Con No. 2: The draft pick problem
The Rockets are going to be paying for the sins of the Russell Westbrook trade for a long time. The OKC Thunder own the Rockets’ 2024 and 2026 first-round pick and have pick swaps in 2021 and 2025.
The Rockets won’t be better if they move James Harden, which makes their upcoming draft picks incredibly important to their ability to rebuild. While the 2024 and 2026 picks are top-4 protected, it doesn’t give the Rockets much incentive to tank and try to rebuild through the draft as those picks could easily end up in the hands of the Thunder.
The Rockets will get draft picks back in any deal that sends Harden away but what are the chances that a team with James Harden and another All-NBA player will be picking in the lottery? They could ask for picks far into the future and hope the team crumbles after Harden’s prime but that means the Rockets’ immediate future would be even bleaker.
If the Rockets had the majority of their upcoming picks they probably would have already traded James Harden. Rebuilds are no fun but they’re the best way to get a talent-barren roster into the championship conversation.
It’s easier to build a talented team through top-5 draft picks than through trade or free agency. Add in all the cap space that becomes available when you’re not playing for anything and most front offices can build a competitive roster within five seasons.
Due to the Thunder owning their picks, the Rockets are in a situation where they need to try and rebuild while simultaneously not being horrible, which will incredibly tough without James Harden. The Rockets are in a situation, due to the protections on their picks, where it makes sense for them to be either a playoff team or one of the worst teams in the entire league.
However, with the additions the Rockets have brought in this season they won’t be one of the worst teams in the league. In the short term, even without Harden, they’d want to be a playoff team that gears up for a rebuild in a few years.
Next: Con no. 1