The Rockets’ decision to trade Robert Covington likely means a major deal is on the way, even if we don’t know Houston’s plans ahead of opening night. Houston could flip its new pair of first-round picks for another asset alongside James Harden, though as things currently stand, having Harden on the roster through December is anything but guaranteed.
There’s also a good chance the Portland picks are just the start of Houston’s asset allocation. A haul of picks from Brooklyn may be on the way. Perhaps Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker can net additional draft capital. Parsing Houston’s future remains a difficult task just over a month before the season opener.
Portland’s path forward is less complicated. The playoff stalwart will bring back much of the same core alongside Damian Lillard in 2020–21, and Covington represents a legitimate upgrade in the frontcourt. Is the former All-Defense honoree worth a pair of firsts? That point is up for debate. Let’s assess the deal for both Houston and Portland in The Crossover’s latest trade grades.
Perhaps a pair of first-round picks is a bit of a hefty price to pay for a 3-and-D wing, but Covington should be an ideal fit in Portland. The Tennessee State product provides legitimate size and shot-blocking at the four, and he’s a capable three-point shooter as well. Portland struggled to find the right frontcourt pairing last year, with both the twin towers and pseudo small-ball looks failing to generate any substantial deterrence for opponents. Covington should be a useful defensive piece alongside Jusuf Nurkić, and he brings a solid offensive floor, especially with limited playmaking duties. In an increasingly crowded Western Conference, dealing a pair of picks for Covington is likely worthwhile.
Perhaps we’re even selling Covington short with the simple 3-and-D label. Covington emerged as a legitimate rim protector last year with the Rockets, tallying 48 in blocks in 22 regular-season games. He’s not the stoutest defender in the post, but Covington is an elite weak-side shot blocker. His impressive length—and terrific motor—saved countless defensive possessions for Houston last season. Portland’s defensive floor should rise to a significant degree given their new addition and better health in 2020–21. The Finals remain a relative long shot given the crowded conference. But acquiring Covington should help secure a spot in the top eight.
This is a sensible move for new general manager Rafael Stone and the Rockets as they face a potentially painful rebuild in the coming months. Dealing Covington would be a curious decision for the Rockets if James Harden and Russell Westbrook were ready to run it back in 2020–21. But as a pair of departures looks increasingly likely, it’s smart for the Rockets to begin shipping their assets sooner rather than later. Houston loses its leverage in other deals the second Harden is dealt. Acquiring two picks for Covington is a quality first move.
Acquiring a pair of first-round picks is a nice value proposition for Stone as he enters a tricky situation. But it’s hard not to see this deal as a sign of the pain ahead. Perhaps the Rockets can hold firm and acquire Ben Simmons (or a similar young star) but a deal with the Nets likely represents an arduous rebuild. Are Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen really leading a competitive team in the West? I don’t see it.
Dealing Harden likely means the Rockets will hoard draft capital in the coming years. The Nets will likely add at least a trio of picks. Houston just acquired two from Portland, and more could be on the way via deals involving Westbrook, P.J. Tucker and potentially Eric Gordon. This is a wise strategy for a team not in Los Angeles or New York. If your superstar forces his way out, it’s time to accumulate as much draft capital as possible. But diving toward the bottom is no guarantee of success. All the draft capital in the world can’t ensure the Rockets will be able to replicate the success of the Harden era across the next decade.
Dealing Covington is a likely prelude to a Harden deal, though it’s not a guarantee. Let’s consider one alternative scenario. The Rockets could theoretically flip the pair of picks for an impact big man, viewing Trevor Ariza as a viable body off the bench as Tucker slides down to the four. The picks could also be used in a theoretical Westbrook deal, potentially sweetening the pot in order for Houston to bring back a new co-star. This is largely conjecture at the moment, but Houston’s front office isn’t afraid to get creative. The Rockets have time on their side, and if an improved roster can get Harden to stay, Houston must explore all avenues to make this work. There’s an outside chance that dealing Covington generates the pick capital necessary for a larger deal.
It’s tough to parse Houston’s decision making as it tries to steady the ship before opening night. Both a push for a new star and a complete tear-down are legitimate possibilities, and we could see additional moves before Harden is dealt. The Rockets lost an impressive player in Covington after he anchored their micro-ball experiment last season. But trading him gives Houston both financial flexibility and pick capital as it charts a new path following Daryl Morey’s departure.