Rockets

Rockets Mostly Struggle in Stone’s First Year

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After one full season since Daryl Morey’s departure for greener pastures in Philadelphia, do Rockets fans miss him?

I do.

Before getting to Stone’s grade for the season, let’s talk about Houston’s former mathematician, statistician and tinkering artist, Mr. Morey.

Morey was exciting. Each year, whether during the regular season or during the offseason, the Houston Rockets were always in the news for a potential blockbuster trade or free-agent signing. For you young folks, Morey’s constant tinkering began before James Harden ever became a Rocket. Morey, with a superstar in tow, only dug into his bag of tricks all the more.

No, his constant tinkering did not deliver an NBA title, but I think we all know why: that damn shimmy.

There is something about always being in the headlines, whether for good (big trades) or controversial reasons (Hong Kong fiasco). The best way for many Rockets fans to get over the loss of Morey’s presence in the front office is to evaluate the man that took his place and is attempting to fill his big shoes– Rafael Stone.

Stone made three big moves during the 2020-21 NBA season, each of which deserves a fair evaluation along with a grade.

1. Signing Christian Wood: A-

Christian Wood is a 6″10 power forward with the strength and length to play with bigs across the NBA, but he also has the grace and agility to move like a guard.

He’s simply an incredible talent.

Wood has a little Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge in his game, but at the same time, he is none of those players. Over his 41 games as a Rocket, Wood averaged 21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, while also shooting over 50 percent from the field.

The only issue with the Wood signing is the length of his contract. While he’s only 25 years old, the Rockets were only able to lock him up for three years (with two remaining). If Wood’s game continues to progress, his best playing days may not come in a Rockets uniform. Aside from the length of the deal, Stone knocked Wood’s signing out of the park by adding much-needed young talent.

2.  James Harden Trade: C+

As the NBA cliché says, ‘you will never win a trade when you are trading the best player in the deal.’

Well, the Rockets and Stone took that to heart. In trading James Harden, the Rockets received neither a player with superstar potential, nor ‘high-value’ draft picks. Yes, the Rockets acquired a trove of picks and swaps from the Brooklyn Nets, but has anyone seen those guys play? In fairness, fans have not seen the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving play together often– but when they have, it’s been lethal.

Very lethal.

Having a trove of picks from the Nets is useless if the Nets are incredible for years to come.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the Rockets were better off trading for Ben Simmons. In Stone’s opinion, however, conventional wisdom would be wrong. The Rockets, and particularly Stone, do not believe in Simmons’ superstar potential of Simmons.

Sure, Simmons is an outstanding player, but the Rockets undoubtedly asked themselves the hot-gun question: is the combination of Simmons and Wood the foundation of a championship team? I say that combination is barely the foundation for a playoff team, thus, I do not fault Stone for avoiding a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Where I come down on Stone, rather hard for that matter, is for the lack of a plan after Harden’s trade to the Nets. Instead of keeping Caris LeVert, the Rockets opted to trade-flip him for Victor Oladipo.

That was a mistake.

For a couple of weeks during the season, the combination of Wood, Oladipo and John Wall created the dynamic “WOW” trio, but any excitement the trio garnered quickly fizzled after injuries and poor play from Oladipo. The only reason I don’t grade the Harden trade a D or worse — for this season — is because of the emergence of Kelly “tie my hair back” Olynyk (acquired via the Oladipo trade at the deadline).

As much as I like Olynyk and his hair, if he ends up being the best player the Rockets receive out of the Harden deal, this grade quickly becomes an F. Once the Brooklyn picks are either used to select in later drafts or trade for a star, we’ll have a better idea of the trade’s real return.

3.  Tanking Grade: Incomplete

When Sam Hinkie (a Morey disciple) took over as the 76ers GM in 2013, he let the whole NBA world know that tanking was the solution to overcoming NBA mediocrity. Unlike many burgeoning societies, the NBA’s middle class is the worst place to be. Here you’re too good to draft in the top five, which is historically where the franchise-changing players are selected, and you’re too bad to really compete for an NBA title.

Though the NBA has reformed the draft-lottery system to prevent hard and blatant tanking, the Rockets had no choice but to tank.

In what was the very worst move in Morey’s entire tenure with the Rockets, Morey traded Chris Paul and four (four!) first-round draft picks for Russell Westbrook.

We all know how that turned out.

The Rockets’ 2021 draft pick is top-four protected, but otherwise belongs to the Oklahoma City Thunder. As it stands, the Rockets have a just a 52% chance to land a top-four pick in the NBA draft.

To be clear, should the ping-pong balls fail to bounce in the Rockets’ favor during the draft lottery, the 2020-2021 season would be considered a disaster and Stone’s tanking would have been for nothing. If you’re going to tank, you better be picking a player in the top of the draft as compensation for the losses.

Stone’s Overall First Year Grade: B-

I’ll give Stone an adjustable B-. While I love Christian Wood, the James Harden trade followed by the uncertainty of the NBA draft lottery gives Stone an average at best first season as the Rockets GM. Being average is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but when you are following behind Morey, you better bat above-average because Rockets fans and Tilman Fertitta will not be patient for long.

Follow us on Twitter @RocketsLead for the latest Rockets news and insight. 

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