Why the Rockets May Need to Defer Major Trade Decisions Until Next Year

Before dealing away any of their prime prospects, the Rockets may want to see what they have this season first.
Before dealing away any of their prime prospects, the Rockets may want to see what they have this season first. Photo by Sean Thomas
Despite entering what the Rockets have referred to as "phase two" of their rebuild this season, coach Ime Udoka would prefer to win now. Most coaches would. Wins and losses are how they are best defined and anyone as competitive as Udoka places the greatest values on those numbers. But, regardless of the desire to win now and early season improvements, the team may have changed its focus when it comes to the looming February 8 trade deadline.

It was widely reported that the Rockets wanted to make a bold move ahead of the deadline, perhaps trading for a marquee talent even if it meant sacrificing some of their young players and draft picks. When you start the season 13-9 with a defense that ranks in the top five in the NBA, it makes sense you would aim for the fences. At that point, the play-in tournament seemed a realistic possibility.

Couple that with struggles from one of your key young core players in Jalen Green, and it was setting up to be the kind of environment that led to a big trade hopefully solidifying the team's playoff hopes.

Since then, however, they have gone 13-17 and Green has put up some incredible numbers (at least in the last few weeks). Additionally, the Rockets had slid all the way from the top of the league in defensive efficiency to the middle of the pack, rebounded to seventh recently. Offensively, even with big scoring games recently, they are 21st in offensive rating.

While they may have somewhat righted the ship defensively, their struggles are mostly on the other end of the floor where players like Green are most valuable. And if there were a trade to be had, their best move might be finding at least one guy who can shoot 40 percent or better from three and try not to get rid of the team's best penetrating threat in the process.

But, it might go beyond the simple numbers and success or failure of one player at the moment. As much as this team wants to be out of development mode and into the BETA version of this roster, they did draft two guys this season who should factor heavily into their future. Playing both Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore should carry at least some level of priority for the remainder of the season.

Whitmore, as outstanding as he has been, will come back down to earth at least a little, and both he and Thompson will face rookie learning curves, making mistakes and adjusting as teams adjust to them. That's to be expected, but not ideal if your goal is challenging for the postseason.

With all of those factors, GM Rafael Stone might be wide to tread lightly when it comes to big trades. They still have a boatload of picks (including a very valuable Brooklyn first rounder) and a bunch of young players on smaller contracts that will make for quality trade bait in the offseason. For now, as frustrating as it may be given the tantalizing prospects of the first playoff shot in four years, the smart move is likely to acquire some shooting and hold on any big moves until you can be certain you know who your team actually is.

We are barely over halfway through the season with still limited time for guys like Thompson and Whitmore. Tari Eason has missed a ton of games due to injury. These are players that seem to be important pieces in a future core. And they should only get better, so maybe let them before doing anything rash.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke