team has three veteran players who have made multiple All-Star appearances, yet they’re just 19-24.

Here’s where Rockets fans get triggered - the Bulls owe their upcoming first-round pick to the Orlando Magic with top-four protection. Simply bottoming out for Victor Wembanyama isn’t as easy of a decision to make as it otherwise could be.

Even if the Bulls wanted to go that route, they’re a little late to the party. They may be disappointing, but their win percentage is far ahead of true tankers like the Rockets.

So the Bulls are at a precipice. They could still join the race to the bottom. Even if they gifted the Magic another lottery pick, they'd gain future assets in the process. Had the Rockets been afraid to do the same, they wouldn’t currently roster Jalen Green.

On the other hand, the Rockets got an early start on their tank job. This deep into the season, the Bulls could make some moves to tidy up this roster and make a mid-season playoff push.

Either way, there could be a framework that lands Ball in Houston. If the Bulls want to rebuild, they may be willing to take a bad contract (Evan Fournier?) and draft capital in exchange for Ball in a three-team deal. On the other hand, if they refuse to fold, they could use Gordon.

Of course, there’s another half to this question. Why would the Bulls see Ball as expendable? In all likelihood, you know the answer. Ball has been injured all season. It’s not entirely clear what the rest of his NBA career will look like. It’s possible that he’s due for a sad, Brandon Roy-esque career arc.

Why would the Rockets want him then?

The Rockets roll the dice

What I’m advocating for here is a gamble.

It is possible that Ball’s career is cooked. Honestly, I hate to say that. I’ve been a fan of Ball since his days at UCLA.

He’s been an impressive NBA player. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be a primary offensive engine, Ball reinvented himself as a three-and-D guard with secondary playmaking chops. A lot of guys can’t do that — when they don’t become the NBA player they expected to, they can’t find a way to be productive. Ball evolved.

Frankly, he evolved into exactly the type of player the Rockets could use.

Ball played 35 games in 2021-22. According to BBall Index, he landed in the 79.2nd percentile among primary ball-handlers in Passing Versatility. By the same measure, he was in the 81.9th percentile in Passing Creation Quality.

Kevin Porter Jr. has ranked in the 59.7th and 61.1st percentiles in the same metrics this season. All of which is a highfalutin way of saying Lonzo Ball is a better passer than Kevin Porter Jr.

He’s a better defender, too. I won’t even get granular here. In 2021-22, Ball ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in just about every defensive metric among primary ball handlers. Porter Jr. cracks the 80th on Ball Screen Navigation. He’s below the 70th in most of Index’s available metrics.

Oh, Ball shot a casual 42.3 percent from long range too. He’s really good. If he wasn’t hurt all the time, there’d be no reason to speculate that he could be available at the price of Eric “Angry” Gordon.

Of course, he is hurt all the time. Does that really matter from Houston’s perspective? Ball’s contract runs through 2024-25. Even after absorbing it, the Rockets would remain flush with cap space. If he never plays another second of NBA basketball, he’s a contract on the books the team can use for salary matching if they want to trade for a star.

If he’s able to get right, he should make everyone on this team better. His portability is unmatched. If the Rockets want to use Alperen Sengun as an offensive hub, his elite off-ball gravity will put defenses in a bind. If they prefer an offense that runs through Jalen Green, Ball will find him in his spots.

Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor. If this one is knocking, the Rockets ought to let it in.