Grade the Trade: Making sense of the Rockets' crazy deal with the Nets

Did the Houston Rockets position themselves to land Kevin Durant?
Did the Houston Rockets position themselves to land Kevin Durant? / Chris Coduto/GettyImages

The one asset the Houston Rockets can't afford to trade.

I published an article with that title on July 12th, 2024. The current date is July 26, 2024. On July 25th, 2024...

The Houston Rockets traded that asset.

Strap in, folks. We're going long-form with this one. There's a lot to unpack.

Houston Rockets trade one team's future for another

Let's get a handle on the details.

Thought experiment - you are a weird guy.

You know the mechanics of the NBA's trade market intimately, but you don't have much interest in the NBA. Don't let anyone else tell you how to enjoy your life!

You'd think this was, on the balance of probabilities, likely a good deal for the Rockets. They're flipping two trade assets for four trade assets. You'd see a Nets team negotiating from a position of weakness, so desperate to get their own picks back that they overpaid for them.

Only, the Nets just traded Mikal Bridges. They should be one of the worst teams in the NBA next year. Why would the Rockets trade the Nets' future away just as they reached their nadir?

Let's not be naive. The Nets likely informed the Rockets that they had a Bridges deal lined up, but they weren't going to make it unless the Rockets made this trade. The Cooper Flagg dream may have been dead from the start. The Nets were holding Bridges, and the Rockets, hostage:

"We'll trade for Trae Young! We swear to God, we'll do it!"

"Let's not get crazy, Brooklyn Nets. We can work something out here".

Sure, the Rockets landed the third overall pick from Brooklyn this summer. It required tremendous luck - the pick was expected to convey at 9. If the Rockets told the Nets that the '25 pick was untouchable, a Nets team that was already in the back half of the lottery would likely have looked to improve.

So, the Rockets are out on Flagg - and Ace Bailey, and Khaman Maluach. Barring a catastrophic 2024-25 season, they won't pick in the high lottery - they'll take the better of Phoenix and Oklahoma City's first-round picks, and the Thunder will take Houston's selection unless it lands in the top-4.

What's the long-term play here?

Houston Rockets improve their odds of trading for a star

It may be Kevin Durant.

That was the initial report on this deal. It's being widely suggested that the Rockets liked this deal because it would allow them to trade for Durant if the Suns decided to call it quits.

Subsequent reporting suggests that Houston would also be interested in Devin Booker. That's the stuff. Durant is 35, and Booker is 27.

The idea of trading for an aging Durant is not a popular one. More broadly, most fans don't want the Rockets to make any major trades. They want them to develop this young core.

This deal could have been done with that goal in mind. There's a possibility that the Rockets preferred a higher volume of picks to (potentially) more premium selections to maintain a pipeline of affordable talent to bolster the core.

Consider us dubious. Underlying all of this are murmurs that the Rockets feel they haven't found "their A1 guy". A higher volume of draft capital that extends further into the future should help them broker a deal for that guy. If building around the young core was the goal, you wouldn't move potentially premium picks for a higher volume of less valuable ones.

Let's reject the spurious notion that this is all about a potential deal with the Suns. More picks = more trade fodder. This is likely about trading for a star, but that star doesn't have to come from the Valley. The fact that the Suns have better players than the Nets is just an added bonus.

Realistically, the Rockets now have enough stuff to land two guys. Suppose the Suns sputter again in 2024-25. The Rockets could likely trade them contracts and their own draft capital back for Durant. Next, they could flip any combination of young guys and their own future picks for another star.

Let's say it was Fox (a Houstonian, for what it's worth). Suppose the Rockets flipped Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, and Jabari Smith Jr. for him.

I know. I can literally hear you wincing. Look - I would have kept the Nets picked and #DraggedforFlagg. Still, we should all be considering a myriad of options - obviously, the Rockets are.

Suppose they draft Clingan tonight. Does Clingan/Tari Eason/Kevin Durant/Malik Monk (Oh, they got Monk in the Fox deal)/De'Aaron Fox get you a championship?

Probably not - but you know what NBA stars are like. They move in packs. Suppose a free agent like Jimmy Butler, Rudy Gobert, or LeBron James (unlikely) decides to join Durant and Fox in Houston.

Yes, more teams are finding success with the "draft and develop" model. The Rockets could zig where teams are zagging. If they look at this collection of young players and think it's never going to compete at the highest level, pivoting into a superteam could look like an attractive option.

Alternatively, let's consider Booker. The Rockets would likely move Green and a metric ton of draft capital for him. How does Sengun/Smith Jr./Eason/Booker/Amen Thompson sound?

Sounds good to us - assuming, that is, that Sengun's three-ball develops to a point where he compliments Thompson. If it doesn't, let's bring Fox back into the fold. The Rockets trade Jalen Green and all of the picks for Booker, and they trade Thompson, Smith Jr. and Cam Whitmore for Fox.

Fox/Booker/Dillon Brooks/Eason/Sengun. That sounds like a potent offense.

Is it better than being in the mix for Flagg?

Houston Rockets made a bold gambit

Look - I called the 2025 Nets pick, and I can't stress this enough, "the one asset the Rockets can't afford to trade".

So, it would be hypocritical to give this trade a strong grade. The Rockets should have waited until the lottery balls bounced next summer before doing, frankly, much of anything.

We can still sympathize with the Rockets' front office. There is logic at play here. The tank was always about Victor Wembanyama. Tilman Fertitta and Ime Udoka likely weren't on board the Flagg ship.

Imagine the sales pitch. Hey, we missed out on Wembanyama, but this next kid looks good too. If everything breaks right, we'll have a 14% chance of landing him next summer. If the Nets aren't one of the three worst teams in the league, we'll have worse odds - probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 6%.

Oh, and the Nets won't tank if they don't get their picks back. So, that 6% looks a lot more likely than that 14%. The most likely outcome is landing another intriguing young player with high upside - and flaws that may keep him from reaching that level.

You can understand why Fertilla and Udoka would say thanks, but no thanks. Make the trade that improves the chances of trading for a star.

Even if it's not what you (or I) would have done.

Grade: C+