Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone expressed confidence that the franchise would not need to employ a “wholesale tank strategy” to rebuild, citing the haul of first-round picks received in the James Harden trade as a reason.
“I would for sure, 100 percent, do that deal again,” Stone said in a virtual media availability Monday. “Again, you guys don’t have the advantages of knowing everything I know, but literally no part of me regrets doing that deal. I have not second-guessed it for a moment.
“A lot of what I said about being in a position maybe to not have to be bad [to rebuild], there’s some other things that we’ve done, too, but it’s primarily that deal that’s allowed us to say, ‘Hey, we want to compete on a slightly quicker time frame.’ We’re not going to go down this path of intentionally trying to lose games for years on end.”
Houston traded Victor Oladipo, the only prominent player the Rockets received in the four-team Harden deal, to the Miami Heat minutes before Thursday’s deadline in return for guard Avery Bradley, forward/center Kelly Olynyk and 2022 first-round swap rights that include the Brooklyn Nets’ pick that Houston owns.
Stone said the Rockets made the deal after determining that the fit with Oladipo, who will be a free agent this offseason, “wasn’t a good one” and mentioned opening up more minutes for 20-year-old guard Kevin Porter Jr. as a benefit of the trade.
The Rockets opted to trade Harden to Brooklyn based on the potential value of the future picks. As a result of that deal, Houston owns the Nets’ first-rounders in 2022, ’24 and ’26, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2023 first-rounder, plus first-round swap rights with Brooklyn in 2021, ’23, ’25 and ’27.
“One of your colleagues texted me the day after the trade and they said they would evaluate me in 2027,” Stone said when ESPN asked how he feels about the return for Harden after trading Oladipo. “And I told them that that was too early; they should do it in 2030.
“I think we felt at the time that we did the best deal for the franchise possible. Obviously, that’s my job, so I did it. Particularly given the types of things we got back, yeah, it feels like you can’t possibly know how you did for multiple years — like three, five, something like that. But I feel good about it. I do feel good about it.”
The Rockets are tied for the NBA’s second-worst record this season at 13-33. They recently set the franchise record with a 20-game losing streak.
Stone attributed Houston’s struggles this season to the roster being ravaged by injuries and the fallout from going all-in to compete for championships in recent seasons without regard to the future.
“I’m completely unapologetic about that,” Stone said. “Organizationally, for the last five or six years or even longer, we’ve been all-in every year. Given the players we’ve had, the place that our roster has been, the team construct we’ve had, I think we did the right thing. That’s how we find ourselves in the position that we’re in today.”
Stone has made creating a stockpile of first-round picks a priority since being promoted to general manager after Daryl Morey’s offseason departure. Stone took over the team at a time when superstars Harden and Russell Westbrook were both unhappy and on the verge of requesting trades — one season after the Rockets sent the Oklahoma City Thunder two first-round picks and two first-round swap rights along with Chris Paul in exchange for Westbrook. The swap rights this year are top-four protected, putting extremely high stakes on the lottery for Houston.
Stone has traded for several first-round picks in addition to the picks acquired in the Harden deal, including 2021 selections from the Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers and picks with escalating protections from the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.
“I definitely think of them as trade assets, too,” Stone said. “They are the one thing that are commoditized in the NBA. Everybody values first-round picks, and the better the picks are, the higher the value.”
Stone will use those picks to build around “a young core that we really like” that consists of 25-year-old Christian Wood, Porter and rookie forwards Jae’Sean Tate and KJ Martin.
“In terms of how we go from here, I feel pretty comfortable that we like where we are in the beginning stages,” Stone said. “We’re going to take constant bets. Everybody does that; it’s just the level you do it at. We’re going to do it — not all of them are going to work out. … I don’t think that we need to do like a wholesale tank strategy like some other teams have done in the past or maybe are doing now.”