Reality can be harsh. Vacations end, people change and pets get sent to a big, beautiful farm to frolic with their new pet friends for the rest of their eternal pet lives. The Houston Rockets aren’t all that good in 2023-24.
Yes, there’s been improvement. There’s been marked improvement. This is a competitive NBA team. They’re still probably on the outside of the play-in picture.
It seems that the team would like to change that. The Rockets are expected to be buyers at the trade deadline. Recently, Marc Stein mentioned in his (subscription needed) newsletter that the team could be looking at Harrison Barnes of the Sacramento Kings.
Is he the right man for the job?
Do the Rockets need Barnes?
When you’re asking if a team needs a player, you’re asking a few questions. Is he on their timeline? Is he worth adding to their cap sheet? Does the team have a functional need for his skill set? Does he fit with the team’s principles and identity? Do they have a rotation spot for him?
The first two questions are easy: yes, and sure. The Rockets are squarely in win-now mode: that’s why they’ll be buyers at the deadline.
This team’s timeline has been unique. The Rockets crammed a half-decade of rebuilding into three seasons by trading for as many first-round picks as they could find in that timeframe. Now, they've got a “core six” of untouchable young players, and no control of their draft for a couple of years. All of which is to say - the Rockets are in win-now mode no matter how much they’re winning or losing.
Barnes’ contract isn't a huge deal. He makes between $17 and $19 million a season through 2025-26. His presence on the cap sheet shouldn’t pose a problem when extending Alperen Sengun or Jalen Green (especially if he maintains his current level of play - more on that later), and he’ll be easy to move if extending Jabari Smith Jr. and/or Tari Eason gets complicated. It’s also worth noting that Fred VanVleet has a team option that the Rockets could theoretically decline ahead of the 2025-26 season.
So the Rockets can afford Barnes. Is acquiring him the best use of their assets and cap space?
The Rockets need shooting, but they don’t need Barnes
Barnes is a good player. He’s shooting 39.7 percent from long-range this year. Barnes isn’t strictly a floor spacer, either - he can create his own shot. He’s got a crafty faceup game inside the arc. It’s also worth noting that Barnes has some championship experience having played alongside
Satan Steph Curry with the Evil Empire Golden State Warriors.
He’s not an especially impactful defender. In 2023-24, Barnes’ Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) is -1.1. That’s not far off his career mark of -0.9.
No, DBPM isn’t an all-encompassing measure of defensive impact. In this case, the stat seems to capture the reality. Barnes isn’t a liability, but he’s not good on that end of the floor either. All season, it’s been clear that the Rockets want to establish a defensive identity. Barnes doesn’t fit.
That’s not even the biggest reason to avoid Barnes. The Rockets don’t need a wing. Dillon Brooks is a king among men. Jabari Smith Jr. is a positive NBA player as a sophomore. Tari Eason will eventually return. Sure, Barnes could take Jae’Sean Tate’s spot- that would make the Rockets a better team. The team just has more pressing concerns.
To begin with, they don’t have a starting-caliber off-guard. Sorry. As it stands, Green doesn’t impact winning to the extent that you want a starter to impact winning. That’s not to say that the Rockets need to replace him in the starting lineup - that’s an article in itself.
They could replace him in the closing lineup. More broadly, the Rockets need another off-guard in their rotation. There are plenty of realistic options. Any one of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Luke Kennard, Quentin Grimes, Alec Burks, or Malcolm Brogdon could be available. Outside of Bogdanovic, any one of them can play up a position and replace Tate anyway.
Meanwhile, the Rockets also need a backup big man. It would likely make more sense to target that guy on the buyout market, or a throw-in in a trade for a guard. Bismack Biyombo is right there. Nerlens Noel can probably still play. Could the Knicks include Isaiah Hartenstein in a deal with Grimes if they were getting enough back?
(Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask).
If the Rockets insist on giving up whatever it takes to acquire a Clint Capela, I think that’s a mistake. You’re giving up the assets to land a 25-30 minute player to come in and play 18 minutes. Biyombo is what, 75 percent as effective as Capela? His cost would be 0. Trading for Capela (or a similar player with similar value) would be a mismanagement of assets.
It would still make more sense than trading for Barnes. The Rockets’ wing rotation is one of their real strengths. There are guards on the market who can soak up time at the three. This acquisition just wouldn’t make sense.
That’s the reality of the situation.