After taking out the San Antonio Spurs in their first game without James Harden, the Houston Rockets have struggled to stay competitive.
They lost to the very same Spurs this past Saturday before falling to the mediocre Chicago Bulls in a game that was not as close as its 125-120 final score indicated.
Details of the James Harden blockbuster seem to suggest new general manager Rafael Stone is finding a happy medium between full-scale rebuild and attempting to compete for a bottom end playoff spot in the Western Conference. Given the Rockets’ roster make up and the competitiveness of the conference itself, this seems to be a foolish approach.
Related: Winners/losers of James Harden trade
Houston Rockets must blow it all up following James Harden trade
Does anyone of objective mind honestly think that a core group led by Victor Oladipo, Christian Wood, John Wall and Eric Gordon is going to make noise in the Western Conference?
As singular figures, each of these four bring something to the table. As a core group, they are nothing better than an eighth seed in the playoffs. That will lead to humiliation at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and further questions about Houston’s future without a concrete plan.
The backdrop here is that blockbuster Harden trade. By refusing to take Ben Simmons without added young assets in an hypothetical deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Stone made it clear that Houston’s plans are more for the long-term. Hence, why the team added Oladipo’s expiring contract as a cap filler while focusing on four first-round picks and four pick swaps as the centerpieces in the trade.
If Stone has a long-term plan taking center stage as it relates to his philosophy, it now makes sense for the newish general manager to expedite said plan. At 4-8 on the season and boasting the second-worst record in the Western Conference, there’s no better time than now.
Houston Rockets trade options: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon for draft picks
A recent report suggests that Houston is looking for three second-round picks in return for Tucker. Given the first-rounders the team has added in the Harden and Robert Covington deals, that makes sense. While top-30 picks are much more valuable, receiving second-round selections can give a team flexibility. It’s something Stone himself has focused on recently.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about the other offers,” Stone said following the Harden trade. “I would say what’s super exciting about this deal is it gives us flexibility. In the NBA, picks, especially high picks, are the best currency. Everybody likes them. Everybody values them. That was great organizationally. It gave us flexibility to do different types of deals as they come up this year, next year or whatever.”
High picks certainly offer up more flexibility. But being able to add to your draft war chest for a 35-year-old player on an expiring contract makes sense. A team like the Golden State Warriors, who boast the Klay Thompson injured-player exception, would be an ideal trade partner in that the cash-strapped Rockets wouldn’t have to take back a contract in return.
A potential Houston Rockets trade of Eric Gordon would be more notable. A likely top bench option for a contending team, Gordon is capable of scoring 20-plus on a given night. Those types of veterans don’t come for pennies on the dollar.
Despite this, Gordon comes with a combined cap hit of nearly $38 million over the next two seasons. He’s 32-years-old and seemingly on the downturn. Houston would have to take back a bad contract if the team wants to receive valuable draft pick compensation. Again, it’s something Stone could work out.
Hypothetically, a team like the Dallas Mavericks would make sense in this regard. They have struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter outside of MVP candidate Luka Doncic. Impending free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a main culprit here. If Houston were to take on the contract of Dwight Powell, it could receive a future first-round pick and change in return.
Can the Houston Rockets trade John Wall, Victor Oladipo?
The blockbuster trade of Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards provided Houston a first-round pick in exchange. It also forced the team to take on one of the worst contracts in the NBA today.
That’s primarily the fault of former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who hastily traded for Westbrook ahead of the 2019-20 season to appease James Harden. Now that Stone inherited this mess, he’s helped build back up the Rockets’ draft war chest.
At issue here is the $91-plus million Wall is set to count against the cap over the next two seasons. Prior to this season, he played in just 32 games since the end of the 2017-18 campaign due to an Achilles’ injury.
Thus far this year, Wall has seemingly returned to All-Star form. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 45% shooting from the field. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old Wall is now sidelined to a knee injury.
What does this all mean? Well, the Rockets would have to take on at least one bad long-term contract while sending draft pick compensation to another bottom-end team to rid themselves of Wall’s albatross of a contract. Given the work Stone has put in to build up the team’s draft pick bounty, it’s not yet known whether he’d do this.
A potential move to send Wall to the Detroit Pistons for Blake Griffin could work. If the Houston Rockets were to throw in a first-round pick and change, it stands to reason that Detroit would be willing to pick up Wall’s contract.
This is significant in that, while both players are vastly overpaid, Griffin’s contract expires one year before that of Walls contract. It’s no small thing, especially for a penny-pinching owner in that of Tilman Fertitta.
As for Victor Oladipo, it was noted following the Harden trade that he’d rather not play in Houston. An impending free agent, the former All-Star has some nice value on the trade block. He’s a capable No. 3 option on a contending team with an ability to both run the offense and score 20-plus nightly.
The question here is whether Houston believes that Oladipo can be a franchise cornerstone with impressive big man Christian Wood, the latter of whom will ultimately be the face of the Rockets’ rebuild. If so, there’s a chance that things work out between Oladipo and the Rockets moving forward this season — leading to a reunion in free agency.
Either way we spin it, these Houston Rockets now need to blow this entire thing up. A half-cocked rebuild isn’t going to work in today’s star-driven NBA. Once Harden was traded, general manager Rafael Stone and Co. had to know this.