Yes, the Houston Rockets are currently a whopping 14-41 with just over a month to play this season. Houston is in the bottom six in points, points allowed, net rating, and top five in pace. That means the Houston Rockets give up a lot of points, quickly, without scoring a lot of points. That’s not a great strategy. But, to be fair, it’s also a byproduct of a season that has had nothing go to plan.
The Houston Rockets signed new Head Coach Stephen Silas to come in and work his offensive magic on an offense with two former MVPs and future Hall of Famers in his backcourt. Then in January, plans changed. By mid-April, Silas and the Rockets wish that was the end of the change. In the 54 games to date, Houston has played 33 different starting lineups. Covid protocols, trades, signings, and injuries have continued to ensure that the only constant is inconsistency.
#Rockets GM Rafael Stone refers to Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, and KJ Martin as the “young core.”— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) March 29, 2021
Last month, new General Manager Rafael Stone confirmed that the young pieces Houston will build around are in town. We detailed in the last Rockets’ Round-Up, Houston could potentially add a lot more young talent in the draft this summer. There’s a timeline that leaves Houston with three first-round picks. (And yes, admittedly, there is a scenario that leaves Houston with one late-round pick, too).
Houston has a great pairing in Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood to build around. The inside-outside game of both players compliments the other well. Porter Jr. can attack the cup off of a Wood screen, and that is just as deadly as Porter Jr. pulling up in the midrange with a slashing Wood off of the deep roll. Adding in Jae’Sean Tate’s toughness and KJ Martin’s athleticism only rounds out the circle.
But no team can be successful and be entirely 26-years-old and younger, plus John Wall. So what other players are the Rockets looking to add?
So Who Will Join In?
There are a handful of options on the Free Agency market this off-season for the Houston Rockets to investigate. Even with John Wall’s large contract on the books, Houston has a lot of roster flexibility. Houston has Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, Dante Exum, and a handful of other players expiring. If Houston can move Eric Gordon (an elder statesman who would rather be on a contender and has a contract that expires in 2022), Wall will be their only current salary over $15 Million on the books next season, and Wood is the only other player on the books for more than $7 Million.
The Houston Rockets need to maintain some space to resign their young guys as they get older – or at least the ones they want to hold onto. But they are going to be $38 Million shy of hitting the luxury tax. With a full off-season to develop in Silas’ system, adding the right pieces around Wood and Porter Jr. is very possible. So, who’s available?
Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
Lonzo Ball has grown into a very versatile player and would be a fantastic option for the Houston Rockets’ backcourt. Ball can be both an on-ball creator and an off-ball scoring threat. With the ball in his hands in the half-court, he could distribute to any spot on the floor, coming off a pick-and-pop or one of Silas’ favorite double-drag actions. Ball would continue to push the fast tempo Silas’ Rockets have played this season in pushing the break. This season Ball has also developed into a spot-up shooter. With the Pelicans utilizing Zion Williamson’s playmaking, Lonzo has regularly been a glorified “three-and-D” wing. Thus, when Kevin Porter Jr. is in the creator role, Lonzo would still be a threat. Houston would then seamlessly switch between two very different playmaking threats much like they did with Chris Paul and James Harden in 2018, their most successful season since the 1995 title run.
The issue with Ball is that, as a restricted Free Agent, the Houston Rockets need to offer him more money than New Orleans. If New Orleans at least matches the offer, they retain his player rights. New Orleans is at a slightly different stage of building their team, but they are still developing and value what he brings.
Malik Monk is another backcourt option that should be on Houston’s radar. Monk has had an incredible rise this season; he is shooting a career-high number of three-point field goals while attempting more three-point shots per game than ever before. Playing with a playmaking guard like LaMelo Ball has clearly helped, but what’s to say that couldn’t be John Wall or Kevin Porter Jr.?
The risk with Monk is simple: is this season an outlier or a sign of growth? After having an elongated off-season, Monk is shooting the ball 14-percent better from three. A 42-percent three-point shooter (as Monk is this year) gets paid a lot differently than a 28-percent three-point shooter (as Monk was last season). On his career, Monk’s 34-percent is respectable for a young two-guard. Monk is just 22; there will be collegiate seniors drafted this summer older than him.
This is a two-edged sword. After over 230 NBA games, GMs will have to figure out if Monk is a finished product or a late bloomer.
Talen Horton-Tucker (Restricted)
Talen Horton-Tucker (THT) is going to be an interesting player to watch this off-season. On the one hand, he is one of a handful of young Lakers that has promise. He is long, rangy, and explosive. He’s been impressive in both limited minutes and usage, and both are understandable. He’s playing for an NBA Championship contender at just 20-years-old. That he’s seeing time and usage at all is impressive.
But, on the other hand, his timeline and development stick out. The Lakers are in win-now mode. They need role players to come in and play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, not players that need time on the floor to grow through mistakes. That’s not a problem on his rookie deal, but if someone offers him a lot of money, the Lakers may not want to match. They have a lot tied up in their superstars and could use the money more wisely on other win-now guys.
On the floor, THT offers balance to the craftiness of Porter Jr. at the same age. Where Porter Jr. changes the pace, THT dares defenses to keep up. When paired with a three level big man threat, Houston’s mix-matched backcourt could grow up into a terror for the rest of the league.
John Collins (Restricted)
Adding John Collins would be a Houston Rockets experiment in redundancy, and it would shed light on how that could add to Coach Silas’ double-drag action. Like Wood, Collins operates at all three levels of the modern big. On just three-and-a-half attempts, Collins is over 38-percent as a three-point shooter. On the short roll, Collins has demonstrated he can play a high-low big man game as well as drive and distribute from the free-throw stripe. And, at six-foot-ten with a 33-inch vertical, he is a devastating rim-running threat at the hoop. Both he and Wood threaten the defense at every turn. Running Porter Jr. off of the two of them becomes impossible to predict without sacrificing any size on the defensive end.
There were rumors that Atlanta was going to trade Collins at the deadline. With Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela, Collins is having trouble finding the same usage he was accustomed to last year. That they kept him in March makes his restricted Free Agency worrisome – because that means they intend to match offers. They definitely could have gotten something useful in a trade, so unless someone offers an exorbitant amount of money it doesn’t appear that they’ll let him go for nothing in return. If Houston were to be the team that pays Collins that much they’ll need to be right. A contract like that for a skillset you already have is risky.
Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
Jarrett Allen is not the offensive threat that Collins is, but he may be twice the defender. Offensively, Allen would fit Silas’ double drag exclusively as a roll-man. But on defense, he brings the thing Houston is missing the most: rim protection. For all of the positives Wood brings to the table, the Rockets have been bleeding lay-ups and dunks this year. Allen has proven to be a great shot-blocker. He moves from defending the dunker spot to contesting a floater across the rim in a blink.
What makes this painful is Houston could have had Allen in the James Harden trade by forfeiting some of the draft capital they brought in. However, If the tank works out this may come off as some genius move (or a lucky one). That Allen will demand a high salary this off-season seems inevitable. It’s why Brooklyn had to move him for something and it’s why a team like Cleveland had to buy out Andre Drummond. Houston moved him in the Harden trade because being tied to him makes Houston more flexible this summer… not because he doesn’t fit in on the Rockets. That flexibility allows them to search the market without having to worry about what other teams offer him this summer. That said, the biggest detractor may be the fans never forgetting GM Rafael Stone could have had him… which may make this less likely.
Will Barton (Player Option)
Since arriving in Denver years ago, Will Barton has been a highly impactful rotational player and grown into his starting wing role. In Denver, Barton is shooting the three at 36-percent on 4.4 attempts per game. He is rangy enough to be a big shooting guard opposite Porter Jr. or a smaller forward in spaced-out lineups at six-foot-six. For the Nuggets, Will Barton has excelled in doing what he’s asked to do without pulling touches away from Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray. Houston would hope he can do the same alongside Christian Wood and Porter Jr.
The issues in signing Will Barton are two-fold. For one, He is just over 30-years-old. That timeline doesn’t pair with the Houston Rockets’ needs as much as the aforementioned players, and he’s not bringing in a bunch of championship experience that more desirable veterans would have. Barton is good, but he doesn’t bring the same kind of voice that Chris Paul brought to Phoenix or that Rajon Rondo is bringing to the LA Clippers. But he also has more time left in his career than either of them.
The tricky thing here is luring him out of Denver. With a player option, him opting out implies he wants more money than Denver can pay. He has a great thing there, they have Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic, and (hopefully) Jamal Murray all returning next year as well, and they ought to be poised to make a run. He knows his role and knows he is important there. If he opts out… he may prove to be expensive.
Duncan Robinson (Restricted)
Robinson was not available in the Victor Oladipo trade at the deadline, and negotiations went up to the wire there. All indications are Robinson’s fit in Houston is clear: Robinson is a six-foot-seven 26-year-old sharpshooter that fits into the rotation of an NBA Finals caliber team. Houston would absolutely benefit by adding Robinson in the rotation, if for nothing else than to space the floor for Porter Jr. and Wood to create. And in other situations running him off of backside hammer actions can occupy defense that opens up quick dunks from a slipping back-cutter or a three from a 41-percent three-point shooter.
The hindrance on this will be, much like some of the aforementioned players, that he is a Restricted Free Agent. That means if Miami really values him, they can match any offer and keep him. However, Houston could wind up with a lot more cap space than Miami does if Miami ends up signing one of the “whale” free agents Pat Reilly always seeks out. Houston, in contrast, has a ton of cap room and may price out Miami if they think Robinson is their big get of the off-season.
Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
The “whale” free agent this off-season is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is a two-time NBA Finals MVP, five-time All-Star, and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Leonard has been a winner at all stops across the league, and he has the option to leave the LA Clippers this off-season. If he is frustrated by season’s end, it’s not crazy to think he’ll be somewhere else next year as he would have been last year.
That said, it may be crazy to think that somewhere is Houston. Leonard is a 29-year-old winner, and will likely head somewhere ready to win and compete now. Don’t be surprised to see him turn down his player option. By turning that down, Leonard is able to re-sign with the Clippers, or whomever he wants, for more money.
But just because it probably won’t happen doesn’t mean it won’t, right?