The Houston Rockets are entering the final stages of their rebuild. After tanking for top draft picks beginning in 2020-21, the 2022-23 season will be the last season where the draft is used as an avenue to add top-tier talent. From the 2023-24 season on, the Rockets' route to adding premium talent will primarily come through free agency and trade. The rebuild isn’t over, but it’s entering a different stage, which makes the franchise’s cache of trade assets, most notably first-round picks, particularly important to their chances of building a contender.
Trade assets must be viewed in relation to the rest of the league. When a superstar player becomes available, they usually go to the destination with the best offer. In the wake of the Rockets’ James Harden trade, unprotected first-round picks have become the asset-de-jour. Let’s examine how the Rockets’ haul of first-round picks stacks up compared to the rest of the league.
The Rockets’ draft assets
From 2023 to 2029, the Rockets will have at minimum eight first-round picks. However, after the 2023 draft, the Rockets owe first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2024 to 2026. They keep their pick in 2024 if it lands in the top four, owe a top ten protected swap in 2025, and another top four protected pick in 2026. The Rockets control their 2023 and 2027 through 2029 picks.
The Rockets either have an unprotected pick or pick swap with the Brooklyn Nets from the 2023 draft to the 2027 draft. 2024 and 2026 are unprotected picks, and 2023, 2025, and 2027 are unprotected swaps. The Rockets also have the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2023 first-round pick.
The competition’s draft assets
While the Rockets’ list of trade assets is long, they are not at the top of the league in terms of assets. The Oklahoma Thunder have eight unprotected first-round picks, four picks that are protected between five and ten, and two protected 11 through 15. The San Antonio Spurs have eight unprotected first-round picks and multiple picks with minimal protections. The New Orleans Pelicans have nine unprotected first-round picks and swap rights with the Lakers and Bucks in multiple drafts. And the Utah Jazz will have potentially a dozen first-round selections between 2023 and 2029.
Outside of the four listed teams above, there are a host of teams that own all of their picks and have additional picks coming in. Two things need to be remembered as well, with each passing season, picks in the 2030s will begin to open up for trade, and teams, in most circumstances, cannot trade picks in consecutive seasons. The Rockets are definitely in the top third of the league in terms of draft assets, but they’re probably outside of the top five.
How the Rockets can land a superstar
In the short term, the Rockets don’t have the draft assets to simply outbid the competition to land a star player. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t land a star. The next available star could be redundant for some teams’ rosters, a team may be unsure if said star would sign an extension, cap space can disappear quickly with one contract, and sometimes teams just don’t want to pony what it takes.
The Rockets’ best chance to leapfrog into the top five is if one of their young players develops into a potential All-Star or if the Brooklyn Nets completely combust. The Nets becoming a bottom-feeder by 2025, could make their swaps and picks more valuable than your standard unprotected first-round pick. The expected career value between a player selected in the top five compared to a player selected six through ten is massive. If the Nets look likely to be in the mix for the worst record in the league, those picks and swaps could be worth the equivalent of two unprotected first-round picks.
If and when the next disgruntled superstar becomes available, the Rockets will be in the mix. They have the assets to make a competitive offer, but their ability to outbid the competition is limited unless the Brooklyn Nets hit a new low. The first stage of the Rockets’ rebuild is going according to plan, but next season that plan will have a different look, and picks may start heading out the door again.