Are the Rockets in position to trade for third star?
To trade for a star player in the NBA, you need a combination of a very specific set of assets. The highest commodity in the NBA is a star player so in an ideal world, the best asset you could possibly have is another star player. Unfortunately, star-for-star trades are few and far between so the next best asset would be a high draft pick or a young, burgeoning talent. After that, the best thing to trade would be a package of good players on excellent salaries and draft pick(s).
The Houston Rockets, for the first time since they traded for Chris Paul, are in position to put together a respectable package for a star talent.
The Rockets have a talent for slowly restocking their war chest after major trades. The Ty Lawson trade is a great example of this. After trading away a package of Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson and a first-round pick in 2015 to Denver for guard Ty Lawson, the Rockets were able to bounce back by finding good value late in the draft (like Sam Dekker) and acquiring good value contracts (like Lou Williams). This prompted them to be able to be able to trade for All-Star guard Chris Paul two summers later.
Just a year later, it seems the Rockets have restocked their war chest yet again. Houston has accumulated good, movable contracts, intriguing young players, and all of their 1st round draft picks moving forward (and most of their 2nd rounders).
The contract that sticks out the most of the bunch is of 24 year old Clint Capela. The Swiss big man signed a 4-year, $90 million contract this summer with $10 million being incentives-based. For as good and fungible as Capela is, that's a great value deal in today's cap environment.
Capela is still young, explosive, adaptable, and an optimal center for the modern NBA. Many teams would love to have him, especially at his price points. As a point of comparison, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Nikola Jokic, and Karl-Anthony Towns all saw contract figures upwards of $20 million annually while Capela will receive $18 million if he receives all his incentives.
Eric Gordon also has a nice contract that could very well be used as trade fodder. Gordon signed a 4 year, $53 million contract in 2016 and has since well exceeded his contract. The 2017 Sixth Man of the Year is in the prime of his career, seems to have gotten over the injuries that plagued him in his early-to-mid-20s, and can help a team stay relevant and contend even after losing a star player.
In Houston, Gordon is averaging 17.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.5 RPG, and 1.0 SPG on an efficient 56.7% True Shooting. It almost seems like he's had a career revival playing under head coach Mike D'Antoni. Gordon is springy again, gets to the rim at will, and spaces the floor at a level few can due to his range. He may not be an All-Star per se, but can reach great heights as a secondary ball handler.
P.J. Tucker is also a contract that has high value on the open market. Tucker originally chose to sign with Houston over Toronto in 2016 for a 4 year, $32 million deal. The contract was thought to be good value at the time and even more so now, considering the scarcity of versatile, 3-and-D wings on the market.
As mentioned before, the Rockets have all their first round picks moving forward. Houston's been incredibly prudent at not moving picks unless they're getting a great deal. A good example of this is the Lou Williams trade in 2017. The Rockets were able to successfully dump Corey Brewer's contract while adding a key player in Lou Williams at the cost of their 2017 1st round pick. Another example would be using their 2018 1st round pick to facilitate the Chris Paul deal.
General manager Daryl Morey correctly views 1st round draft picks as high currency and only cashes them in when the deal makes a ton of sense for Houston. While their picks are typically in the late 20s because of the strength of their team, a lot of teams have moved picks around in efforts to get off of bad salary from the summer of 2016. This gives the Rockets a slight market advantage over several teams that don't have picks in the near future.
Teams like the Rockets typically don't have much young talent to work with due to where they draft. However, it's not like Houston is completely barren of intriguing young pieces. Isaiah Hartenstein, Marquise Chriss, Zhou Qi, Gary Clark, and Vincent Edwards all stand out as players that may develop into something down the road.
Hartenstein showed much promise in summer league and Qi continues to be dominant in international competition. They may not be considered top end prospects, but could easily help sweeten a trade package for a star player.
Possible trade targets and packages
At the time of writing this, it appears Jimmy Butler’s future in Minnesota is a little hazy. Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic reported Saturday that Butler will meet with Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau on Monday to discuss his future with the team.
Butler makes perfect sense as a trade target for the Rockets should the Timberwolves decide to deal him before February's trade deadline. Along with being an elite scorer, Butler is an All-NBA level defender with the length and versatility to slide right into Houston's switching system.
It also makes sense why Butler may want to resign with the Rockets. After years of not being able to compete at the highest levels in the playoffs, Houston provides an opportunity for him to be slotted right into contendership. The Rockets also have two elite ball handlers in Chris Paul and James Harden who can help lessen the burden on him. Butler's had to play heavy minutes the last four years of his career and the Rockets won't need him to carry the load he did in Chicago and Minnesota.
It should also be noted that Butler is a Houston area native.
A package the Rockets can put together is Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and a lightly protected 2019 1st round pick. While Eric Gordon is obviously not as good as Jimmy Butler, he helps replace a lot of scoring responsibility for Minnesota and provides substantial spacing and defense. Tucker also makes a ton of sense for Minnesota who can help plug in a lot of the defensive holes alongside franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns. The 2019 1st rounder acts as a nice sweetener for the Timberwolves.
While this may seem like a lot to give up, you can tweak this deal in several different ways if you're the Rockets. For example, you can swap out P.J. Tucker for Nene Hilario and a young piece like Isaiah Hartenstein.
Another star that may be on the market soon is New Orleans’ big man Anthony Davis. The Pelicans will have a long line of suitors should Davis be put on the market anytime soon. While it may be a long shot for Houston to even get in the conversation, it's worth discussing anyways.
The Rockets provide a unique opportunity for Davis to play alongside two elite playmakers in Hadden and Paul who will be able to find Davis for easy baskets at all times. Davis may be the best rim runner in the league, sets great screens, and cleans up a lot of missed opportunities around the rim. And defensively, Davis is simply elite and can move on his feet if asked to switch more. It's easy to see where the fit lies.
As far as packages, the Rockets likely fall behind teams like the Celtics, Nuggets, Lakers, and Philadelphia. Those teams can simply offer a better collection of young assets for Davis. However, the Rockets can put together a surprisingly good package if given the opportunity.
Any package the Rockets put together for Davis would center on Clint Capela and multiple 1st round draft picks. A possible trade could be Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker. Isaiah Hartenstein, Zhou Qi, and two future protected 1st round draft picks. As before, you can tweak the trade however you like.
New Orleans could find this deal attractive as Capela is just 24 years old, on a good contract, shows a lot of promise as a building block piece, and multiple first round picks help ease the blow of not getting a young blue chip prospect other than Capela. Tucker in this case would be a nice asset to move at the trade deadline to a wing-desperate contender for another draft pick.
Again, it's unlikely New Orleans bites unless teams with better assets just don't make offers, but it's not a half bad offer and worth the pitch.
Whatever the case may be, it's clear that Houston indeed has rebuilt their war chest and can put together unique and compelling offers should they pursue a third star. The means are there. Now it's just a matter of seeing if a team finds one of their offers too tantalizing to pass up.