Although the Houston Rockets appeared destined for regression, due to the departure of Daryl Morey, Morey’s replacement Rafael Stone’s early moves should bode confidence in the state of the front office.
When longtime Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey stepped down to take the Philadelphia 76ers job, many around the league expressed pessimism about the Rockets’ ability to move forward. After all, Morey was the Executive of the Year within just three years leading up to his departure so replacing him wasn’t going to be easy.
Add in the fact that Morey’s replacement, Rafael Stone, had no prior experience as a general manager and the Rockets’ future seemed certain for doom. Stone inherited a franchise that had been one of the most successful franchises of late, as evident by their league-leading eight consecutive postseason appearances, but was also in a perceived state of dysfunction.
Former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni decided to part ways with the franchise, James Harden and Russell Westbrook each made trade requests, and a report leaked, which stated that essentially every key player was disgruntled, for one reason or another. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Rockets also faced a hard cap and didn’t have any draft picks, which made it essentially impossible to press forward and fix the challenges of the franchise.
In spite of all of the obstacles, Stone began his trek of providing solutions for the team, with his first order of business being the head coaching situation, as he opted to hire Stephen Silas, who is one of the most brilliant and innovative offensive minds, as he led the Dallas Mavericks to the best offense in NBA history in 2019-20. Stone and the Rockets’ brass knew they needed to surround Silas with an experienced crew of coaches, as they hired John Lucas and Jeff Hornacek, who each have prior experience as head coaches.
The Rockets also hired Will Weaver, who nearly landed the head coaching position with the Oklahoma City Thunder and was the head coach of the Sydney Kings in Australia’s National Basketball League.
With the head coach situation having been resolved, the next order of business became how to deal with the trade requests of both of his superstars. Stone and the Rockets faced external pressure from the media to deal both players and internal pressure from James Harden to deal him specifically to the Brooklyn Nets, according to reports.
Stone and the Rockets set a firm asking price, which was a star player and draft capital, as they realized they weren’t going to get equal value for one of the top three players in the league. With the Nets knowing they were the only team Harden wanted to got to, they didn’t feel compelled to make their best offer, banking on the assumption that the Rockets wouldn’t want their franchise player to be disgruntled.
Stone already paying dividends for Houston Rockets
But Stone didn’t feel forced to deal Harden or Westbrook, as both players are under contract for the next two seasons, before they can exercise their player option and opt out of their contract. The latest reports on the Harden front are that the Nets have backed off trying to land him, as they’ve essentially realized they don’t have the assets and/or capital to land Harden.
This was the right play by Stone, as opposed to taking spare parts for a player who should arguably have at least multiple MVPs. Stone instead decided to try building a championship-caliber roster around Harden, which was a sign of him having a vision and seeing it through.
Stone drew national praise from ESPN’s Jay Williams on First Take, who stated, “Rafael Stone, not alot of people make mention of his name. He’s a passionate basketball mind. He knows what he’s doing.”
Regarding the draft picks, or lack thereof, Stone’s first order of business was trading away Robert Covington, who the Houston Rockets acquired at the trade deadline, for Trevor Ariza and several draft picks. Although the move was viewed by many as another indictment on ownership’s unwillingness to spend big, the move created a trade exception of $12.8 million, which came in handy, as it helped the Rockets land Christian Wood.
Stone traded away the Rockets’ draft picks for future draft capital, but was still able to select Kenyon Martin Jr. in the second round, which could turn out to be a steal, considering Martin’s athleticism and shooting ability. Stone also signed 2014-15 Big Ten All-Freshman Jae’Sean Tate to a three-year deal, which gave the Rockets a rugged defender who averaged 16.4 points and six rebounds, while making 37.3 percent of his threes in 2019-20 as a member of the Sydney Kings.
With the Houston Rockets still in need of a reserve big man, Stone landed arguably the best all-around center, and most talented player on the market in DeMarcus Cousins. The four-time All-Star has the ability to shoot threes, as he holds career averages of 33 percent from long-range, and has the skillset to be a facilitator, as he holds a career average of 3.2 assists, in addition to 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds.
The best thing about the deal Stone reached with Cousins is that the deal in a non-guaranteed contract, meaning if Cousins isn’t physically right, the team will be able to cut ties without having any future financial commitments. It can’t be overstated how impressive it is to be able to sign a two-time All-NBA player to a contract without making any guarantees or having to ink said player to a long-term deal.
Stone’s brilliance comes as no surprise to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who noted that Stone is known around the league as a bright young mind.
“Rafael Stone has an impeccable reputation in basketball circles. Alot of people speak incredibly high of him, and so I wish him nothing but the best, I’m happy and proud of the brother to be in the position that he’s in. And Tilman Fertitta and those guys definitely love him.”
The Rockets have more work to do, as they still need a reserve point guard, which they have many options to choose from on the free agent market, but based on Stone’s early moves, there’s no reason to doubt that he’ll be able to identify the right player for what the Rockets need.
Although the Houston Rockets’ front office initially seemed destined for regression after Daryl Morey’s Urban Meyer-like change of heart, Rafael Stone has shown that he’s more than capable of being the executive that the team needs, as he’s essentially passed all of his first major tests, in spite of the obstacles he initially faced.