With less than a month remaining until the Feb. 10 trade deadline for the 2021-22 NBA season, the Houston Rockets (11-31) are one of a small handful of teams who are almost certain to be sellers.
The Rockets currently own the worst record in the Western Conference and are in the early stages of a rebuild, with a roster prioritizing the development of rookie prospects like Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Josh Christopher. Thus, when it comes to veterans who aren’t on the same timeline as the young players, Houston general manager Rafael Stone would likely find more value in a draft and/or prospect asset.
For rival teams who are capable of making a playoff push in 2022, they would potentially give up that type of future asset in exchange for a piece that could help them win in the short-term.
For the Rockets, one obvious trade candidate is Eric Gordon. The veteran guard is 33 years old, and by the time Houston is likely to make a playoff push in a future season, the typical NBA aging curve suggests that his game would likely be in decline at that time. Thus, most around the league expect Stone to explore the trade market for Gordon now.
Another potential trade candidate is Christian Wood. At 26 years old, he’s young enough to where the Rockets don’t have to trade him for age reasons. But Wood is set to become a free agent after the 2022-23 campaign, and if Houston is skeptical on whether a future financial agreement can be had to satisfy both the player and team, it could make sense for Stone to trade him now if the return is good enough — as opposed to taking the risk of reduced compensation later.
Longtime NBA executive Bobby Marks, who now works for ESPN, published a trade deadline preview story on Tuesday with proposals involving both Gordon and Wood going elsewhere.
“Team executives whom ESPN spoke to predicted that we could see lots of trade activity in February because of a weaker-than-usual free-agent class coming up in July and a lack of salary-cap space among teams leaguewide to even pursue those free agents,” Marks writes.
As for potential deals involving the Houston duo:
Trade we would like to see: Ricky Rubio and a 2022 lottery-protected first-round pick to Houston for Eric Gordon.
Trade we would like to see: Wood to the Knicks for Mitchell Robinson, Kemba Walker and two first-round picks (Dallas and Charlotte).
The Gordon fit works on a number of levels. The Cavaliers have a need for guards after losing Collin Sexton and Rubio to season-ending injuries, and Rubio is also on an expiring contract — which makes him useful trade currency, since most teams need to send out close to as much money in trades as they take in. (The only exceptions are teams below the salary cap, but most teams are at or above it during the season.)
Moreover, between Gordon’s age and the fact that he’s currently having one of the best shooting seasons of his career, there’s little reason to think that offers would be better in the 2022 offseason. The logical play is to explore the market now and take the best available deal.
It remains to be seen if the Cleveland proposal is the best package, but it would seem to have a good chance, since Rubio’s contract expires after the year and would not leave Houston with any long-term money.
The Wood fit is more questionable. Robinson will become a free agent after the season, so his value is fairly minimal, and Walker is a veteran who would likely be bought out. The value to the Rockets would be the first-round draft assets (from Dallas and Charlotte), but both of those teams are currently playoff contenders, and each of those picks is protected to a certain extent, as well. Translated: Each pick would likely be mid-to-late in the first round, without any chance of it being a top 10 selection.
It’s not a bad haul, but in a league where quality typically trumps quantity, Stone may have his sights set higher than that for an athletic 26-year-old big man who has averaged 19.1 points (49.7% FG, 35.8% on 3-pointers) and 9.8 rebounds in 31.6 minutes over two seasons in Houston. The Rockets may prefer one premium asset to two solid ones.
Even so, just because Stone asks for more doesn’t mean he will necessarily get it. It’s possible that if a better deal doesn’t materialize, something along the lines of the New York proposal could be sufficient.
But since Wood is only 26 years old and is also under contract for 2022-23, the Rockets should not be desperate to deal him at the deadline. It needs to make sense. So for Stone, the calculus involves evaluating not only the best available offers in February relative to the long-term value of re-signing Wood, but also considering what the potential trade market in the 2022 offseason might look like. At that time, more teams could be buyers, since the next season would be more open-ended.
It’s a complicated puzzle, and while the New York package proposed by Marks might be enough, it’s far more complex than the Gordon talks — where the Rockets are likely to take the best bid, period.