It’s tough to be a Houston Rockets fan these days. Just a year ago, they were (slightly) in the championship contention picture. And now that this season’s trade deadline has expired, they seem to be light years away from it. After already shaking up the NBA landscape earlier in the season by dealing James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, the Rockets decided to deal one of the pieces they received in the trade, veteran guard Victor Oladipo, to the Miami Heat.
In return, they acquired Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 pick swap. The trade has left many fans frustrated, confused, and uncertain about the team’s overall direction. And while it’s important to ponder the team’s next roster moves, it may be time for them to consider making a change to some front-office personnel first.
Rafael Stone, the current general manager for the Houston Rockets, is on the hot seat after last week’s trade. After previous general manager, Darryl Morrey, stepped down and later accepted the job to become the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Stone was quickly appointed to the role in Houston. We must first give credit where credit is due.
One of Stone’s first orders of business was finding a team willing to take on the hefty contract of the unhappy Russell Westbrook. Enter the Washington Wizards, who offered up John Wall and his similar contract along with a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick. All things considered, that wasn’t a bad deal. John Wall has bounced back nicely from his Achilles injury and after not playing for almost two years.
Sure, he’s still injury-prone and hasn’t been available for much of the season to the Rockets but when he has been available to play, he’s made an impact. Stone also brought in players like Jae’Sean Tate, Sterling Brown, and was able to sign the team’s current best player, Christian Wood, to a very manageable three-year deal worth $41 million. Additionally, he was able to acquire Kevin Porter Jr., another talented, young player with a wealth of potential, in a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But then there’s the James Harden trade. Initially, the immediate return on investment looked somewhat promising. After sending Harden to the Nets, Houston received a package from Brooklyn that included Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs, three unprotected first-round draft picks, and four pick swaps. Because the trade also involved the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks, the Rockets also received Dante Exum (Cavs) and a first-round pick from Milwaukee.
Houston then decided to trade LeVert to the Indiana Pacers for Victor Oladipo. Immediately after the trade for Oladipo was made, there were reports circulating that he didn’t want to play in Houston and may not even report to the team when it was time. Ultimately, Oladipo reported to Houston and was inserted into the starting lineup.
He performed well with the Rockets too, averaging 20 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and shooting 42.1% from the field and 36.2% from three-point range. Houston was hoping that Oladipo would want to remain with the team past this season and offered him a $45.2 million extension over two years, but he declined. Once he passed on the contract extension, the writing was very much on the wall that he would be traded by the season’s deadline.
For the longest, Aaron Gordon was rumored to be traded to Houston from Orlando for Oladipo, but ultimately that didn’t happen. Instead, the Miami Heat, a team he had been rumored to want to play for since being traded to the Rockets, became his destination for the remainder of the season. Thus, Houston’s immediate return on investment from the James Harden trade is now Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a boatload of draft picks.
Again, if you’re a Rockets fan, you feel broke, busted, and disgusted when it comes to this situation. Maybe you weren’t beaming with excitement over getting Oladipo or even potentially having Aaron Gordon in a Rockets uniform, but there’s no disputing that either one would have been more acceptable than Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk. And to be fair, both Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are good players. Bradley is one of the best on-ball defenders in the game today and Olynyk is a big guy who can stretch the floor with his shooting, so the Rockets are definitely winning in that regard with these acquisitions.
However, knowing that you once had Caris LeVert, a great, young player with so much upside and potential, really stings right about now. Imagine what he would’ve looked like paired with guys like Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. That’s a trio of great, young talent to build around for the future. But the decision to trade him for Victor Oladipo, a guy who really didn’t want to be in Houston to begin with, and then make a trade that sends Oladipo to another team for two lesser players, was a bad call. And that bad call was made by Rafael Stone.
It’s said that the team that gets the superstar player in a trade is always the team that wins the trade because the team trading away the superstar never gets equal value or even close to equal value in return. Looking at this current version of the Houston Rockets, you can’t even begin to argue with that assessment. Of course, no one thought that they would get equal value or anything close in return for Harden.
Whenever a team trades a player of Harden’s caliber away, they rarely get equal value or close to it in return. But looking at what they actually had (Caris LeVert) or even could’ve had for him (Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, and picks or Ben Simmons and picks from the Philadelphia 76ers) makes a lot of people scratch their heads and ask, “What happened?” Well, look no further than the questionable decision-making of Rafael Stone.
In a recent interview, Stone even stated that he would do the same trade for Harden that he made if provided the opportunity to do it all over again. To many Rockets fans, that only adds to their fury. He even went on to say that he shouldn’t be judged by the trade for Harden until the year 2030. Is it fair for him to be judged on how he handled the trade right now?
Probably not because we don’t know yet what the draft picks will turn into, but as previously stated, Stone is on the hot seat currently. Fans aren’t waiting until 2030; a lot of their minds are already made up in 2021, whether their criticism and judgment are fair or not. And that’s how the NBA works for GMs. Perception is everything and unfortunately, it’s not on Stone’s side at the moment. Most likely, Houston won’t look to replace him any time soon.
Owner Tilman Fertitta likes him and trusts him with rebuilding the Rockets back into a championship contender, so he’ll be around for a while. That means Rockets fans will have to continue to pack their patience. Maybe Stone will be able to right the ship that is the Houston Rockets. Rockets fans shouldn’t hold their breath, though.