The clock has struck midnight in Houston. The Rockets started out strong in the aftermath of the James Harden trade, but have now lost 11 straight games and plummeted to the no. 14 seed in the West at 11-21. Injuries have been their biggest problem. Christian Wood has missed all 11 losses with a sprained ankle, while Victor Oladipo has been in and out of the lineup due to minor ailments. But it might end up being for the best. Houston needs to start a complete rebuild, and that means shipping out almost anyone with value, including Oladipo, who recently rejected a two-year, $45 million extension.
A playoff run is virtually impossible, even if the Rockets get healthy following the All-Star break. They are five games out of the no. 10 seed, and have the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA. The more pressing concern is their lack of future draft assets after giving up the farm for Russell Westbrook in 2019. Houston will receive the least favorable of its pick, OKC’s, and Miami’s in 2021, unless its pick lands in the top four. They also have only top-four protections on their firsts in 2024 and 2026.
Stripping their roster is not about tanking. The Rockets already have one of the three worst records in the NBA, but if the lottery were held today, they’d have just a 52 percent chance of keeping their pick. They won’t be able to increase those odds, which means they should operate under the assumption that they will lose it. Their goal should be to acquire as many picks as possible, while creating more opportunities for young players to develop. Houston has to keep chipping away at its pick deficit, in much the same way that Brooklyn did earlier in the decade, after it gave away all its future picks in a trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
That’s the model the Rockets have been following over the past few months, accumulating picks by trading away Harden (four firsts, four swaps), Westbrook (one first), and Robert Covington (two firsts). But there’s more work to do. They have several other valuable players who don’t have a long-term future in Houston.
Their only long-term building blocks are Wood and John Wall. Wood has been one of the biggest revelations in the league, averaging 22.0 points on 55.8 percent shooting, 10.2 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game in his first season as a starter. He’s the new face of the franchise, a 25-year-old, do-everything big who can succeed with almost any type of player around him.
Wall is a different story. The Rockets shouldn’t necessarily want to keep him around, they just don’t have a choice. Houston received a first-round pick from Washington when it swapped Wall for Westbrook, and would have to give up just as much, if not more, to send him somewhere else. It’s not that Wall is a bad player. He’s having a bounceback season after missing most of the past two with serious injuries, averaging 19.9 points on 42.4 percent shooting and 6.1 assists per game. The problem is that he has way too much money left on his deal (two years, $92 million) for any other team to want him.
That leaves Oladipo as the team’s biggest realistic trade chip. Houston offered him the most it could in an extension, but it still wasn’t enough for him to accept. He will be a free agent at the end of the season. It’s unclear what the market for him is, but the Rockets can’t let him walk for nothing. Oladipo has missed 12 out of a possible 34 games with Houston and Indiana, and hasn’t been healthy in almost three seasons. The talent is still there, but it’s been a long time since he’s been able to put it all together. He’s averaging 18.9 points on 39.1 percent shooting, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game this season with Houston. Oladipo needs to prove that he can stay on the court and play an efficient brand of basketball.
Miami and New York are rumored to have interest in Oladipo, and Houston has to hope that one of those teams will roll the dice on him. Both have the flexibility to trade for Oladipo without giving up any major pieces from their team. It’s not like either squad will have many great options in free agency next summer, either, since so many of the top names have taken themselves off the market. If the Rockets play their cards right, they might be able to get one future first and a young player for Oladipo.
Eric Gordon would be an easier fit on a lot of teams as a knockdown shooter (career 36.8 percent from 3 on 6.4 attempts per game) with the ability to defend both backcourt positions at a high level. The problem is that he’s 32 years old and on a massive contract that will pay him $21 million in 2023-24. There may not be a team willing to give up anything of value to take on that contract.
P.J. Tucker is their most likely player to be traded. He’s a 35-year-old having one of his worst seasons in the NBA, but he’s still valued around the league for his ability to space the floor and defend multiple frontcourt positions. Even a limited version of Tucker could help a lot of contenders. He will be a free agent at the end of the season and has also turned down a contract extension with Houston. There’s not much reason for the Rockets to keep him around at this point.
The good news for the Rockets is that there may not be many other sellers at the deadline. The new play-in series means that the top 10 seeds in each conference will make some version of the playoffs, removing the incentive for most teams to gut their rosters. Long-suffering franchises like the Kings and Bulls probably can’t afford to blow it up if they still have a chance of making the postseason. That means that any potential buyers will have to shop in Houston.
The most encouraging thing for the Rockets is that their front office, led by new GM Rafael Stone, has shown the ability to find players in unlikely places. They jumped on Wood when many teams were still leery of him. And they found Jae’Sean Tate, who has had a promising season as a small-ball big man, in Australia. The Rockets also acquired Kevin Porter Jr., who has been dominant in the G League bubble, after he fell out of favor with the Cavs when he was charged with improperly handling a firearm in a vehicle (a grand jury later declined to indict him), and then later got in an argument with their GM in the locker room.
The next couple of seasons have to be about acquiring talent. The ideal scenario would be to keep their pick in the 2021 draft, which features several potential franchise players. But even if they lose it, they have to keep picking up youngsters and hope to eventually strike gold. The Rockets don’t have enough of their own draft picks to rebuild in a conventional manner. They will have to be smart and lucky to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves. That means shipping off whatever players they can at the deadline, and then hoping for the best in the lottery.