Rockets Draft/Free Agency Haul Brings Youth, Versatility

The Rockets hung onto Ben McLemore and added youth and versatility with other signings this week.
The Rockets hung onto Ben McLemore and added youth and versatility with other signings this week. Photo by Eric Sauseda
It was a tumultuous few weeks for new Rockets GM Raphael Stone. It included his hiring after the departure of Daryl Morey, the hiring of new coach Stephen Silas after Mike D'Antoni left the team, and the swirling of rumors that the team's two stars, separately, want new homes. All this amid a COVID-shortened offseason and the need to address some of the team's most glaring weaknesses despite little salary cap flexibility to do so.

Still, the first-time general manager wasted no time putting his stamp on the franchise with a flurry of moves around the draft and a series of signings meant to bolster both the current team and the future of the organization.

The rather deft maneuvers were reminiscent of his former boss, who seemed as if he felt incomplete when a draft night passed and he didn't make a trade. Leading up to the draft, the Rockets traded Robert Covington for Trevor Ariza and a pair of first-round draft picks including the sixteenth pick this year. The move of Covington was a surprise given they had just acquired him during the last season. It also felt like a trade that would predicate a complete teardown of the team and deals to eventually move their stars.

So far, that hasn't happened. In fact, that draft pick didn't happen either. Stone and the Rockets moved Ariza and that pick to Detroit for-and-trade deal for Houston's top offseason target, forward/center Christian Wood. The athletic 6-10 big man has a solid offensive game with three-point range and is one of the strongest finishers at the glass among his peers. At 25, he is exactly the kind of high-energy, athletic big man they have been seeking for several seasons.

In addition, Wood has worked out with Harden in the offseason and the team is clearly hoping this move will make he and Westbrook think twice about continuing their trade demands.

But, the Rockets did make a draft pick, paying cash and a future second round pick to Sacramento to get Kenyon Martin, Jr., son of the former NBA power forward. The younger Martin, who goes by K.J., is considered one of the best athletes in the draft. He skipped college to spend a year at IMG Academy, a boarding and elite athletics school. Based on his combine numbers alone — particularly his spectacular three-point shooting stamina — he could have gone in the first round if not for his lack of a college pedigree.

Stone picked up several un-drafted free agents as well including Mason Jones, a 6-5 wing player who led the SEC in scoring at Arkansas. Some compare his game to a young Harden with less athleticism than other guards at his position, but above-average offensive skills.

As if that weren't enough, the team re-signed Ben McLemore and added young forward Kenny Wooten (a G League standout) and former Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown (a solid three-and-D threat at the wing). Then, on Sunday, there was the signing of Jae'ean Tate, a P.J. Tucker-esque small forward who is one of the more sought after foreign players — he spent two seasons overseas after college at Ohio State.

The only losses were Jeff Green, who the Rockets had hoped to sign in the offseason — instead, landed with the Brooklyn Nets — and Austin Rivers, who signed with the Knicks.

Stone managed to add depth and athleticism to the bench as well as restock the team's young talent, which had taken hits over the last few years as the Rockets became one of the oldest teams in the league. With just over a week before teams must report and essentially quarantine with their teams, the Rockets are just about out of cash to sign players, but don't be surprised if another deal or two happens.

Rumors have rumbled about a swap of Westbrook for Wizards point guard John Wall, though nothing appears close on something like that. And there is still the question of whether or not Westbrook and Harden will want to remain with the team into the upcoming season.

It's only been a week, but it's already been busy for Stone and the Rockets. If they can keep the team together going forward, they have the potential to improve from last year, but a lot still must fall into place. Stone clearly seems up to the challenge.
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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