Trade Deadline Preview: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets have had a very up and down season. Before the season even started, there was chaos. James Harden had demanded a trade and continued to put the Rockets in a tough position. He showed up late to training camp after partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas. However, the first game of the season brought some optimism to the team and their fans. Without newcomers John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, as well as 6th man Eric Gordon, the Rockets took the Blazers to the wire in overtime. Harden showed he’s one of the best players in the NBA and Christian Wood showed that he’s the real deal.

It didn’t take long for the optimism to fade away. Stories continued to leak out about Harden and the awkward chemistry between him and the rest of the organization. The Rockets fell to 3-6, Harden gave an awkward postgame conference and, less than 24 hours later, Harden was traded away to the Brooklyn Nets. The first game after the Rockets traded away their franchise player again brought some slight optimism to the team. Shorthanded (a common theme for the Rockets this season), the Rockets defeated the San Antonio Spurs on the road behind a dominant 27 point, 15 rebound, and 3 block performance from Wood. However, the Rockets would then go on to lose three straight after the road win.

Optimism for the season would poke its head out one more time for the Rockets. This time it came in the form of a six game winning streak (and winning seven of their eight games). The final win contained one of the moments that would lead to the Rockets now being losers of eight straight. Wood, who had actually missed the first three games during the six game winning streak due to an ankle injury, re-injured his ankle versus the Memphis Grizzlies when he stepped on top of Ja Morant‘s foot while driving to the basket.

Since that game in Memphis, Wood has been sidelined while several other key members of the Rockets have also missed games. John Wall and Victor Oladipo are restricted from playing in back to back games. On top of that, Gordon missed time due to a right groin injury, Oladipo has dealt with a right quad and right foot injury, and P.J. Tucker, who played in 267 consecutive games, was lost for a couple of games thanks to a left quad injury.

After the six game winning streak and having won seven of eight games, the Rockets were sitting at 11-10. This had them tied for ninth place in the Western Conference and just a game behind the 4th place Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. Now, after the eight game losing streak, the Rockets find themselves in 14th place in the Western Conference and four games out of the top 8 in the West. By no means are the Rockets completely out of the playoff race, especially with the new play-in tournament, but it does seem that the Rockets will be sellers at the trade deadline.

The play-in tournament has made it very difficult to decide which teams will be sellers at this years trade deadline (March 25). If you finish in 9th or 10th place in your conference, you will still have a chance at making the playoffs. As of right now, only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons are more than 2 games behind the 10th place Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team to be more than 3 games behind the 10th place Memphis Grizzlies. Ultimately, it seems like this will be a sellers market with most of the league remaining in the playoff race.

The Rockets have plenty of pieces that contending teams could use. Below is a breakdown of the players the Rockets are likely looking to move, who is reported to be interested, which other teams could make sense, and some fake trades.

 

Starters/High-Level Role Players

Eric Gordon

Before last season, the Rockets gave Gordon a four-year, $75.6 million extension. At the time, it seemed like an overpay but the Rockets lacked flexibility and believed that extending Gordon gave them the best chance to keep their championship window open. Gordon followed up signing the extension by having one of the worst seasons of his career. After being able to stay relatively healthy during his tenure with the Rockets, Gordon struggled with injuries and missed time after getting knee surgery. He had his second lowest points per a game, his lowest assists per a game, his second lowest rebounds per a game, his worst field goal percentage, and his second worst three-point field goal percentage.

There were a few bright spots. He dropped a career-high fifty points in a win over the Utah Jazz in a game that Clint Capela, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook all missed. Gordon also looked much more impressive in the playoffs than he had in the regular season.

This season, Gordon has had one of the best seasons of his career thus far. At the moment, he’s averaging third highest points per a game of his career on the best field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage of his career, and true shooting percentage of his career. He also currently has the third best PER of his career.

However, it’s still tough to determine what Gordon’s trade market looks like. He’s certainly playing better than he did last season, but his contract still isn’t great for a guy who’s dealt with knee injuries and is 32-years old. Gordon provides solid scoring, is willing to come off the bench, has range, can be a reliable secondary playmaker, and is an underrated defender (just watch his performance guarding Donovan Mitchell in the 2019 Playoffs). Perhaps a team is willing to give the Rockets some fringe rotation players on expiring contracts in return for Gordon.

So who could use Gordon? Really any contender that needs a scoring boost. The first teams that come to mind are the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers don’t really have much flexibility to take on Gordon’s contract so they seem unlikely.

The Celtics have their $28.5 million trade exception from the Gordon Hayward sign and trade that Gordon could fit into. Would the Celtics be willing to take on his contract and are the Rockets looking to just completely rid themselves of Gordon without getting much in return?

The Heat have been wary of taking on future money, but now with many of the top 2021 free agents off the market (namely Giannis Antetokounmpo) and with the slow start this season, perhaps Pat Riley is little more open minded to doing what it takes to help the Heat get back to the NBA Finals. Would the Heat entertain an Andre Iguodala for Eric Gordon swap? Gordon gives the Heat another scoring threat while the Rockets get an expiring contract (that maybe they would try to flip to a third team for an asset).

Victor Oladipo

While Oladipo has shown flashes of returning to his 2x All-Star form, he’s mostly struggled. Yes, he’s averaging over 19 points a game, which would be the second most of his career, but he’s also only shooting 40.1% from the field and 32.9% from behind the three-point line. He’s doing his best to help out in other areas. His assists/tunrover ratio and his rebound percentage are both the second best of his career. Really, the main concern is the shooting. When Oladipo was an All-Star in 2017-2018, he shot 47.7% from the field and 37.1% from behind the arc. Teams interested in Oladipo have to ask themselves if they believe he can get close to that level.

There are a few other questions that teams interested in Oladipo have to wonder about. First, there’s the locker room concerns. While his teammates haven’t said anything bad about him, there were stories about Oladipo allegedly asking players on other teams about playing with them while in front of his Pacers teammates. There have also been strong rumors about Oladipo’s preference to end up in Miami.

That brings us to the next concern. Oladipo is an expiring contract and could be one of the hottest names on the free agent market depending on how the rest of his season goes. What are teams willing to give the Rockets for a guy who has struggled the last two seasons, has dealt with injuries, has apparently not been shy about where he prefers to play, and can walk at the end of the season?

Despite these concerns, there certainly would be a good amount of contenders that would call Rafael Stone and the Rockets about Oladipo. It’s already been reported that the Rockets, who got Oladipo as a centerpiece in the Harden trade, would potentially move him again. Perhaps the best fit for Oladipo is a team that’s pushing to make the playoffs where he can be one of the top two or three offensive options while helping shore up their defense. A team that struggles to bring in free agents could be interested in acquiring Oladipo and his bird rights. A few teams that could likely show interest in Oladipo are the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Miami Heat.

The Bulls seemed like they planned on competing this season after the hiring of Billy Donovan. Right now, they’re just inside the top 8 of the Eastern Conference. This in large part is due to the continued improvement of Zach LaVine. While LaVine has been an All-Star level player on offense, he hasn’t had a ton of help. Coby White has been good, but hasn’t quite made the jump the Bulls hoped he would after his incredibly strong finish last season. The next best guard on the Bulls is…Garrett Temple? Adding Oladipo to the backcourt with LaVine (or even playing both of them with White) would give Donovan a lot more options on offense. A potential trade could be Oladipo and Dante Exum for Otto Porter Jr., Chandler Hutchison, and a future protected 1st round pick.

While they had high expectations coming into the season, the Mavericks have been mostly average overall this year. They started out poorly but have begun to find some sort of rhythm offensively and are right outside the top 8 in the west. The Mavericks hoped that Josh Richardson was the answer for the backcourt running mate for Luka Doncic. While by no means has Richardson been bad, he also hasn’t been an upgrade over Seth Curry. Richardson has a player option after this season so he could hypothetically walk. Would the Mavericks be interested in a trade of Richardson, James Johnson, Tyrell Terry, and a future 2nd round pick for Oladipo, Cousins, and Rodions Kurucs? Would that be enough for the Rockets to let go of Oladipo and his bird rights?

The Nuggets got out to a hot start, but have now fallen to 7th place in the Western Conference. Nikola Jokic has played at a MVP-level and Jamal Murray has played well, but not close to the level we saw him perform at in the playoffs. The wildcard of this team was Michael Porter Jr., who made the All-Bubble 2nd team. Porter Jr. has been a solid scoring option for the Nuggets, but has struggled as a playmaker and a defender.

Now, the Nuggets shouldn’t consider moving Porter Jr. for Oladipo, but they could still use Oladipo. Gary Harris Jr. hasn’t been the disaster many Nuggets fans make him out to be, but he’s certainly not worth the $19+ million he’s being paid (and is owed next season, too). What would the Nuggets be willing to attach to Harris to turn him into Oladipo? Is Harris, Bol Bol, Isaiah Hartenstein, and a future protected 1st round pick for Oladipo, Cousins, and Kurucs too heavy of a price?

Lastly, there’s the team Oladipo hopes to end up with: the Miami Heat. While many Rockets fans will clamor for Tyler Herro in any deal that sends Oladipo to South Beach, it seems incredibly unlikely. The more likely young player that the Heat would be willing to part with is Precious Achiuwa. Achiuwa quickly worked his way into the Heat rotation  and showed he’s ready to play at the NBA level. Would the Heat be willing to part with him to bring in Oladipo? One trade possibility would be Achiuwa, Iguodala, and Meyers Leonard for Oladipo, Cousins, and Kurucs.

P.J. Tucker 

Casual NBA fans will look at Tucker’s box score and be confused. “Why anyone would want a guy who averages under five points and five rebounds a game on their team?” Rockets fans will claim that Tucker is worth at least a 1st round pick. His real trade value probably lies somewhere in between. It’s already been reported that the Rockets were looking for three 2nd round picks in return for Tucker. 

While Tucker rarely fills up the box score, he does all of the little things that contending teams need. He defends at a high level and can guard the perimeter and the post. Tucker makes winning plays like diving on the floor for a loose ball or taking a charge in transition. Offensively, Tucker doesn’t offer a ton. However, Tucker has shown he can be one of the best corner three-point shooters in the NBA. Additionally, he’s a willing screener and will go after loose rebounds to keep plays alive.

It’s no secret that Tucker would welcome a trade. There have been rumors about a Tucker extension since last season. However, nothing has come to fruition. During training camp, Tucker spoke on wanting to feel wanted and being somewhere he’s wanted. He’s on an expiring contract and there appears to be little chance that an extension happens before next season.

Because of his skillset and willingness to do anything that’s asked of him, Tucker could fit mostly any team. There have already been several teams that reportedly have called the Rockets about Tucker. Those teams include the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Milwaukee Bucks. The Minnesota Timberwolves also had interest earlier in the season, but they likely aren’t option at this point in the season. Interestingly, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN also reported that the Rockets aren’t looking for picks in return for Tucker, but players that could play immediately. 

For the Nets, the interest in Tucker makes a ton of sense. While the Nets have been dominant on offense since the Harden trade, their defense has struggled a ton. There’s also the familiarity of playing with Harden and under assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. The issue, however, is that the Nets don’t have a ton of flexibility in what they’re able to trade.

Tucker makes just under $8 million this season and the Nets only have 2nd round picks to trade. The best chance the Nets have at acquiring Tucker is finding a third team that’s interested in the bird rights of Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie is out for the season due to a torn ACL and can opt out after the year. Would a team be willing to trade a youngish established player to the Rockets for Dinwiddie (and his bird rights) and a 2nd round pick?

The Lakers already have the best defense in the NBA, but you can certainly never have too many good defenders. Tucker also allows a different type of big man to play next to Anthony Davis. Similarly to the Nets, the Lakers don’t have a ton of flexibility when it comes to the trade market. The Lakers could offer the Rockets a combination of role players such as Jared Dudley, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris plus a couple of 2nd round picks. Outside of the 2nd round picks, that doesn’t offer much to the Rockets in terms of building for the future.

While the Heat have struggled offensively, the defense has remained solid compared to last season. Tucker could be another strong defender in the Heat rotation. Unlike the Nets and Lakers, the Heat have a little bit more flexibility in terms of tradable contracts. However, they don’t have many draft picks to trade. Due to the stepien rule, the Heat cannot trade a 1st round pick until 2025. The only 2nd round picks they currently own are the less favorable of the Nuggets and 76ers in 2022 and their own 2nd in 2027. It’s hard to see the Heat including someone like Precious Achiuwa for Tucker. Would an offer of Meyers Leonard, KZ Okpala, and those two 2nd round picks be enough to snatch Tucker?

To stay on theme, the Bucks also don’t have a ton of flexibility. Most of their draft picks are owed to the Pelicans after the Jrue Holiday trade. They have a few 2nd round picks to work with and some intriguing young players. Donte DiVincenzo is certainly off the table, but the Bucks could offer the Rockets 2-3 2nd round picks plus D.J. Wilson, Sam Merrill, and Jordan Nwora.

Other teams that could be expected to inquire about Tucker are likely contenders that need to shore up their defense. This includes the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans, and Portland Trail Blazers. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the 76ers show interest with Morey’s familiarity with Tucker.

 

Role Players

DeMarcus Cousins

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported a few days ago that the Rockets and Cousins were headed to a breakup. It doesn’t appear that anything bad led to this breakup. It just seems the Rockets want to play a different style and Cousins wants to play for a contender. While Cousins isn’t the player he was a few years ago, he’s shown he’s capable of being an effective backup.

Cousins doesn’t seem to have the athleticism and lift he once had to be dominant in the post. At the moment, he’s only shooting 47.6% when within three feet of the rim. What Cousins can provide is a big man with capable three-point range and strong rebounder. Cousins wasn’t known for his defense, but it’s even worse now after suffering a couple of lower extremity injuries.

At his best, he was able to provide 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 9-15 from the field and 4-8 behind the arc. At his worst, he’s giving you 2 points on 0-7 shooting (including 0-5 from three) and being a -17 in 15 minutes of playing (in a 5 point loss). There will be a few teams interested in Cousins and even more if the Rockets waive him.

As expected, the Lakers are one of the teams that have already shown interest in Cousins. Additionally, the Heat have interest in bringing in Cousins, too. A few other teams that’d make sense are the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Toronto Raptors.

The Rockets would probably be happy to get a 2nd round pick or a young player in return for Cousins. At the end of day, Cousins can provide some decent offense and rebounding off the bench. But he will be tough to play in the postseason.

Sterling Brown/Ben McLemore/David Nwaba

These three are relatively young, role playing wings on cheap expiring contracts. Brown, 26, is a three and D wing. With the Rockets, he’s been able to get more playing time than he did in Milwaukee. The increased playing time has led to Brown having career high averages in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Additionally, he’s shooting 45% from the field, 40.8% from the three, and hasn’t missed a free throw (ten attempts). Brown is a solid defender and capable of guarding 1-4.

McLemore, 28, is a three-point sniper, but has struggled to make shots this year. Those struggles led to him being outside of Stephen Silas’ rotation. After making 41.5% of his threes (on 2.2 attempts) in 2018-2019, McLemore only saw a slight drop in his three-point percentage (40%) while upping his attempts to 6.4 a game in 2019-2020. However, this year, he’s only making 33.7% of his threes (the lowest since his rookie season). A team could take a chance on McLemore, hoping he shoots closer to how he did the past two seasons. If he’s shooting closer to 40% from three, it can completely open an offense. However, even if he’s making shots, McLemore has to provide more defensively or else he becomes unplayable in the postseason.

Lastly, there is Nwaba, 28. He is an athletic, defensive wing. Last season in Brooklyn, Nwaba made 42.9% of his threes (on 1.4 attempts) before tearing his achilles. This season, Nwaba has regressed to 26.4% behind the arc on 2.2 attempts. Despite the three-point struggles, Nwaba has still been one of the Rockets more reliable players. He’s averaging a career high 8.8 points a game to go along with career highs in steals and blocks. He’s an energetic defender and can handle guarding 1-4.

It would be surprising to see the Rockets hold onto all three of these guys, especially considering they have Kevin Porter Jr. in the G-League and, according to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, it’s expected that Porter Jr. will come up after the end of the G-League season and play about 16 minutes a game at point guard. That means Gordon, if he’s still on the team, will get more minutes on the wing. Additionally, it wouldn’t be surprising to see rookie Mason Jones get more playing time.

Dante Exum/Rodions Kurucs

Teams certainly aren’t blowing up the Rockets phone for these two. They ended up in Houston via the Harden trade. Kurucs has struggled to work his way into the rotation while Exum suffered a calf injury pre-trade and isn’t expected to be healthy until sometime in March. However, the Rockets could try and combine these two to take on an unwanted contract and picks. Exum makes $9.1 million and is an expiring contract. Kurucs makes $1.7 million and has a team option for $1.8 million next year.

A team looking to clear cap space for next season could take on these two expiring deals. They could rid themselves of a bad contract and reward the Rockets with draft considerations. Besides that, these two don’t hold much value. Look for them to be salary filler in any trades the Rockets make between now and the trade deadline.

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