Welcome to morning target practice, where every day of the week you will receive an up-to-date and current column from one of SI.comNBA Writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Rafael Stone, general manager of the Rockets pondered the James Harden trade at a press conference last week, noting that it was unfair to judge Houston’s return from their successful deal until at least 2030. The comment was made largely in jest, followed by a chuckle from Daryl Morey’s successor. However, the joke was revealing as Stone and the Rockets begin what could be an uphill rebuild. After half a decade of collecting assets in pursuit of a championship, Houston is taking the long road back into the fray.
Stone & Co. has come under considerable criticism for its deals in recent months. Some saw Ben Simmons as a better asset than the Nets’ seven years of draft control. Houston didn’t exactly get a significant return for PJ Tucker. He opted to acquire Victor Oladipo instead of Caris LeVert, and the subsequent exchange for Oladipo did not yield any promising young pieces. The Rockets remained marginal contenders to the Finals just a year ago. They are anything but now, with few pieces that you can consider as future building blocks. As the losses mount, so does the criticism of Stone. But perhaps the critics are not seeing the bigger picture at stake.
To understand where the Rockets are headed, it’s important to understand where they’ve been. The last few years have presented a huge push towards the Larry O’Brien trophy, with every move geared towards improving the current roster. Harden has been an All-NBA first team selection six times since 2013-14. He’s had five MVP results in the top three, and if you ask those in the Houston front office, he should have at least four MVPs by now. Harden is a franchise player in every sense of the word. With a player of his caliber, not selling out for a championship is almost irresponsible. With five 50-win seasons from 2013-14, it’s hard to fault Houston’s aggressive maneuvers in the Harden era.
But even considering Harden’s greatness, there’s a move Houston’s brain would like to bring back if given a time machine and a mulligan. The Chris Paul era ended in the spring of 2019, with Harden cryptically noticing the change that needed to be made for Houston to finally break through to the Western Conference. A low season of speculation followed, and in July there was a box office success. The Rockets traded Paul to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook, and also gave the Thunder first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and swaps of picks in 2021 and 2025. The trade now serves as a demarcation point in the outing of the Houston contest.
Trading Paul for Westbrook is not an indefensible move in a vacuum. Paul seemed to have seriously missed a step in the final year of his tenure at the Rockets, and to hell with shooting efficiency, Westbrook posted a truly dominant three-month streak in Houston before the COVID-19 crisis began. But the additional picks and trades sent to Oklahoma City could prove debilitating to the Rockets’ roster formation for years to come. Facing a selection shortfall, acquiring recruiting capital for Harden in January became the most prudent measure.
It is unlikely that any of Brooklyn’s future picks (the first unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, plus trades in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027) will result in the selection of a player of Simmons’s caliber, although the Philadelphia point guard acquisition would really serve as an effective reset button. for the Rockets? This is a list more than a piece from containment, and matching Simmons’s maximum contract with John Wall’s would have significantly affected Houston’s financial flexibility for years to come. Taking Simmons out with this roster would likely result in a fringe team, leading the Rockets firmly into NBA purgatory. It might not be the prettiest product right now, but Houston can now at least hit rock bottom, bet on a bit of lottery luck, and move on with a pretty neat completion sheet and a treasure chest full of selections.
Stone also pointed to the flexibility provided by the Brooklyn package, in addition to concerns about the salary cap. Houston can now hang the Nets’ picks in trade negotiations throughout the 2020s, and picks and trades in 2024-27 could have significant value. The situation is not exactly similar to Brooklyn’s disastrous deal with the Celtics given the age of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But there is no guarantee that the Nets’ core will remain intact in the latter stages of the 2020s. The Rockets used a pair of first-round picks along with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin to acquire Harden nearly a decade ago. When the next star is in the commercial market, Houston’s selection capital could come in handy.
“I definitely think about [the draft picks] as business assets as well, “Stone said at last week’s press conference.” They are the only thing that is marketed in the NBA. Everyone values first-round picks, and the better the picks, the higher the value. “
The Rockets received largely mixed reviews for their decision to pick Brooklyn’s mountain of picks over a possible Simmons package. His other two major deals were met with greater criticism. But Stone & Co. are comfortable with their earnings for both Tucker and Oladipo. Houston is likely to move up a handful of spots in the 2021 draft as a result of the Tucker trade, and their own first-round pick from Milwaukee will now broadcast in 2023 instead of 2022. As for the Oladipo trade, the Rockets now They’re in a position to retain Kelly Olynyk as a forward piece in free agency, and they could also trade their Brooklyn pick with the Heat in 2022. Now, that’s not exactly the kind of linchpin Houston hoped to acquire for Oladipo. but still nevertheless received a modicum of value.
Perhaps Stone made a miscalculation in choosing Oladipo over LeVert. Perhaps he should have been more proactive in finding a home for Tucker. But those moves aren’t the ones that will shape the franchise’s next decade. Houston’s future will largely depend on the Brooklyn elections and, more importantly, the 2021 lottery results.
He lands in the top four, and Houston can add a top-notch prospect alongside Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. If he loses in the top four, the pick goes to Oklahoma City. Such a situation would be a relative disaster. Owner Tilman Fertitta has shown resistance to the idea of a full-blown tank, and even with the right free agency decisions, this is nothing more than a fringe playoff team at best. The Rockets waded through the NBA wilderness for years before the Harden trade, with no discernible path back to contention. Stone is now betting on a bevy of draft picks to avoid that very fate.
What to do with James Harden’s MVP nomination?
Speaking of Harden, there has been a growing talk about his MVP case in recent weeks, and with good reason. Brooklyn’s new leader has been downright dominant since joining the Nets in mid-January, leading the Nets to the second-best record in the East despite Kevin Durant’s prolonged absence. Harden averages 26 points and 11.2 assists per game in a Brooklyn uniform. He’s closing in on the top 10 in PER, and he’s already ranked sixth in win actions. Harden has been arguably the best basketball player since joining Brooklyn, and if the Nets seize the first seed from the East, he will have a legitimate case as the MVP.
Yet despite Harden’s brilliance, it still feels a bit, well, unseemly to give him the 2020-21 MVP. The superstars’ business demands are nothing new, although Harden’s departure from Houston was particularly indecent. Harden skipped training camp and mocked COVID-19 protocols while traveling across the country, quickly undercutting first-year head coach Stephen Silas upon arriving in Houston. These actions should not necessarily be viewed as a club against Harden’s professional heritage. He remains one of the best scorers in league history, and he could very well win the Finals MVP this summer. But when it comes to the regular-season run, Harden’s eight embarrassing games in Houston must be factored in. We should look at the players who logged a full season (hello Nikola Jokić) when making our pick for MVP.
MORE TAKE IN THE MORNING
Nadkarni: Should the Warriors go pick-and-roll?
Herring: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP from the beginning
Pina: The Heat are suddenly the team nobody wants to face
Mannix: Giannis is back in the NBA MVP discussion
Beck: Acquisitions are altering the competitive landscape of the NBA
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.