Rockets’ Rumors: Could the Rockets really flip KJ Martin for Jonathan Kuminga?

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors
Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

Rumors have a nasty habit of becoming full-blown news. The reason is simple enough, the truth, aka real news, usually isn’t as exciting as speculation, aka rumors. This truth is how a Bleacher Report article about the Golden State Warriors trading for Jae Crowder has somehow sparked a debate over whether the Houston Rockets should trade Kenyon Martin Jr. for Jonathan Kuminga

In Bleacher Report’s fake trade, the Rockets send Eric Gordon and KJ Martin to the Phoenix Suns, the Suns send Jae Crowder to the Warriors, or the Spurs send them Jakob Poeltl and the Rockets land Jonathan Kuminga from the Warriors along with Dario Saric from the Suns. If the trade sounds like a mess, it’s because it is and isn’t real news, just speculation over the small truth that the Warriors might want Jae Crowder. 

The trade is primarily a thought exercise over how the Warriors and Suns would fortify their rosters. Kuminga going to Houston and KJ Martin heading to Phoenix weren’t central to the trades. They were simply throw-ins to grease the trade wheels. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore the idea of the Rockets turning KJ Martin into Kuminga. 

Comparing Jonathan Kuminga and KJ Martin

After almost a quarter of the season, Jonathan Kuminga and KJ Martin’s stock have gone in opposite directions. Kuminga has struggled mightily, and Martin is averaging a career-high in points per game and minutes. 

One of the primary reasons for the pair’s shift in perception has to do with the fortunes of their teams when they’re on the court. Martin has a robust +16.5 on-off plus/minus net rating, while Kuminga has an unconscionably poor -28.1. A significant factor in the massive splits is that the Warriors have one of the best starting units in the league, and the Rockets have one of the worst. However, that doesn’t explain all or even most of the gap. 

Based upon their 2022-23 seasons, you’d easily conclude that Martin is the superior player to Kuminga. He’s besting him in just about every metric except for turnovers per game, where they’re tied, even though Martin is averaging ten more minutes per game. However, making sweeping judgments about a player after 15 or 17 games is unwise. 

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Remember when Jonathan Kuminga was a bright young player?

If we turn back the wheels of time all the way to July 2022, the idea of picking Martin over Kuminga would be laughable. Kuminga, as a rookie, was a key bench player on the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, while Martin was a key bench piece on the least-winning team in the NBA. 

On a per 36-minute basis, Kuminga averaged 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds, compared to Martin’s 15.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. Martin was the more efficient shooter, but more of Kuminga’s offense was self-generated. 

This speaks nothing of their age and pedigree, which both heavily favor Kuminga. Martin turns 22 on January 6th, 2023, and was the 52nd pick in the 2020 draft. Kuminga turned 20 on October 6th, 2022, and was taken seventh in the 2021 NBA draft. 

The primary difference between the two is that Martin has been the more steady performer, while Kuminga has flashed far more upside. Long term, almost every team would prefer to bet on Kuminga’s upside, but in the short term, there are plenty of contenders that would value the defined production that Martin brings. 

Should the Rockets trade KJ Martin for Jonathan Kuminga 

To end the suspense, there is next to zero chance that a straight swap of Kuminga for Martin would ever occur. Kuminga is the far more valuable trade chip. His upside is immense, and Martin is the type of player that teams believe they can find on the periphery of the league with regularity. The Warriors, if they’re trading Kuminga to the Rockets, are likely looking to get at least a borderline All-Star. 

Now, if there is a trade to be made where Eric Gordon and KJ Martin are shipped out and Kuminga comes in, then the Rockets have to say yes. Kuminga has one of the highest upsides in the entire league. He may never come close to reaching it, but the Rockets are the exact team to take that type of risk. 

They’re shaping up to have one of the worst records in the league, but they also are about to enter a period where their draft picks start to go to the Oklahoma City Thunder. After the 2023 draft, the Rockets could conceivably not have their pick until 2027, which means adding another lottery-level talent could prove crucial. 

Giving up KJ Martin would certainly sting. He is a developmental success story and looks likely to be a strong rotation piece for years to come. However, his upside is relatively limited. He’s an undersized power forward that doesn’t have the offensive skillset to really hang at small forward. This isn’t to diminish the player that Martin has become, but it’s an acknowledgment that his chances of becoming an All-Star are relatively low. 

The beauty of a rebuild is that you can take risks with little to no downside. KJ Martin is a solid steady player that could help a contender but doesn’t really move the needle for the Rockets on a game-to-game basis. Kuminga may never be as good as Martin is right now, but the chances that he becomes a game-changing player are significantly higher. 

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The good news, or bad news maybe, is that there is very little chance that this trade happens. So there’s no real reason to worry about trading KJ Martin for Jonathan Kuminga. Rumors are rumors and not facts for a reason.