Inside the Rockets' Long Rebuild

Houston pressed reset after trading away superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Here is how they plan to get back to contention.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Rockets general manager Rafael Stone reflected on the James Harden trade in a press conference last week, noting it wasn’t fair to judge Houston’s return on its blockbuster deal until at least 2030. The comment was made largely in jest, followed by a chuckle from Daryl Morey’s successor. Yet the joke was revealing as Stone and the Rockets begin what could be an arduous rebuild. After a half-decade of cashing in assets in pursuit of a championship, Houston is taking the long road back to contention.

Stone & Co. have come under considerable fire for their deals in recent months. Some viewed Ben Simmons as a better asset than seven years of pick control from the Nets. Houston didn’t exactly get a significant return for P.J. Tucker. It opted to acquire Victor Oladipo rather than Caris LeVert, and the subsequent trade of Oladipo didn’t net any promising young pieces. The Rockets stood as a fringe Finals contender just one year ago. They’re anything but now, with few pieces you can consider as future building blocks. As the losses mount, so has the criticism of Stone. But perhaps the critics aren’t seeing the bigger picture at play.

To understand where the Rockets are going, it’s important to understand where they’ve been. Recent years have featured a serious push toward the Larry O’Brien trophy, with each move geared toward improving the present roster. Harden has been an All-NBA first-team selection six times since 2013–14. He’s logged five top-three MVP finishes, and if you ask those in Houston’s 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 since 2013–14, it’s hard to criticize Houston’s aggressive maneuvering in the Harden era.

But even considering Harden’s greatness, there is one move Houston’s brain trust would like to have back if given a time machine and a mulligan. The Chris Paul era ended in the spring of 2019, with Harden cryptically noting the change that needed to be made in order for Houston to finally break through in the Western Conference. An offseason of speculation followed, and in July, a blockbuster was struck. The Rockets dealt Paul to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook, additionally giving the Thunder first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. The trade now serves as a demarcation point in Houston’s slide out of contention.

Swapping Paul for Westbrook isn’t an indefensible move in a vacuum. Paul seemed to have seriously lost a step in the last year of his Rockets tenure, and shooting efficiency be damned, Westbrook logged a truly dominant three-month stretch in Houston before the COVID-19 crisis began. But the additional picks and swaps sent to Oklahoma City could prove debilitating to the Rockets’ roster-building in the coming years. Facing a pick deficit, acquiring draft capital for Harden in January became the most prudent move.

It’s unlikely any of Brooklyn’s future picks (unprotected firsts in 2022, 2024 and 2026, plus swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027) results in drafting a player of Simmons’s caliber, though would acquiring Philadelphia’s point guard really serve as an effective reset button for the Rockets? This is a roster more than a single piece away from contention, and pairing Simmons’s max contract with John Wall’s would have significantly dampened Houston’s financial flexibility in the coming years. Trotting out Simmons with this roster would likely result in a fringe play-in team, landing the Rockets firmly in NBA purgatory. It may not be the prettiest product at the moment, but Houston can now at least bottom out, shoot for some lottery luck and move forward with a fairly clean cap sheet and a treasure chest of picks.

Stone also noted the flexibility provided by Brooklyn’s package aside from salary cap concerns. Houston can now dangle the Nets’ picks in trade negotiations throughout the 2020s, with the picks and swaps in 2024–27 potentially holding significant value. The situation isn’t exactly akin to Brooklyn’s disastrous deal with the Celtics given the age of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But there’s no guarantee the Nets’ core is still 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 on the trade market, Houston’s pick capital could come in handy.

"I definitely think of [the draft picks] as trade assets, too," Stone said in last week’s press conference. "They are the one thing that are commoditized in the NBA. Everybody values first-round picks, and the better the picks are, the higher the value."

The Rockets drew largely mixed reviews for their decision to choose Brooklyn’s mountain of picks over a potential Simmons package. Their other two marquee deals were met with greater criticism. But Stone & Co. are comfortable with their returns for both Tucker and Oladipo. Houston will likely move up a handful of spots in the 2021 draft as a result of the Tucker trade, and the first-round pick they own from Milwaukee will now convey in 2023 rather than 2022. As for the Oladipo trade, the Rockets are now in a position to retain Kelly Olynyk as a frontcourt piece in free agency, and they could also swap their Brooklyn pick with the Heat in 2022. Now that’s not exactly the type of blue-chip piece Houston hoped to acquire for Oladipo, but they still received some modicum of value nonetheless.

Perhaps Stone made a miscalculation in choosing Oladipo over LeVert. Maybe he should have been more proactive in finding a home for Tucker. But those moves aren’t what will shape the franchise’s next decade. Houston’s future will largely be dictated by what comes of Brooklyn's picks, and more importantly, the results of the 2021 lottery.

Land in top four, and Houston can add a blue-chip prospect alongside Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. Miss out on the top four, and 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 isn’t more than a fringe playoff team at best. The Rockets waded through the NBA wilderness for years prior to the Harden trade, with no discernible path back to contention. Stone is now betting on a bevy of draft picks to avoid that same fate.

What to Do About James Harden’s MVP Candidacy?

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Speaking of Harden, there’s been increasing chatter regarding his MVP case in recent weeks, and rightfully so. Brooklyn’s new leading man has been downright dominant since joining the Nets in mid-January, leading the Nets to the East’s second-best record despite Kevin Durant’s extended absence. Harden is averaging 26 points and 11.2 assists per game in a Brooklyn uniform. He’s closing in on the top 10 in PER, and he already sits No. 6 in win shares. Harden has arguably been the best player in basketball since joining Brooklyn, and if the Nets seize the East’s top seed, he’ll 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. Superstar trade demands are nothing new, though Harden’s exit from Houston was particularly unseemly. Harden skipped training camp and flouted COVID-19 protocols as he jet-set around the country, and he quickly undermined first-year head coach Stephen Silas upon arriving in Houston. These actions shouldn’t necessarily be held as a cudgel against Harden’s career legacy. He remains one of the greatest scorers in league history, and he could very well win Finals MVP this summer. But as for the regular-season race, Harden’s eight shameful games in Houston need to be taken into consideration. We should look to players who logged a full season (hello, Nikola Jokić) when making our pick for MVP.

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