HOUSTON — As the Houston Rockets front office fielded incoming calls from rival teams at the NBA trade deadline last Thursday — and made several outgoing ones — the recurring theme of those conversations was the search for a backup center, preferably one on an expiring contract who could pinch hit between now and the end of the regular season.
It had become clear, even before head coach Ime Udoka had expressed his view of the roster and what the Rockets were lacking, that the team needed some beefing up in that regard, a boost in their rebounding and physicality departments. The deal to bring in veteran big man Steven Adams was already completed, but that was more long-term thinking that team officials were aligned on. A short-term fix was still on the wishlist.
Names like Kelly Olynyk, Chicago’s Andre Drummond, New York’s Jericho Sims and Xavier Tillman Sr. were mentioned as potential solutions — among others — but resistance was met with each concept that was floated, either from the opposing team or internally as a group.
The Jazz were adamant from the start what their selling price for Olynyk was and Houston wasn’t thrilled at the idea of sending a first-round pick for an expiring contract, just as it wasn’t enthralled with coughing up multiple second-round picks for Drummond. Sims and Tillman might have been more realistic, but it’s understandable why New York, with its injuries at the center position, wanted to hold on to Sims — or why Memphis found the two seconds it was seeking for Tillman in Boston.
By the 3 p.m. ET buzzer, the Rockets had no new incoming players but felt that their current group was enough to finish out the year with.
“There were obviously things we were interested in doing, but by no means were we feeling like we had to do something,” Rockets general manager Rafael Stone said on Monday. “We were exploring options that we thought made sense for us, both in the present and the future — and at the end of the day it just makes the most sense to stand pat.”
Stone met with the local media Monday to address Houston’s lack of movement at the trade deadline, evaluating Phase 2 of its rebuild, improvement within the roster, expectations going forward and more. We’ll break down what he said and what it all means.
On the addition of Steven Adams…
Stone: I think we got a really high-level basketball player. A guy who’s been a dominant rebounding force in the NBA for the last five, six years. One of the best defenders in the NBA. We obviously feel great with Alperen (Şengün) but now we have two starting-level centers next year. Depth is extraordinarily important. He’s a very different player and will be a good complement on and off the court for our group.
Analysis: Adams will be 31 by the time he’s able to suit up for Houston, but this was a forward-thinking move by the Rockets, assuming his health holds up. Historically, Adams has been a positive presence on the floor, not only with his strong rebounding numbers (averaging 11.5 and 10.0 rebounds per game in his last two seasons) but with his immense physicality, rim protection, overall IQ and defensive presence. If he plays, Adams will also make Houston’s offense better. He’s a smart passer, willing and able screener, has a soft touch around the rim and is comfortable getting dirty. Şengün is awesome and will continue to elevate his game, but the Rockets needed a deputy for him, badly.
This strikes me as the “Al Horford” move — certainly not because of their play styles because those two are vastly different, but both are cerebral guys that align with what Udoka looks for. And even if things don’t work out, his $12.5 million salary for next season might be quite useful as an expiring contract.
On Phase 2 up until this point…
Stone: Macro, big picture? Good. I think we’re in every game. We’re not content, this isn’t like ‘Oh, it’s been great.’ I think we want more from our young guys. We want them to be better. And I think in their comments to you guys, for the most part, they’re echoing that they want themselves to be better and they know that’s our expectation from them. But I do feel like we’ve obviously made a big jump in terms of being competitive this year. That was kind of goal one. Goal two is to take being competitive to winning more games. We’ve won more too. But the point being, we’ve left a bunch of wins on the table this year through all kinds of mistakes and you get better through experience. But we do expect and demand that as our guys get more experience, they learn and they don’t make the same mistakes twice.
Analysis: The Rockets have raised their level of competitiveness this season — three wins over the reigning champion Denver Nuggets is a good sign of progress, as is finding success against bigger, more physical teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. At 24-29, you could argue that the Rockets have thrown a few games away but every team in the league has done that at some point. The truth is your record reflects you as a ballclub. Houston is just outside of the Play-In Tournament because that’s its level currently — good enough to hang out, but not consistent enough to hang around. Defensively is where the Rockets have taken the biggest leap, but until they hammer out some offensive rhythm on a nightly basis, this is the tier they’ll remain in.
On Jalen Green’s potential long-term fit
Stone: Jalen has been and continues to be, on paper, a great fit with us. He has a skill set that isn’t replicated on our roster. Going back to my earlier comments, my expectation of him and he knows this, and I think he echoed in his postgame comments, my expectation is that the defense, which has gotten better, is still going to get a lot better. That the physicality and the efficiency are all going to get better. He needs to take those steps. That’s extraordinarily important. He’s aware of it. We’re aware of it. And that’s the challenge for him and for us.
Analysis: The lede was buried in this answer, but the most important thing Stone referenced was Green’s efficiency. The third-year guard went from an electric close to January, where he looked like the star everyone knows he can be, to the up-and-down performances we’ve seen in February. He’s had nights where he’s scored 26 and 30 points as well as ones where he failed to register double digits (seven and eight points). His triple-double against Atlanta last week might have been the encapsulation of what he brings to the table when he’s locked in, an athletic force who can impact the game in so many areas. The challenge has been extracting that consistently.
As far as the fit is concerned, I have this working theory I’m developing concerning him and Cam Whitmore and whether or not that can work in tandem. Look out for that piece after the break.
On Cam Whitmore…
Stone: We’re excited about Cam. He can score the ball and we knew he was the type of athlete he showed on the court, that was pretty obvious. But I’m excited. I think he’s flashed really, really high-end offensive talent. And a lot of the stuff we’ve asked of him defensively, he’s working on. And so again, just like the rest of our group, it needs to translate. It needs to be every game, every possession.
Analysis: It’s amazing that Whitmore’s shooting, which wasn’t that great at Villanova, has translated like this. He’s shooting 40 percent as a rookie, and it’s not like he’s taking a shot or two a game. He’s taking over four 3s a night, which is more than impressive. Whitmore’s offensive profile should be a good fit for what Houston needs — an athletic powerhouse with three-level potential that can play off of Şengün. Of course, he still needs to work through some decision-making, especially when he sees multiple defenders in front of him, but that will come. Still don’t get how he fell to 20. The draft is a strange, strange thing.
On the decision to make moves for the future vs. now
Stone: We had discussions centered around both. But we certainly weren’t going to do something that would hurt us going forward. The moves we were most excited about were moves where we thought they could help us in the short term, and also the long term. A lot of the ones we had long discussions about were moves that would have provided elements this year, maybe that we don’t have as well as stuff for the future. But they didn’t happen. And we’re fine with that. We like our group and this gives everybody on our current roster an opportunity to shine.
Analysis: The committee of one (me) still thinks there was some level of disappointment from Udoka not being able to bring in a different element to this current roster, but everything sounds like Houston is gearing up for something this summer. It certainly makes sense, when the group will have had a year of evaluation under their belt and can better analyze the parts that are worth investing in, what’s lacking and who can be moved. Between now and the season’s end, the Rockets’ young core should get a lot of game time to see what they have.
On self-evaluation of his job
Stone: Starting at the end of last season to this season, I think I’ve had a big impact on the team, and the offseason is my time to put my imprint on this team. From that perspective, I’m happy with the choices we made. I think for the most part, we’ve gotten what we want. And the additions of Fred (VanVleet) and Dillon (Brooks) were necessary and really important. I like that we brought Boban (Marjanović) back. I like that we have Jeff (Green). I love the hire of Ime. And then I think we did well drafting Cam (Whitmore) and Amen (Thompson). So we had a very successful offseason, which set us up to make the right steps for this season.
But I would say for myself, similar to our young guys, it’s not good enough. And so they need to improve. Our front office — not just me, all of us, our coaching staff, all of us — we’ve got to continue on the grind and make sure the choices we make between now and the end of the season, the ones in the offseason all set us up to have the best possible chance to win a championship in the short term. Not meaning like a year or two, but not 20 years either. And that’s very much our goal. And my goal.
Analysis: This might be the first time I’ve ever heard Stone say he hasn’t done a good enough job, even though the moves the team made this past offseason were strong ones. His job will always be seen through the lens of success, which might mean different things to different people, but ultimately boils down to contending for a championship. Last summer was an important one, with the Rockets having more cap space than anyone else. This summer might be even more crucial, now that Udoka is under center and the backbone of the roster seems to be in place.
(Top photo of Rafael Stone: Troy Taormina / USA Today)