Is fate predetermined, or is the universe random?
In a sense, we know that fate is predetermined. Whatever happens was always going to happen, no matter what else happened. The question is whether happenstance is guided by some kind of an invisible hand, or just...happens.
There were a lot of victory laps being taken by Rockets fans at the trade deadline. The Nets finally blew it up. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are gone. The wicked witch is dead. Which witch? OK, enough.
Not so fast. The Brooklyn Nets still have a good team. In fact, this is probably one of the best collections of defensive specialists we’ve seen on one roster in a long time. The new-look Nets are 1-2. That isn’t a sample size worth discussing.
Alternatively, the Nets are no longer title contenders. Frankly, they aren’t even close. This team doesn’t have its north star. There is no player on the roster capable of carrying an offense unless you’re willing to put a lot of stock in Mikal Bridges’ recent 45-point outburst.
By now, everyone’s aware of the bind this club is in. They’ve got no incentive to bottom out this summer. By virtue of owing their draft capital to the Rockets, they have to be buyers during the offseason.
Unless, of course, they're willing to sell to the Rockets. Meanwhile, Rafael Stone should be in the market for plenty of what the Nets have available.
There are a lot of deals he could make with them.
Meanwhile, the Rockets are similarly incentivized by their draft situation.
Surely you’re aware, but they owe their first-round picks in the next two drafts (with rolling protections) to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, the Rockets could play the odds and hope to land their own top-four pick next year.
Obviously, that’s not the plan. Another season at the bottom of the league’s standings would result in so much collective frustration from this fanbase that it might result in collective spontaneous combustion. The Rockets have to be better next season.
Cameron Johnson would make them better. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, and could probably be had in a sign-and-trade at the cost of Jae’Sean Tate and one pick back. As a career 39.3 percent three-point shooter, he’d be worth the cost.
On the other hand, Bridges would command a higher one. The Rockets would have to send multiple Nets picks back to them in order to acquire him.
He’s worth it. Bridges is arguably the best three-and-D wing in basketball. Whether his career-best 45-point game is indicative of his offensive abilities or not, it’s clear that Bridges can attack closeouts and break down the occasional defender in isolation too. This is a borderline star and an extremely valuable player in any event.
These are the obvious candidates. They’d be a good fit with any team in the league. At the same time, depending on who the Rockets draft, some of the more valuable trade chips that are already on their roster could look expendable.
In that event, they could swing for more of a blockbuster with the Nets.
The Sengun trades
Why do I do this to myself?
The odds of being quite literally threatened by a zealous Alperen Sengun fan just raised exponentially. It bothers me. I may have thin skin, I can admit that.
Nonetheless, my objective here is to talk about the sport with the round orange ball that gets thrown into the cylinder. I’m not here to pacify player-fans who can’t imagine a world where their guy isn’t the guy.
I say all of that to say this: if the Rockets draft Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, I think they should trade Sengun sooner than later.
It boils down to asset management. How many playmakers does one team need when it’s lacking play-finishers?
Could Sengun and Henderson play together? Sure. Some will point to the dynamic between De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento as evidence. To be sure, that’s a strong analog.
It’s not a perfect one. For starters, the Kings don’t have a Jalen Green. Unless the Rockets are imagining a future where he’s not responsible for unassisted baskets, he complicated the Henderson/Sengun = Fox/Sabonis dynamic.
There’s also the simple fact that Fox and Sabonis, compared to Henderson and Sengun, are both veterans. If they’d been put together in their respective rookie and third-year seasons, they’d have faced a steep learning curve.
Finally, exceptions don’t prove rules. The Kings are making their arrangement work. That doesn’t change the fact that a ball-dominant, playmaking point guard like Henderson is more likely to thrive alongside a big that provides spacing (whether horizontal or vertical).
It also doesn’t change the fact that if Sengun isn’t going to be the primary playmaker, the Rockets would probably do well to just add a defender at the most important defensive position in basketball. Yes, Sengun has been better than advertised on defense this season. He still hasn’t indicated that he can anchor a good team. If the offense doesn’t run through him, his returns quickly diminish.
Everything that could be said about Henderson goes doubly for Thompson. He can’t shoot at all. I’ve heard it argued that it’s not a big deal - the Rockets could just design plays with Thompson as a cutter.
So the team is drafting Amen Thompson to be KJ Martin? Got it. More broadly, you can’t just replace shooting with cutting. In simple terms, you can’t cut with the same frequency that you shoot threes. That’s a bandaid solution, and you’re using an old bandaid that isn’t completely sticking in the first place.
If the Rockets draft Henderson or Thompson, they should offer the Nets Alperen Sengun and all of their draft capital back for Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton.
Yes, that’s a bold proposition. Without those Nets picks, the Rockets’ flexibility for the next few years goes from Destroyer of the Universe to Downward Dog. On the other hand, who needs flexibility when you’re in an optimal position?
Let’s stick with Henderson. Obviously, that’s the preferred outcome. A lineup of Henderson, Green, Bridges, Jabari Smith Jr., and Nic Claxton is already destroying universes, provided a caveat applies.
Smith Jr. needs to shape up. That’s going to be true no matter what the Rockets do this summer. For argument’s sake, assume that he’s much improved next year. The Rockets would have a frontcourt in which every player can defend three through five. Heck, Bridges can guard one through five. This would be the most versatile defensive frontcourt in basketball. Moreover, everyone should be a plus shooter besides the primary playmaker (Henderson) and the five, who provides elite vertical spacing. Yes, I’m baking in the assumption that Green’s accuracy improves in a more functional system.
Alternatively, the Rockets could potentially trade Sengun for Johnson and one of Brooklyn’s newly acquired Phoenix Suns picks. Would the Nets be interested in Sengun? Who knows. On the one hand, in this scenario, they've already got Claxton. At the same time, this team is starved for an offensive focal point. How about Sengun for Claxton and Johnson, with no draft capital exchanged either way?
The possibilities are endless
All of the Sengun scenarios assume that the team lands the second or third pick in the draft.
If the Rockets are smiled upon by the basketball Gods and draft Wembanyama, they should hold onto Sengun. The long-term pairing may or may not be viable, but it’s logical enough to entertain. Using Sengun as the hub with Wembanyama at the four works on offense. Defensively, Wembanyama may be best used as a four who’s focused on weakside shot-blocking rather than a drop coverage rim protector, for the first couple of years of his career if nothing else.
Meanwhile, if the Rockets are picking fourth or lower, the whole offense should be built around Sengun next season. In that event, they could entertain sending Brooklyn their own pick for Bridges.
Either way, the Rockets have an advantage at this particular bargaining table. They have something that’s more valuable to Brooklyn than it is to anyone else, including the Rockets. The combinations of possible, mutually beneficial deals are endless.
Here’s hoping Rafael Stone explores them.