Rockets' Updated Trade Targets with 2021 NBA Deadline Approaching
Houston, you have a PROBLEM.
The Houston Rockets always figured to encounter some degree of turbulence on the other side of the James Harden trade. But even the most pessimistic projections for a Harden-less Houston didn't see this coming.
The Rockets are free-falling with a 13-game losing streak that's even worse than it sounds. After Wednesday's 132-114 defeat at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets—keyed in part by Harden's latest triple-double—Houston has now lost 10 of these 13 contests by double figures.
Reeling isn't the right word to describe what's going on in Space City. This is an avalanche with no signs of relief.
It has gotten out of control, to the point that it has almost certainly altered the organization's plans for the March 25 NBA trade deadline. While there may have been some desire to prove the club could compete sans Harden, all eyes should be fully focused on the future now. Let's examine three trade targets who fit that strategy.
This Rockets roster was largely assembled to win now, a possibility that went out the window once Harden soured on Houston. Championship-chasing is fun in the moment—funner for those who, unlike the Rockets, realize that dream—but it leaves the cupboards bone-dry when it's finished.
That's where Houston finds itself now. There are only two rookies in the regular rotation. One is Mason Jones, an undrafted shooting guard who's playing on a two-way pact. The other is Jae'Sean Tate, a 25-year-old whose winding road to the NBA included stops in Belgium and Australia.
No player on this roster was drafted by the Rockets. The player who came closest was rookie Kenyon Martin Jr., 2020's No. 52 pick who was acquired on draft night. The 20-year-old swingman has logged just 69 minutes so far.
The need for high-upside youth is glaring. Houston has collected some first-round picks in trades, but it also owes several to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the ill-fated Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul swap. If (when?) the Rockets start clearing out veterans (like Victor Oladipo or P.J. Tucker), they should be seeking all the draft capital they can get.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Let's start this discussion with a disclaimer (fun!): The Rockets probably don't have the trade arsenal to pluck Tyler Herro from the Miami Heat.
You might be asking, then, why the sophomore scoring guard is listed here. Fair question. That's because Herro represents the kind of player the Rockets should be turning over every stone to find. If that player is Herro himself, great—his fiery three-point shooting and off-the-bounce creativity could certainly juice this attack. But if it's a similar kind of building block, that works too.
The one good thing about Houston having so much established talent on the roster is that there should be plenty of win-now veterans who can attract a contender. Oladipo and Tucker are the most obvious examples, but the Rockets could also help fill wing depth with Danuel House Jr., a shooting shortage with Ben McLemore or even a lack of spark-plug scoring with Eric Gordon.
Individually, those players wouldn't bring back a Herro-caliber prospect. But if a few could be packaged together, maybe the Rockets could extract a top asset out of a desperate shopper. The Heat could do a lot worse than adding Oladipo and Tucker to their roster. That combo should be good enough for Houston to aim higher than Kendrick Nunn or Duncan Robinson.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
As with the Herro slide, the target here isn't necessarily Lauri Markkanen, but rather what he represents.
Markkanen, by the way, would be a tremendous get. The 23-year-old boasts an impressive scoring arsenal for a 7-footer, and coach Stephen Silas could get as creative as his imagination allows when designing plays for a frontcourt combo with the offensive versatility of a Markkanen-Christian Wood tandem.
But it doesn't have to be Markkanen. It could be another high-end prospect like John Collins or Lonzo Ball. On the lower end, it might be Zach Collins or Malik Monk.
What do these players have in common? They're all headed to restricted free agency at season's end. That doesn't mean all (or any) will definitely be available by the deadline, but it does mean their current employers opted against meeting their contract demands on an extension.
The chance their salaries skyrocket this summer might make those clubs hesitant to keep them around. Houston should hope that's the case. Without much of anything coming through the pipeline, the Rockets should be ready to add up-and-comers and foot the bill for their upcoming free-agency adventures.