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Bucks Continue Eastern Conference Arms Race With P.J. Tucker Trade

If James Harden’s departure signaled a new direction for the Rockets, Wednesday’s trade of P.J. Tucker was the final confirmation. Eric Gordon is the only member of Houston’s 2018 conference finals team still on the roster. The Rockets are firmly in asset acquisition mode as we approach the March 25 trade deadline, a stark shift from where they stood just one season ago. Life on the other side of the Harden era isn’t exactly glamorous.

Tucker will join the Bucks later this week, with D.J. Wilson and D.J. Augustin coming back to Houston. The Rockets will likely swap their 2021 second-rounder for Milwaukee’s first-round pick, and Houston will now also have the Bucks’ first-round pick in 2023 rather than 2022. This deal may not be a blockbuster, but it could have a notable impact in 2020-21 and beyond.

So how did Houston fare in its second major trade of the season? Let’s grade the deal.

P.J. Tucker reacts to a play

Milwaukee Bucks: A-

It’s a worthwhile bet for the Bucks to assume that Tucker will be better than he’s been thus far in 2020–21. The 35-year-old is averaging a career-low 4.4 points per game this season on just 36.6 percent shooting from the field, sinking in production as the Rockets plummet down the standings. But Tucker’s ugly numbers thus far don’t necessarily mean this is a player in serious decline. He hasn’t exactly been the most engaged Rocket this season. Houston’s decimated roster has often left Tucker with a dearth of playmakers creating open threes, a problem that should quickly be mitigated as he takes the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Tucker is at his best as a complementary piece. He’s not going to elevate a bad offense. But with the right stars running the show, Tucker should return closer to the efficient 3-and-D option he was before the Harden trade.

As for the cost of Milwaukee’s addition, it’s hard to quibble with what it gave up considering the stakes at play. Dropping from the near the end of the first round, where the Bucks' pick will likely fall, to an early-second round pick in 2021 is nearly immaterial. Augustin’s playmaking isn’t as important with Holiday in the fold, and Wilson fell out of the rotation for non-blowouts in January. Perhaps Tucker doesn’t change their season, but he’s worth the modest price Milwaukee ultimately paid.

The Bucks are firmly in Finals-or-bust mode in 2021, even if they know Antetokounmpo is in it for the long haul. They sacrificed a horde of picks to acquire Holiday. Why pull back now? Tucker could make the difference in a playoff game as he guards Kevin Durant or James Harden down the stretch. He could bruise with Joel Embiid in a pinch, or shadow Bam Adebayo in key moments. Even if Tucker’s offensive decline is real, his defensive impact remains valuable. Score one for the Bucks in the Eastern Conference arms race.

Houston Rockets: B+

What a difference a year makes. Rather than chase a ring with notable acquisitions, Houston is now attempting to rebuild on the margins, accumulating pick capital and intriguing young talent whenever possible. Going from fringe Finals contender to 17 straight losses is a jarring turn. Yet it seems as though the Rockets are in fact taking the right steps as they begin an arduous rebuild.

The costs of keeping a perennial contender in the Western Conference put Houston in a bit of a hole in the post-Harden era. The Rockets sacrificed two first-round picks and two pick swaps in the Russell Westbrook trade, an ill-fated step that in retrospect began the cycle that led to Harden’s departure. Facing a pick deficit, general manager Rafael Stone has taken a new direction.

The Rockets received three first-round picks and four pick swaps from the Nets in the Harden trade. Wednesday’s deal will net another first-rounder as well as a playable big in Wilson. A Victor Oladipo trade feels increasingly likely before the end of the March, and even if he stays through the deadline, Houston would be well served turning Oladipo into a large trade exception and perhaps another young player before free agency. Houston is likely a couple of years away from a playoff berth unless it wins the rights to Cade Cunningham. Taking the long-term view and building a war chest of picks is the only real path forward.

This season has been one of the most tumultuous in franchise history, with a decade’s worth of superstar drama preceding a dismal losing streak. The situation isn’t as bleak as the current string of losses would suggest, however. Christian Wood is a legitimate offensive force on a relatively cheap contract. Kevin Porter Jr. looks to be a future lead playmaker, showing the faintest hints of early Harden if you squint hard enough. Stone has shown the ability to make smart moves on the margins in the same manner as his predecessor. With the right lottery luck, the Rockets could be back in the playoff hunt without an extended absence.

Will Wednesday’s deal change the future of the franchise? That’s unlikely. But the accumulation of smart decisions can alter a team’s path. If the Rockets continue to acquire picks and young talent, this miserable season could ultimately pay dividends in the future.