The Houston Rockets have been in the news a lot in the abbreviated NBA Off-Season. At times it felt like a big depressing dump of fatal news. First, recently acquired former MVP Russell Westbrook was unhappy, then former MVP James Harden wanted to bounce to Brooklyn. That put Houston’s new General Manager Rafael Stone in quite a predicament.
Stone was walking into a pretty good gig for a first-time GM. Two former MVPs in their early 30’s should be a dream job. That they’d be hungry for a title after a disappointing finish the month before was gas on the fire. Further, Stone had keys to the car: the roster had space for movement, and Mike D’Antoni’s departure meant that Stone could pick a new coach to match the roster he was assembling.
But after news broke that both MVPs wanted out and that several players were having issues with owner Tilman Fertitta, the gassed fire appeared to be inside the car Stone was trying to drive.
But while people thought the Houston Rockets were going down, down, down and the flames got higher, Rafael Stone continued to make moves from the ring of fire.
Stone lured a coveted Christian Wood, went after low risk high reward talent, actually used a draft pick, and, as of the time of writing this, refuses to swap former MVPs for pennies on the dollar. So let’s look at the moves one by one.
Christian Wood is a 6’10”, 215 lb. big man that shoots the three at 38.6-percent. Further, he continues to develop and work on his perimeter game as his body fills out. The 24-year-old Long Beach native got 13 points and 6 rebounds in just over 21 minutes a game last season. Houston’s 3-year, $41 Million deal with him implies they hope increased usage will yield increased production.
We’ll mark this in the “good” category for a couple of reasons. To start, Houston was certainly not Wood’s only suitor. He was high on several team’s wish-list, so clearly Stone wasn’t a rookie GM shooting in the dark. Further, the sign and trade included Trevor Ariza, a piece that Stone had to go get, so he gets good marks on his maneuvering. Wood may end up busting, but three years is also a manageable contract. This was a strong move out of the gate for Stone’s tenure.
David Nwaba is a 6’5″ shooter that, in limited action, broke 40-percent from behind the three-point arc last season. He boasts a seven-foot wingspan, which bodes well for Houston’s switching defensive scheme. Nwaba projects to be a rotational wing that helps spread the floor. He was technically signed last summer, but saw no action in the Orlando bubble, and was resigned by Stone using the mid-level exception.
This also gets a “good” rating in that it is low risk. Nwaba is owed very little money, less than $2 million, but if his percentages hold up he is a perfect fit next to an isolating Harden or Westbrook.
Much like Nwaba, Bruno Caboclo was resigned after a brief stint and no minutes with Houston last season. Caboclo is a 6’9″ forward with limited range but a high motor. Houston is only on the hook with him for $2 million a year for two seasons, and they only guaranteed him $50,000 a year if they cut him.
Look, the money seems nice. But at one point, Caboclo was given the lowest rating in any NBA 2K video game ever. EVER. So no, this one can’t pass. Should’ve let him walk, Rafael. This one gets the “hmm…” face.
Sterling Brown has been in the news this year as one of the players at the front of the NBA social justice initiatives. After his own unnecessarily brutal run-in with police officers two years ago, Brown was at the front of Milwaukee’s pause of play in the Orlando bubble. More recently, Brown was one of several NBA players who got to sit down with Pope Francis to discuss the American issue of police brutality. And then, he signed a one-year deal with the Houston Rockets.
As a player, Brown is another 6’5″ wing player with a six-foot-ten wingspan that shoots over 35-percent on three-pointers. He fits what Stone is clearly trying to build. He comes from a strong Budenholzer defense in Milwaukee, and ought to be a key rotational piece.
This again gets a “good” rating for Rafael Stone. Brown is an impressive 24-year-old player, and could add a lot of depth to the Rockets who appeared out of options at the end of their playoff run.
Kenyon Martin Jr.
In his “make the fanbase feel old” move, Stone and the Rockets drafted Kenyon Martin Jr. with the 52nd pick in the NBA draft. Little K-Mart (does that make him, like… Walgreens?) is an explosive 6’7″ forward. Martin bypassed college to play a post-graduate year at IMG Academy before declaring for the draft. But his time at Sierra Canyon High School in Los Angeles was well documented.
What slipped under many radars was how good of a season Martin had at IMG. Martin averaged over 20 points in a program where minutes are evenly distributed, scoring 37 points in his prep showcase. Martin is just 19-years-old, and thus the first Houston Rocket born in this millennium. He’s got great potential and a high upside.
But, as high school head coaches say, “potential just means you ain’t done it yet”. So if Martin can live up to the potential that’s a big move. If not, Stone only used a second round pick. This move gets a “competent” rating. It’s completely understandable: Jr,’s namesake was a fifteen year veteran, and it was a pick near the end of the draft.
Three years ago, signing DeMarcus Cousins would be the biggest move of the off-season. A man of his size with perimeter talent, and moves that got him the nickname “Boogie” at 27-years-old would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered his last few seasons, making him the type of player Stone could get to Houston on a one-year deal.
Cousins has averaged over 24 points per game in four of his nine seasons in the NBA, and averaged over eleven rebounds in six of them. In his last healthy seasons, he was regularly shooting over 35-percent from three-point land. But between January of 2018 and August of 2019, Cousins has suffered a torn achilles tendon, a torn quadriceps, and a torn ACL. All reports indicate he is healthy. According to Chris Haynes, his fluidity and mobility was one of the things that impressed Houston the most in his workout. But, it is just hard to look past that slate of injuries.
“Boogie” signing a one-year deal is a no brainer for Stone. If he’s 80-percent of the player he was at 28 years-old, the team got dramatically better. And if he’s not? It’s a one-year, low investment signing. An easy, clear “good” rating for Stone here.
Not Moving Harden or Westbrook
The Houston Rockets are going to look different this year. New GM, new guys in jerseys, and a new coach. But one thing that is apparently not going to change (unless a perfect offer comes) is the Beard and the Brodie are still suiting up for H-Town.
Both have multiple years left on their contracts, and so the ball is really in Stone’s court. Lots of young GMs would fold to the star, take a slew of role players, and take the lumps that come with rebuilding. But Stone is adamantly refusing that. If he’s going to trade a star player, he expects one in return. Brooklyn wants Harden? Send back Kyrie Irving. You want Westbrook? It’ll cost you.
Stone is gambling here. Westbrook’s Covid recovery and injured quad shortened their playoff run (by how much depends on who you ask; some say by a game, some say by a month), so it’s reasonable to think that they come back healthier and have a more successful season. If some of the low-risk, high reward deals work out, the Houston Rockets could be really good and enticing. And if the Wood and Cousins front court reaches the full potential? Houston is dangerous.
And if it’s not, Houston is no worse for keeping Harden or Westbrook as they would be by trading them for next to nothing. The rumored role player packages had talented players, but they wouldn’t move Houston’s needle. At some point, they’d have you out of the Western Conference playoffs just like having two players who refuse to play does. Might as well roll the dice on the option that wins now.
For the cojones to do that, and to stay strong after saying so, Stone gets an emphatic “good” rating here.
Gerald Green: the hometown kid with nine fingers, springs for legs, and the ability to catch fire from three-point land like it’s an NBA Jam video game. Green has had great moments in Houston and made it clear how much he loves representing his hometown. Signing Green at 34-years-old, for a non-guaranteed minimum contract isn’t about X’s and O’s. If Green helps out at all next season and is the same player he was two years ago, coming off of a broken foot, then Houston is better. And if he’s not? They’ve got a dude who represents the city with I-45 tattooed on his shoulder throwing up the H on the sideline. This is a clear “good” move for Stone, and an attempt to continue good favor with the fans. And it may be working with this one.
While it started out as shaky as could be, and it still feels far from over, Rafael Stone has been an overwhelmingly good GM. He stepped into fill big shoes left by Daryl Morey. He is navigating the off-season with a frustrated team, and continues to make good moves. They may not translate to a title this year, but they show promise. He hasn’t gone out and overspent, he hasn’t sold the farm for picks, and he hasn’t made any signing that is hard for a fan to swallow.
Rafael Stone and the Rockets are quietly navigating the ring of fire that surrounded the Houston Rockets for all of November. As the NBA tips-off this month, we will see if that leads to any rings in June.